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Swedes are taking over blue line in Cup finals

Jared Silber/NHLI/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tre Kronor is awfully well represented in the Stanley Cup finals. Four of the top eight defensemen in the series are Swedes, and perhaps 15 months from now, they'll all be teammates in the World Cup of Hockey.

Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya of the Chicago Blackhawks are minute monsters. The two Bolts are tops on their team in that department, while the two Hawks are behind only Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in ice time.

In other words, these four Swedish defensemen are going to be a major factor in where the Stanley Cup ends up.

"It’s fun for them. All of them are great guys. I’m really excited for them," countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes told ESPN.com from Sweden on Thursday. "Johnny and Hjalmarsson, they are more like shutdown players, and I would say Stralman and Hedman have some skill too and can score some points. Great players all four of them."

Without question, the only thing that matters right now is winning the Cup, but don’t kid yourself, there’s a certain amount of pride for all four players in having four Swedish guys playing such prominent roles on the NHL’s biggest stage.

"From a Swedish standpoint, it’s fun to have a lot of Swedes playing in the Stanley Cup final," Hjalmarsson said Friday. "There’s a lot of Swedes around the league now -- it’s probably a record. We have a lot of young, talented players coming up, especially on the defensive position. It’s fun to see. And obviously, Stralman and Hedman have been a huge part of their success. They’re a really good D pairing. I think both of them have taken big steps in their careers."

Hedman said Friday: "It’s awesome, you know. Johnny and Hjalmarsson are playing great for them, playing a lot of big minutes. It’s always fun to play against people from your own country. During the game, you put that aside, but it’s unbelievable to see, especially how many [Swedish] defensemen are coming into the league right now. So many. It’s a lot of fun to watch."

The impact goes beyond these four.

"It’s fun to play against Swedes and, especially for hockey back home, for the media to follow and write about it so kids back home have some role models to look up to and start playing hockey," Hjalmarsson said. "Hopefully we can do that."

You see, it’s different for North American players. First of all, there are so many Canadians and Americans in the NHL that they don’t carry the same bond as players from European countries. There is also bigger turnover on the North American international teams, particularly Team Canada.

For the European countries, it tends to be much of the same core in the same era playing together in the Olympics and big international events.

"The national team for me has always been a bigger dream than the NHL, honestly," Stralman said Friday. "Playing in the Olympics and growing up in an era when Team Sweden was very successful in winning the Olympics in ’94 was huge. I remember watching that game. A lot of good players come out of the ‘90s. And the coverage back then at home -- you didn’t really see the NHL."

Stralman’s first real exposure to the NHL was through a video game.

"It was NHL '97, and that’s basically when I started getting into it a little bit more," he said. "It was on my Sega Mega Drive 16-bit."

Sure, now the Stanley Cup dream is a burning desire for Stralman, just as it is for any other NHLer -- but so remains playing for his country in a best-on-best tournament. The World Cup of Hockey is back in September 2016 (which will air on ESPN) and is his chance at it.

"It’s always been a goal of mine to get a chance to play in the [IIHF] world championships, which I’ve been fortunate enough to play in three times," Stralman said. "The next step is the Olympics and now with the World Cup starting again."

Stralman didn’t make a deep Olympic Swedish blue line in Sochi in 2014. The bigger surprise was that Hedman didn’t, either.

"Yeah, it was a little shocking maybe, I’d say. He’s a great hockey player," Hjalmarsson said of Hedman’s omission.

"Victor probably should have been on the team last time for the Olympics," Oduya concurred Friday.

Ekman-Larsson is also on board with that sentiment.

"I would pick Hedman over some guys on that team [in Sochi]. He’s proved that he’s a top defenseman in this league," said Ekman-Larsson, who made the team in Sochi, only to sit on the bench the whole tournament -- also a head-scratcher.

But perhaps it underlines the incredible depth the Swedes are piling up on their blue line.

Ekman-Larsson, Hedman, Stralman, Hjalmarsson and Oduya, then add Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Alexander Edler, Jonas Brodin, Hampus Lindholm, Tobias Enstrom, John Klingberg, Jonathan Ericsson, etc.

You get the picture. Figuring out the Swedish defense corps for the World Cup won’t be a cakewalk.

"It’s going to be hard for the coach to pick a blue line, for sure. A lot of good players," Ekman-Larsson said.

"I think I’m probably the oldest one left. It’s me and Nik Kronwall. We’re the old guys," Oduya said Friday when asked about the overall Swedish blue-line corps.

"There’s a lot of younger ones coming up -- tremendous strides. Both guys on the other team here are obviously tremendous. We have a lot of younger guys, maybe a bit more of a trend toward the offensive side. ... There’s a lot of talent there. We’re not really worried about the future."

It’s an exciting time for Swedish hockey.

"It’s great to see that. Not just the four of us playing right now, [but] there’s a lot of good promising Swedish defensemen coming up in this league," Stralman said, pointing to Lindholm in Anaheim as another example. "There’s a lot of things to be excited for from the future Team Sweden perspective."