It's not very often Denmark gets a chance to distinguish itself amongst the top ten hockey nations in the world at any stage, let alone the IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championships. But this team is getting a chance this year after a dominant offensive showing at last year's U20 Division 1A level, against the likes of Austria, Slovenia, and Kazakhstan. To play against the best hockey nations, though, Denmark won't be able to count on scoring a lot of goals. It's one of the toughest adjustments for any nation in terms of preparation: Denmark in 2011 was the offensive juggernaut, with their own version of Brayden Schenn in Nicolai Meyer (8 goals and 4 assists in 5 games), but in 2012 Denmark will have to be very conservative and play a variation on the trap. The goal isn't to win the tournament, but to win a game or two against the bottom four nations. While Denmark will be in a pool to start off the tournament with Canada, USA, Finland and the Czechs, they'll likely be more concerned about the games after New Year's Day against the likes of Latvia, Slovakia or Switzerland.
The country has earned the right to share the stage with the world's best, but they'll be in tough to get a chance to do it again in 2013. Their first four games will almost certainly all be losses, as they have been placed in this year's 'Pool of Death'. So in a lot of ways, their real tournament won't begin until the relegation round takes place. The preliminary round will be a chance to further test their system, much like they did in their games against the University of Alberta this past weekend, where they tried out the infamous 1-3-1 system employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Danish hockey has come a long way, but it's still a small hockey nation that generally does not have the depth to compete at this level. However, each year the Danes seem to be improving in that regard, and a big credit for that can go to this year's U20 Head Coach, Todd Bjorkstrand. I mentioned the work Bjorkstrand did in one of Puck Worlds' first ever pieces, and his Herning Blue Fox team is providing a lot of the talent for this year's entry, including his two sons, Oliver and Patrick. Those two, along with Thomas Spelling, are by far the leading junior-aged scorers in Denmark's national league. Oliver is accomplishing this despite being only 16 years old. Herning is also providing one of Denmark's depth forwards (Joachim Linnet) and a defenceman (Patrick Madsen), and is the hometown of prominent NHL forwards Peter Regin and Frans Nielsen (who Bjorkstrand both coached).
Bjorkstrand's goal for the tournament is obviously to avoid relegation, which will be easier to accomplish this year than the past few years, as only one team will be demoted to make room for Germany in 2012. In an interview with friend of the blog Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Bjorkstrand emphasized Denmark's plan to accomplish this:
"Going out and competing, that's the next goal I would say. We're realistic but, anyways, we want to go out and compete hard every game," Bjorkstrand said.
After the jump, we'll look at just who Bjorkstrand is counting on to compete hard for their homeland.
|Mathias Bau Hansen||LW||6'4"||196||Jul 3/93||Rødovre||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Rasmus Bjerrum||F||5'10"||152||Apr 30/92||Frederikshavn||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Oliver Bjorkstrand||LW||5'10"||157||Apr 5/95||Herning||Denmark||Elig. 2013||none|
|Patrick Bjorkstrand||C||6'0"||192||Jul 1/92||Herning||Denmark||Undrafted||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
|Mads Eller||C||6'0"||163||Jun 25/95||Frölunda J18||J18 Elit (Swe)||Elig. 2013||none|
|Nicklas Jensen||RW||6'3"||187||Mar 6/93||Oshawa||OHL||Canucks (1/29, '11)||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
|Nicki Kisium||LW||6'1"||185||Dec 16/93||CPH Hockey||Denmark||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Joachim Linnet||LW||6'2"||176||Nov 4/93||Herning||Denmark||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Nicolai Meyer||RW||6'0"||172||Jul 21/93||Malmö J20||J20 SE (Swe)||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Jonas Sass||C||6'1"||185||Apr 27/93||Herlev||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Anders Schultz||RW||5'11"||161||Jun 1/92||Cedar Rapids||USHL||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Thomas Søndergaard||C||5'10"||165||Jun 30/93||Frederikshavn||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
|Thomas Spelling||RW||6'1"||176||Feb 9/93||Herning||Denmark||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
While these likely just look like a bunch of anonymous no-names to you aside from Jensen, the forward group is actually the strength of the Danish team. Like most teams, they're short some key players, and arguably a full line (Patrick Russell, Felix Scheel, and Sebastian Ehlers, who all play junior hockey in Sweden), but this is a pretty decent group nonetheless. The top six forwards should be able to score some goals, or at least make things interesting for their star-studded opponents, and as you can see, this isn't a small group of players, either. They are strongest along the wings, and will likely force one of their right wingers to play either left wing or centre as a result. With Jensen, Spelling, and Meyer likely the team's top three goal scoring threats, the team would be best served to play Jensen and Meyer together while leaving the Herning line of the Bjorkstrand brothers and Spelling in tact.
