It’s been a while since Team Denmark played at the U20 World Junior Championship. What most people remember the most from that 2012 WJC appearance was a particular press conference where a few of the players acted like coaches at a post-game press conference, stating how disappointing it was to come in as ‘favorites’ just to end up losing 10-2 to Canada. It wasn’t the only shellacking they got at that tournament, one that saw them get convincingly relegated.
Now, head coach Olaf Eller, father of Lars Eller and WJC first-line center and Edmonton Oil King Mads Eller, is heading to the Air Canada Centre in Toronto with a Danish program that has not only improved considerably since then, but which feels it may have the best first line they’ve ever thrown out on the ice at a WJC.
“We have a very strong team this year, but competing against the top 9 teams in the world is a very tough task and our primary aim is to continue to be a part of top 10 in 2015. We’ll have to perform at our best in each game and keep the focus on one game at a time to perform well”, claims Eller.
Indeed, putting together this team has meant taking players from primarily three different sources: North America, Sweden and the Danish pro scene. Finding a way to get them all in one place in order to prepare for the WJC is a daunting task, but the coach has few worries when it comes to the chemistry the players have in the locker room and on the ice.
“We have players joining the team from all over the world and thus, our challenge is to get them all “on par” with the hockey system we would like them to play no matter what style they are used to playing,” said Eller. “We have and always have had a great chemistry on this particular team. The players have known each other for a very long time and have been playing together on several youth select and national teams. I believe we have a very well functioning group here.”
Along with that chemistry, Denmark is also armed with a number of other assets that have them thinking this tournament is going to mark a new era in Danish hockey.
Class retention arguments
He may not have been drafted as high as Arizona’s Mikkel Boedker, but Nikolaj Ehlers is considered to be perhaps the top Danish talent to have come along so far. Son of a former pro player, Ehlers spent parts of his childhood in Germany and Switzerland before heading over to the Halifax Mooseheads for the 2013-14 season. Putting up 104 points and a +65 in 63 rookie games and then another 28 points in 16 playoff games placed him on the CHL hockey landscape like no Dane and few Europeans before him. The Winnipeg Jets proceeded to draft him ninth overall and see him as a future offensive star at the NHL level.
This season, Ehlers picked up right where he left off and has 47 points in 23 games, despite playing for a Halifax team that is retooling. Explosive both with and without the puck, Ehlers is the type of kid who could alone make the difference between relegation and class retention. He won’t be alone in this effort, though.
Joining him will be Oliver Bjorkstrand, a half American Dane drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round of the 2013 draft. He’s been nothing short of outstanding for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL since his 63-point draft year, having collected 109 points with a +44 rating last season. This season, he has kept things going strong with 21 goals and 40 points in 28 games and looks to be this squad’s sniper heading into the tournament.
Centering the two of them will be the 6’1”, 205-pound Eller. A powerful man-child who likes to bulldoze his way around the ice, Eller was a surprise cog in Edmonton’s Memorial Cup victory last spring, chipping in 12 points and a +13 in 21 games after only having collected 23 points and a +19 in 54 regular season contests. He currently has 14 points and a +4 in 26 contests this season and does a lot of that lower line dirty work that coaches just can’t get enough of. He serves as the ideal two-way corners-and-slot guy for Ehlers and Bjorkstrand.
In goal, Denmark will feature two young men they very much believe in.
“Both goalies George Sorensen and Thomas Lillie should be watched closely and will be key parts of our team,” said coach Eller. “After an outstanding 2013-14 season with a 1.17 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in 16 games for Herning, Sorensen got a shutout in his senior men‘s debut against France in November.”
Indeed, after a few very strong performances for Denmark at the U18 in Finland, Lillie moved on to the Vaxjo Lakers junior program for this season. He’s arrived on the Swedish scene in a manner that few had expected. In 19 U20 league junior games, the 18-year-old has a 2.70 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. It is felt that he could very well make his SHL debut before this season is over.
For Denmark, whichever goalie finds himself in the starting role, he’ll need to steal a game at some point and even two if the Danes find themselves in the relegation round. Denmark believes it’ll get just that at some point in the tourney.
Foreign league experience
Aside from Ehlers, Denmark’s prospects competing in North America include Sonny Hertzberg, Mikkel Aagaard, and Andre Pison.
Hertzberg is a 6’2”, 187-pound defenseman who decided to head to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals after four years of junior play in Sweden. A key offensive defenseman for Denmark in gaining promotion last winter, Hertzberg currently has three points and a +9 in 20 games for the OHL’s top team.
