The 2018-2019 SDHL season is well underway. With the league on an international break, what better time to take a look at the good, the bad, and the sigh-inducing of elite Swedish women’s hockey?
After a solidly mediocre few years, Leksand have established themselves as a team to watch this season. Despite some turnover, including veteran Latvian forward Iveta Koka to AIK and Līga Miljone and Ida Press to the NCAA, the club gained some notable new faces. Former Team Sweden forward Anna Borgqvist headed west from Brynäs, as did Canadian forward Danielle Stone.
American defender Gracen Hirschy opted to continue her SDHL career with Leksand after spending the winter with Djurgården. She’s joined by fellow American and fellow University of North Dakota alumna Samantha Hanson.
Under first-year coach Ulf Hedberg, Leksand has won 11 of 16 games played and went on an epic nine-game win streak. They currently sit third in the league with 33 points.
Players To Watch
Keep an eye on starting goaltender Julia Åberg. She’s still developing at 22 years old, but she’s standing tall at the head of the team’s young netminding collective.
Defender Maja Nyhlén-Persson has been touted as an up-and-comer for a couple of seasons now, and with good reason. She’s a building block of the Damkronorna’s future on the blue line. She captained Sweden’s U18 team to a silver medal last winter, made the Olympic team, and wears an A with Leksand this year. Not bad for 17 years old.
In the Head Scratcher category sits Linköping. Last year’s SDHL silver medalists are currently ranked fourth in the league with 33 points and three more games played than Leksand. They’re sixth in both goalkeeping and scoring efficiency. The scoring efficiency ranking is particularly vexing, since three of the SDHL’s top five scorers play for Linköping.
Out of 19 games, Linköping has won 10, lost seven, and tied twice with with one shootout win and one shootout loss. Last season they lost just four games in regulation over the 36-game span.
(For context, each SDHL regulation win is worth three points. An overtime win, either in the extra time or in the shootout, earns two points. A shootout loss earns one point.)
Veteran goaltender and Swiss Olympian Florence Schelling retired, as did longtime forward Denise Altmann. Altmann, 31, played 304 games in a Linköping sweater, the most in franchise history. While this team doesn’t lack gifted scorers (we’ll get to that), Altmann’s consistency as a top-line winger good for 50+ points a season is missed.
Stepping into Schelling’s starting role is two-time Finnish Olympian Eveliina Suonpää in her rookie SDHL season. In 13 games she’s posted a .902 save percentage with a 2.9 GAA, ranking her 8th in the league for save percentage.
While those numbers may appear mediocre at first, especially for an Olympian, it’s important to look at Suonpää’s bigger picture. She’s only 23 years old, still developing, and still transitioning to a new team and a new league. She’s done far more on far less talented teams.
In other words, she’ll be just fine. Don’t count her or this team out of contention. A break might have been just what they needed to fuse some great pieces into a deadly whole.
Players To Watch
Does any women’s hockey fan need to be told to pay attention to Lara Stalder at this point? Just in case they do, yes, Lara Stalder is still doing Lara Stalder things, like scoring at a blistering pace. She’s averaging a red-hot league-leading 2.29 points per game and her chemistry with linemate Pernilla Winberg is still working magic.
Rookie forward Kennedy Marchment is quickly making a name for herself. The Courtice, Ontario native and former Buffalo Beauts draft pick currently leads the SDHL in goals with 16 and is seeing some time on the top line with Stalder and Winberg.
Biggest Dead Doves Do Not Eat
It’s not a secret that SDE and Göteborg are at the bottom of the league. That’s where they tend to be, and that’s where they’ve stayed. SDE is in ninth place with 12 points and Göteborg is last with four. Stick taps are in order for the lionesses, though, for pulling out their one regulation win over Leksand 4-1 on October 28.
Brynäs. Oh, Brynäs. After a tumultuous offseason that saw a coach fired, franchise cornerstones like Sara Grahn and Anna Borgqvist depart with harsh criticism around the club’s treatment of the women’s team, the team sought to craft something new. So far it hasn’t translated to results on the ice.
They’re in eighth place, with 12 losses and just five wins. Brynäs lacks both the depth and the elite talent to pose any kind of threat to juggernauts like Luleå Hockey/MSSK, and frankly that’s unlikely to change without a rebuild.
A full rebuild is a tricky prospect in the SDHL. There’s no draft to build from and no farm league for prospect development. External factors like day jobs and relocation costs hinder player movement and make it difficult to attract stars. Yes, they managed to lure Erika Grahm away from MODO, but Grahm is an anomaly and the team provided an office job as well as a fresh start.
The club claimed they’d made some good cultural strides in addressing the women’s team’s complaints, and the signing of Grahm along with Canadian Olympian Jennifer Wakefield and former CWHL Toronto Furies goaltender Sonja van der Bliek suggest that may be at least partially true. On the stat sheet, though, Brynäs is right where they were last year.
Standout Players Around The League
Alba Gonzalo Goaltender, HV71
A native of Barcelona, Spain, Gonzalo played seven games last year with HV71 as Sabina Eriksson’s backup. She initially moved to the Naisten Liiga’s Espoo Blues this year, but returned to Jönköping after Eriksson suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.
Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances Gonzalo has stepped into the starting role with ease. In 13 games this season she’s backstopped HV71 for nine wins and a .937 save percentage.
Lauren Wildfang Defender, MODO
Wildfang, 22, retired from hockey in April at the conclusion of her senior year at Colgate University, citing recurring hip problems. The retirement didn’t stick, though, and she signed with MODO in late July.
Now, Wildfang is second in the SDHL for defender scoring with 22 points (five goals, seven assists), behind only Luleå Hockey/MSSK captain Jenni Hiirikoski.
Predictions are the bane of the sportswriters’ existence. We like to be right, and predictions frequently make us look foolish.
Only 12 points currently separate the league’s number-one team from the number-five. The race to the top is tight and looks to stay that way if Leksand and HV71 can continue their strong play. There are 12 points between number-five Luleå Hockey/MSSK and number-six Djurgården; the league’s lower half faces an all-but-insurmountable task if they want to challenge for a championship.
Luleå Hockey/MSSK are almost certainly going to climb up from fifth place: they’ve only played 13 games, the least in the SDHL, and the team is simply too good not to. Their record over the past few seasons shows a dominant team that’s well-coached and well-run. Don’t ever count them out.
Whatever happens, buckle up. There’s lots of good hockey left to be played.