It should be very interesting to see if this team can score against the lesser teams of the tournament. I have a feeling they can, but the team's ability to defend and stop pucks is going to be the more pressing concern if they want to hold on. Nicklas Jensen may be counted on to have a few big games to make up for deficiencies in Demark's own end. It'll also be interesting to see if this trip to Canada will be a boon for CHL scouts looking for an import forward for next year, as ten of Denmark's forwards are 18 or younger and eligible to play in next year's U20s as well.
Mads Eller will be an interesting player to watch, making his international debut on the big stage as a fresh faced 16 year old. He'll be one of the youngest players at this tournament (Finland's Aleksander Barkov looks to be the youngest), and he's already doing good things in Sweden's junior leagues. However, it's doubtful he'll be ready for more than just spot duty... but watch for Eller and the younger Bjorkstrand to be on the radar of NHL scouts for 2013.
|Jannik Christensen||6'1"||187||Jun 5/92||Esbjerg||Denmark||Undrafted||U20 (2), U18 (1)|
|Tobias Hansen||6'5"||216||Jan 4/92||Rødovre||Denmark||Undrafted||none|
|Emil Kristensen||5'10"||176||Sept 20/92||Esbjerg||Denmark||Undrafted||none|
|Mark Larsen||6'0"||161||Jul 29/92||Frederikshavn||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Patrick Madsen||6'4"||220||Jan 9/92||Herning||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Martin Rahbek||5'10"||159||May 19/92||Herlev||Denmark||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Anders Thode||6'1"||179||Feb 11/93||Frederikshavn||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (2)|
It's hard to know how the Danish D will break out here, as none of the players play outside Denmark and none are particuarly noteworthy. Christensen seems like he is definitely the go-to-guy, while Rahbek appears to be a candidate to run the team's power play. They have a couple of big bodies in Hansen and Madsen, and Thode is the only player who will be part of next year's program. While Denmark is running with a fairly young forward group, this is a veteran group which could indicate that Bjorkstrand anticipates he'll need the more physically mature defenders to help keep the team in the top group.
|Sebastian Feuk||6'1"||172||Jun 17/93||Timrå J20||J20 SE (Swe)||Undrafted||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Dennis Jensen||6'1"||168||Jan 26/92||Esbjerg||Denmark||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Christian Larsen||6'1"||165||May 29/93||Malmö J20||J20 SE (Swe)||Undrafted||none|
Goaltending is rather up in the air at the moment, and the final cut will likely be made based on pre-tournament play. Feuk has handled a lot of international duty for Denmark in the past, but he's had a miserable year, and is actually currently without a junior team, as Timrå released him in late November. Christian Larsen, who has no IIHF experience, is succeeding in the same league that Feuk failed in, and Dennis Jensen is having a strong year so far in Denmark. But in their international friendly games to date, the goaltending has let the team down (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to see the awful goaltender stats). Against the University of Alberta this past weekend, the team allowed 13 goals in two games, although it should be noted that the U of A is a pretty high quality club of much older players. Jensen was awful against Alberta, not making a good first impression, allowing 5 goals on just 10 shots before Larsen came in to stop 21 of 24 shots.
With goaltending being such a question mark, it is hard to think that Denmark will be able to stay up with the main group. In fact, in past years, I wouldn't have given them a chance. But with having to beat only one team in terms of points by the end of this tournament instead of two, that very well could happen. It could all come down to a one game showdown as a result.
That said, expect some ugly scores against Denmark in the tournament's first week. Here's their schedule:
Preliminary Round Prediction: 5th in Group B.