2016 U18 World Championship Preview: Early test could determine Denmark’s fate

By Chapin Landvogt
Jonas Rondbjerg - Team Denmark

Photo: Rungsted forward and 2017 prospect Jonas Rondbjerg (#16) competed for Denmark’s squad at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he contributed one assist in limited ice time (courtesy of RONI REKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Denmark’s U18 program earned its way back up to the show last spring and will be hoping to do at the U18 level what its U20 team has done at the past two World Junior Championships – namely survive!

The country will be sending a group of young men who are very inexperienced at this level and have few names to lean on. Only two of the players that represented the country at the U20 World Junior Championship will be a part of this team, but those two were already very noticeable – top-six forwards Jonas Rondbjerg and Nikolaj Krag-Christensen. While the 6’3”, 200-pound Krag-Christensen spent most of the season putting up four points via lower-line minutes for the Rodovre Mighty Bulls in Denmark’s top league, Rondbjerg was about the hottest story in the Danish hockey scene, scoring 11 goals and 16 points while collecting a +2 rating for Rungsted, also in Denmark’s top league, as a 16 year old. Both players tallied one assist in five games at the 2016 WJC.

After that, though, the team will consist of a mostly no-name group, but one that Head Coach Martin Struzinski has had a difficult time putting together as a number of players have given him good reason to bring them along to the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Blaine, Minnesota. He believes the team won’t have to hide from opponents.

This is not a situation that occurs every year,” said Struzinski. “At the moment, we have a wide variety of options on the offensive front. We’re not having any problem creating chances and that’s something that our test games have proven all winter long.”

There is no doubt, though, that the team will have to seek out that realistic underdog spirit that usually allows it to do more than many expect, while earning the small nation quite a bit of positive fan attention along the way. Hard work and a positive attitude will continue to be what the staff demands of the players.

“Our opponents have an enormous mass of talent,” said Struzinski of the challenge his team will face at the U18. “So we have to be best at all the things that do not require talent. For example, we will be the team that works the hardest. We will be the team that blocks the most shots. And we’ll have the coaching staff that has its team best prepared for the games.”

And all this will likely need to be the case when viewing the teams Denmark will be facing in the preliminary round. Without a doubt, the game against Slovakia on the first day of the tournament will be the key. A regulation victory there and Denmark can use the next three games against Canada, Finland, and the Czech Republic to likely prepare for a playoff match-up. Should the Slovaks be victorious, things will become mighty difficult for Denmark, which is expected by most to wind up in the relegation round. Then again, this is an expectation the program has faced – and successfully debunked – for several years now at the U20 level.

Here’s a look at what you’ll see from Denmark in North Dakota.

If you’re a goaltender, please stand up

Unless there are any late surprises, the trio going to Grand Forks, North Dakota is about the most unknown of any in the tournament. Both Kasper Krog (Vojens 2) and Emil Gransoe (Gentofte 2) spent the season playing in Denmark’s second men’s league while also standing in goal for their respective junior teams. Both have played three games for Denmark internationally this winter, with the 5’9”, 170-pound Krog having put up a 1.99 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, perhaps enough to give him the nod at this tournament. Jakob Muller Hansen of Herlev’s junior program will be along for the ride as well, but there is no Thomas Lillie in this group which could mean trouble since Lillie was able to steal a game here or there the past few years. These three still have much to prove internationally.

Size on the blueline? Check

As opposed to several recent U18 tournaments, the Danes will feature some decent size on the blueline, with no less than four players measuring in at 6’1” or taller. That starts with Rasmus Birk Heine, a 6’1”, 187-pound defender who has a knack for the offensive game. He spent almost the entire season split between Rodovre’s second men’s team (SIK) and the U20 squad, even getting a bit of consideration for the WJC entry. With nine goals, 34 points, and 50 penalty minutes in 42 games in Denmark’s second league, he may very well be the offensive go-to guy on the blueline.

Two of his Rodovre SIK teammates will join him on defense. Partner Victor Hansen measures in at 6’3” and 203 pounds and had 19 points in 33 games in the same league. Hansen’s game is all about trying to keep things simple and applying that size to give his goaltender’s the best lanes of vision possible. Bearing a Swedish last name, their teammate Mikkel Persson also spent most of the season with Rodovre SIK, quietly but assuredly putting up 12 points and 48 penalty minutes in 40 games. At 5’10” and 176 pounds, he is one of the smaller players on the blueline.

The biggest defender will be 6’3” and 207-pound Oliver Larsen of Odense, who spent the majority of the season in the nation’s top league, putting up four points, 45 penalty minutes and a -5 rating in 42 games. His experience against men and appetite for the physical aspects of the game will come in handy. Likely also being handed a shutdown role will be Oliver Gatz Nielsen who measures in at 6’1” and 207 pounds. He spent the entire year playing for Aalborg in the nation’s top league, collecting two points and a -7 rating in 45 games. Having played against men, Nielsen will be expected to handle the rigors of facing more established opponents. These two were the most established defensive pros this past season.