Up front, Aagaard (Hansen) is 6-foot, 180 pounds and is currently playing for the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL. Almost surprisingly, he’s meshed well with the program to begin the season, scoring five goals and 15 points in 28 games. He likes to play an all-around game and is clearly busy rounding out his play in this initial North American season. Pison is 6-foot, 183 pounds and is playing for the Wenatchee Wild in the NAHL where he currently has nine points in 23 games after having gathered 11 in 48 games last season. It is felt he may be going the NCAA route.
All three will be counted on to bring their experience on North American rinks to the table.
Sweden is also the logical destination of a good handful of talented young Danes and, in addition to Lillie, this team features four of them in defenseman Mads Larsen (Malmo juniors) and forwards Matthias Asperup (Malmo juniors), Kristian Jensen (Lulea juniors), and Nick Olesen (Vaxjo juniors). Jensen has actually even played one SHL contest with Lulea this winter. Now, whereas these four players are getting some top flight coaching and development time, all are predominantly playing on third lines in Swedish juniors. Compare that to the Swedish team in which several handfuls of the players are second- or third-liners in the SHL. Nonetheless, particularly Asperup and Larsen could surprise the international community with their play as both provide that nice mix of skill and a strong work ethic.
Filling out the roster
Of the players on the team, not one of them has participated in a WJC at the highest level. A good handful of them were part of the U18 club last spring in Finland that was relegated at the hands of Germany, a likely opponent in this winter’s relegation round. Furthermore, each of George Sorensen (.872 save percentage in just two games), Nikolaj Henriksen (4.59 goals-against in three games), Victor Eskerod (0 points in 16 games), Daniel Hansen (0 points in 19 games), Anders Krogsgaard (4 points in 20 games), Matias Lassen (1 point in 12 games), Jeppe Holmberg (3 points in 19 games), Emil Rasmussen (3 points in 17 games), Marcus Nielsen (3 points in 17 games), and Soren Nielsen (3 points in 19 games) are playing in smaller roles in Denmark’s top pro circuit, which doesn’t necessarily maintain an ECHL level of play. Still, it should be no surprise if any of these players, particularly the defensemen, get a more regular role than can initially be expected.
In the home league, only defenseman Daniel Nielsen (11 points in 19 games) has been able to take on an above-average regular role and looks to possibly be this team’s power play QB on the blueline. Viewers won’t be able to miss him when he’s on the ice, either, as he weighs in at 6’3” and 247 pounds!
Who scouts will be watching
Christian Mieritz, D – He’s a compact 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman who turned 17 in September and was a key player for the U18 team earlier this year. A lefty shooter who prides himself in his defensive zone work, Mieritz is in the midst of his second pro season and has two goals, three points and a +3 to show for his work for Rodovre in Denmark’s top league. He should take a fairly regular shift in this tournament and is busy establishing himself as an up-and-coming defenseman whose future may soon be in Sweden or North America.
Alexander True, F – The Danish revelation at the U18, this tall and lanky player was just 16 at the U18 last spring, turning 17 in July. He couldn’t be overlooked at the tourney and expressed clear interest in taking a route similar to cousin Nikolaj Ehlers. Now playing in the WHL for the Seattle Thunderbirds, on the other side of the continent from Ehlers, the 6’4”, 175-pound forward has five goals, 10 points, and a +3 in his first 30 games. Scouts are fairly unified in their feeling that True has a good amount of potential as a two-way forward with offensive upside, especially if he can manage to add 40 pounds in the next 3-5 years. He may already have a third-line role in this tournament, but his experience here will be invaluable if Denmark manages to maintain the class.
For Denmark, this year’s tournament is all about staying where it is. It took a while to get back here and now the red and white want to establish themselves. For Ehlers and his line, this is their show. Their country has rarely had a line of this nature at the WJC and they’ll be looked at to keep things nice and tight, gaining the points the team needs in order to stick with the big boys. In a recent test game against the USA, the Danes managed to push the contest to overtime, although ultimately falling 3-2.
As Eller attests, “Everyone here would love to secure Denmark another year of WJC status and have recently proved in earlier years that this group does have the skill and determination to be the first ever to avoid relegation. For Danish hockey in general, it will be another great milestone and a real proof of the great development Danish hockey has been seeing the last 5-10 years.“
If the country gets the goaltending it needs and expects, it’s going to be very tough to beat Denmark in two of three relegation series games.
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