After a two year absence, Norway will once again be represented in the world’s best U20 tournament, the World Junior Championship, beginning this week in Malmo, Sweden. The team’s last appearance was in Buffalo, NY in 2011, where there was no avoiding elimination, despite a face-saving 3-1 victory over Germany to end the tournament. So much time has passed that not one player from that team will be in Southern Sweden for this tournament.
The biggest name and, at the same time, the biggest hope for Team Norway, is Markus Soberg, who was drafted in this past summer’s draft in the fifth round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The right-shooting winger is no stranger to international play as he’s been suiting up for U20 and U18 teams for over three years now after having made his debut in the U18 squad as a 15 year old in 2011 in Dresden, Germany. Much as Columbus had hoped, Markus is having the best season of his career and currently has 16 goals, 10 assists, 28 penalty minutes, and a +10 rating in 27 games for Frolunda’s U20 club. Furthermore, Soberg is one of the few Norwegians who possess the kind of speed that is required to make things happen at this level. He’ll be counted on heavily in all offensive situations, most especially on the power-play.
Likely joining him on the first line will be tall and lanky winger Jorgen Karterud, a draft-eligible overager who has been making some waves for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL. There he’s managed to put up six goals, seven assists and a -2 rating in 24 games. Jorgen is 6’5”, weighs 195 pounds, and has hit the scene impressively in the CHL, showing a keen ability to adjust to the rougher game while displaying above-average hockey sense and strong offensive impulses. Better yet, he’s been getting better by the month. Of advantage is that he and Soberg are no strangers, having lined up together internationally a number of times going as far back as 2011.
The two will be joined by Ludvig Hoff, whose father Geir is not only the team’s assistant coach, but also a former Michigan State Spartan, having spent the 85-86 and 86-87 seasons there. Ludvig is a kid who keeps growing and is arguably the best 17 year old talent in the country. Despite having been offered a pro contract to play for Valerenga this season, an Oslo-based team coached by none other than former NHL player Espen Knutsen, Ludvig has elected to remain in juniors where he’s been tearing apart the competition with 15 goals, 15 assists and a +14 rating in 17 games. His season there is over, however, as he’ll be joining his older brother Magnus with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL after the WJC. Scouts will be able to see just what this kid is made of as he’ll likely be centering this first line.
After the big three up front, the team has precious little to offer with regards to internationally known and appreciated players. The majority of players in the lineup will be coming from the domestic men’s pro league, which is considered to be much like the ECHL in its overall level of play. Still, that means that many of these kids are already used to skating against bigger, more experienced players.
Two players who should see a good deal of playing time are defenseman Mattias Norstebo and goalie Henrik Haukeland. Norstebo wasn’t drafted last summer, but some feel this was solely related to his size, coming in at 5’10” and 176 pounds, as his skill package has been good enough to see play with Brynas of the SHL 14 times this year. Last season, the mobile defenseman won the SuperElit (U20) championship for the same club and continues to develop as planned, regularly making intelligent plays and showing strong passing skills. Haukeland has shown a strong learning curve in recent years and has even played 10 GET-ligaen games, Norway’s top men’s professional league, for the youth-influenced Stjernen hockey program. His statistics haven’t been the best, but it is felt that Haukeland has got the mental fortitude to withstand and even thrive when seeing lots of pucks.
He’ll be joined by Thomas Narmo, who is currently part of the Pelicans Lahti program in Finland, and Joachim Svendsen, who has a 2.92 goals-against average in five games for Lorenskog of the GET-ligaen. Tournament viewers shouldn’t be surprised to see either tending goal, especially if things get rough for Haukeland, who will undoubtedly see lots of shots.
The defense features a number of players fairly unknown internationally. Like Norstebo, Martin Vaakanainen plays in Sweden for Tingsryd’s U20 team after three years spent with Karlskoga. Although it’s the second season for him at this level, he’s only managed 3 assists and a -1 in 19 games this season. Tallak Lyngset, an Oslo-based product, is currently skating in North America where he’s registered four points in 10 games for Islanders Hockey Club of the USPHL. The remaining defensemen are all actively playing in Norway’s top pro league, with Andreas Klavestad being the best of the group.
The 6’0”, 185-pound defenseman is playing his second full season of pro hockey and has five assists in 15 games for Frisk Asker. More impressive were his two goals and 10 points in five games for Norway at the D1A U18 WJC last spring. He’ll be looked at to provide offense and a transition game. Each of Magnus Haugen, Erlend Lesund, Markus Noteng, and Christer Simonsen have spent time with Norwegian U18 teams, playing in the GET-ligaen (with the exception of Simonsen, who plays in the second division), and will be making their WJC debuts. Management feels it will receive some strong leadership from Lesund.
Up front, the team will feature a rash of forwards who, like Soberg and Norstebo, play in the Swedish junior leagues with a sprinkle of pro experience here and there. All-around forward Martin Ronnild is a teammate of Norstebo’s in Brynas at the U20 level, where he has seven goals and 10 points in 20 games. The 6’2” Tim-Robin Johnsgard has been skating for Mariestad since the 2010-11 season and currently takes a regular shift for the club’s men’s team, which plays in Sweden’s third league. The 6’4”, 205-pound Christoffer Rasch has been skating for Mora’s junior programs for a number of years, now. This season, he’s managed to get into six games with the team’s Allsvenskan club. Jens Henrik Tonjum is a bulky, half-Swedish center who skates for Vaxjo’s U20 team where he plays a bit of a two-way role.
The remaining forwards are coming straight out of one of the Norwegian pro leagues, most from the GET-ligaen. Of Eirik Salsten, Magnus Nilsen, Didrik Svendsen, Magnus Fischer, Anders Henriksen, Endre Medby, Henrik Medhus and Simen Nielsen, young Salsten, Medby, Nilsen and Nielsen are the most experienced at the pro level. Medby managed 16 points last season, but none of these forwards has been able to secure a regular scoring line role for his respective team, which doesn’t give much reason to feel they’ll be able to do so against some of the world’s top-flight juniors, several of whom have already seen NHL action.
The coaching situation is also one to watch. The plan was that Sjur Robert Nilsen would take over the program once the team gained promotion last winter. He did so and started putting things together until he got a bigger and better offer from Leksand of the SHL. The national program has now decided to go with Orjan Lovdal, a former domestic league star who has since coached Norway at several U18 and U20 tournaments. He took over in August. He’ll be assisted by the aforementioned Geier Hoff, who has worked with most of these young men intensively at various levels.
What is not in Norway’s favor is their preliminary round group. Bouts against Sweden and Finland have almost never ended up positively for Norway. Russia will boast a team that the Norwegians will have a terribly difficult time skating with. To make matters worse, Norway will also be facing the world’s best up-and-coming program in the Swiss, who didn’t lose one game in regulation at the last WJC. It should come as no surprise if the team ends the preliminary round pointless.
Things will be tough, but the team is quite aware that after gaining promotion, this tournament will be all about surviving. Playing in their neighboring country, where a number of their players are crafting their skills, the nation believes it may have a slight advantage in being able to avoid a long flight, stick in the same time zone, and play in a place to which many Norwegian fans have easy access. It’ll take more than that for Norway to avoid relegation, though; they’ll need a few heroes along the way.
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