Ironically, the leader in this group is just 5’10” and 174 pounds. Having captained Denmark in the past, Linkoping defenseman Daniel Baastrup Andersen will be expected to take on the bulk of the leadership duties on the blueline while likely facing the opponent’s top lines. This will be no easy task, especially when facing the types of forwards that both Finland and Canada will be throwing on the ice. In Sweden this winter, Andersen collected six goals, 18 points, and a +20 in 39 U18 league games. By comparison, every Swedish defenseman at this tournament played in the country’s U20 circuit, if not already in the pros.

Rounding things off at defense are smaller defenders Rasmus Mohr (Vojens) and Jacob Jessen (Herning), whose roles are uncertain at this point. Both spent the bulk of the season in Denmark’s second men’s league.

A forward corps looking to grab your attention

The aforementioned Rondbjerg is Denmark’s hope for the future. Still growing, he is extremely mature and down to earth for his age – and a very responsible player to boot. Rondbjerg will have to spearhead Denmark’s efforts despite having just turned 17 last week. He will get some good help from Krag-Christensen, who loves to have the puck and does smart things with it when he does. Their WJC experience alone makes them the automatic leaders of both the team and the offensive attack.

But help will come from a few others, as well.

The 6’2“, 176-pound Joachim Blichfeld is an exciting prospect who spent the year playing for the Malmo organization, putting up 17 goals, 30 points and a +2 in 47 games for the U20 league squad. Top numbers in a league that only exceptional 17-year-olds can make a real dent in. Blichfeld will have to bring that experience and success to the attack if Denmark is to have any real shot at retaining the class.

Two other forwards spent the season in Sweden, namely Magnus Molge (also Malmo) and Valdemar Ahlberg (Linkoping). Molge saw one game of action with the SHL club (going -2), but otherwise spent the bulk of the season with the organization’s U18 team, for which he put up 19 goals, 38 points, and a +28 rating in 41 games. He contributed another four points to the U20 team’s cause in 12 games, but he is known as being an all-around player whose strengths go beyond collecting points. The season was far less productive for Ahlberg, who experienced injury problems, as he only managed five points and a -9 rating in 25 U18 games. He had 17 points and a +7 in 43 games for the same team last season.

Few players can reflect on a good amount of experience on the North American rink, so it will be interesting to see if Vojens prospect David Madsen can do any real damage at this tournament after a season with The Hill Academy’s U16 team, for which he put up 25 goals and 52 points in 54 games. The 6-foot, 181-pound forward comes from a hockey family in Denmark. Like Madsen, future Maine Black Bear Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup will be asked to be a cog up front in bringing his experience playing for the Boston Jr. Bruins to the table. He had 34 points in 39 games this season. Both will be looked at to show their teammates what is necessary to survive on the smaller rink.

The 6’1”, 194-pound Christian Wejse spent the whole year in the top league with Esbjerg (five points, 59 penalty minutes in 56 games) while 6-foot, 196-pound Jonas Sander was with Herlev (five points in 31 games). Both bring good size and understand that it needs to be applied along the boards and in front of the net. Sander also played 17 games in the second men’s league and put up a whopping 12 goals, 30 points, and 55 penalty minutes, showing one of the best point-per-game averages in the league. Both will be looked at in top-9 capacities.

In the meantime, tiny forward Daniel Baekhoj Nielsen (5’7”, 174 lbs.) spent the year with the nation’s powerhouse Herning Blue Fox. There, he contributed six assists and a -6 rating in 53 contests. Since the playoffs are still raging on, he Nielsen is first expected to join the team at the onset of the tournament. Once he is there, expect him to be one of the go-to guys in applying his pro experience to the mix.

Getting valuable experience against men in Denmark’s second men’s league were Simon Wiuff (25 points in 38 games), Andreas Grundtvig (46 in 42), Lucas Andersen (51 in 41), and Casper Mortensen (21 in 30). In particular, Grundtvig and Andersen would be likely linemates and perhaps even deployed in a scoring capacity.

Keep an eye on

The youngest player on the team will be Christoffer Gath. Just 16 right now, he spent the year split between Herlev’s first and second league pro teams. Although he had just one assist and a -8 in the top league, he was very impressive as a playmaker in the second league with 16 assists and 19 points along with 24 penalty minutes in 27 second league games. What, if any, role he receives at this tournament will surely be with an eye on the future.

Outlook

The best news is that this Team Denmark doesn’t look like an entry that will be pushed around. There is size and experience playing against men back home, or a generally higher level of competition in the U.S. or Sweden. On the other hand, there is certainly no Nikolaj Ehlers here to be the ne plus ultra leader. In addition, it’s very cloudy just how ready the trio of goalies is for the challenge at this level of competition. As such, the first game of the tournament is pretty much the do or die match for Denmark, which can live life so much easier if it can manage to defeat a Slovakian team that itself is entering the tournament without any real star power.

Should Denmark beat Slovakia, it will be their only victory of the tournament. If not, the team will have its work cut out for it in the relegation round, one that countries like Latvia or Switzerland know very well how to win.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin