At this point, Denmark head coach Olaf Eller, father to Lars and Mads, will be heading into the 2016 World Junior Championship without his biggest, and possibly only, true weapon in Nikolaj Ehlers, one of the stars of last winter’s WJC.
Currently a regular for the Winnipeg Jets, Ehlers’ participation would have made him one of the most highly profiled players in this year’s tournament, but now the Danes are facing a situation eerily similar to that of Team Germany’s in last winter’s WJC, when German Coach Pat Cortina somewhat unexpectedly couldn’t count on the services of Leon Draisaitl.
This led to a pointless relegation for Germany, a team that nonetheless featured a number of players playing their hockey in the CHL, USHL, NAHL or NCAA. Now Denmark will look to avoid the same fate, and the biggest question that needs to be answered is who is going to score the goals.
Forwards largely unknown
If you can’t have Ehlers, you might as well have the next best thing, namely his cousin Alexander True. The 6’4” 18-year-old is in the midst of his second season with the Seattle Thunderbirds and is clearly showing that his rookie year (in which he had 12 points in 38 games) taught him a good bit. He currently has 10 goals and 19 points in 30 games this season, albeit accompanied by a -11 rating. He will surely be motivated to line up against some of his teammates playing for other nations, namely Mathew Barzal of Team Canada.
Niklas Andersen has been playing across the state for the Spokane Chiefs and has 13 points in 25 games. Still adjusting to North American play after two years of Danish pro hockey, the lightweight is one of the few guys on the team now used to playing against North Americans, which could come in handy considering the Danes will face both Canada and the U.S. in the preliminary round.
After those two, the Danes will hope that the trio of Thomas Olsen, Kristian Jensen, and Mathias From will all be able to bring their experience from Sweden’s SuperElit junior circuit to the international stage. Unfortunately, none of the three is necessarily a top-line player for their respective clubs, although From has suited up for the SHL club Rogle four times this season, going pointless in those appearances.
Tailing things off, half-Canadian Markus Jensen is playing pro hockey for the Herning Blue Fox and has captained the Danes internationally in previous play. The remaining players up front mostly dot the lineups of various professional Danish teams, but none of them plays on the top two lines on their respective teams.
Although the forward group features a few players with promise and a number of hard workers who could surprise, the defense looks like a black hole of sorts in comparison to the competition. Lacking experience and a good bit of size, the unit will rely heavily on its top four group, which in and of itself only features three players of international note.
Anders Krogsgaard had a strong U18 performance in Finland in 2014 and is currently an 11-point, +9 regular for Esbjerg in Denmark’s top league. He will play the supporting role to the team’s top two rearguards, namely the Hamilton Bulldogs’ Christian Mieritz and Leksand’s Matias Lassen. Mieritz has only one point in 18 OHL games, but will have to provide the muscle and North American style knowledge to this blueline. This can be his big chance to show the decision makers in Hamilton that he can handle a bigger role.
Lassen wasn’t expected to play much for what has been a disappointing Leksand club in the Swedish Allsvenskan, but now has five points and a +2 rating in 33 games and has been one of the league’s big surprises. Expect him to log possibly up to 30 minutes of playing time a night for this Danish team, as this tournament might serve as his coming out party in the scouting community.
Large half-Canadian Ludvig Adamsen is a BCHL product and true stay at home type while Morten Jensen is a mainstay on the blueline for Rogle’s U20 team. They will have to somehow round out the defensive corps in a shutdown manner.
Scouts are watching
Unless a few of the Danes are ready to absolutely surprise the international ice hockey community, about the only names scouts will keep a close eye on here are that of Nikolaj Krag Christensen and little tyke Daniel Nielsen.
Christensen is currently 17 and plays for the Rodovre Mighty Bulls of Denmark’s top league where he has two goals and four points. This comes on the tail of 13 points in seven games for that club’s second league affiliate throughout the season. Only 5’7” and 165 pounds, Nielsen has spent the entire season with the Herning Blue Fox and has four points in 25 games. He already had 20 points and 113 penalty minutes in 26 games in Denmark’s second league last season as a 16 year old.
Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see if the 6-foot, 176-pound 16 year old Jonas Rondbjerg will get any playing time and if so, in what capacity. He is playing his second season in Denmark’s top pro league and has eight goals and 12 points in 25 games to date. It is felt that Rondbjerg will be in Sweden or the CHL as of next season.
Goaltenders Thomas Lillie, who currently has a starting job on the U20 squad for the Swedish champion Vaxjo Lakers, and Lasse Petersen, who has seen 11 games of action with less than promising statistics for the Calgary Hitmen and Spokane Chiefs of the WHL, have in the past shown the international ability to shut down big opponents just enough to give their squad a winning chance. That knowledge will allow Coach Eller to establish a very defensively-oriented playing style and hope that the big guns on other teams will see their shot capacity held to a minimum.
While not definite, Lillie is likely to be the go-to guy when all is said and done as he has often played outstanding when tasked to face 50-plus shots in a game. A strong start to a game could be all he needs to shut the door over 60 minutes.
There is always hope for any team. One big upset in the initial round can mean avoiding the relegation round and that will have to be the goal for a Danish team that is quite frankly the weakest on paper. There simply are not any internationally established key players who can be looked to as positively capable of leading the offensive efforts or shutting down the opposition attack.
In addition, the Danish pro circuit is far removed from that of the developed ice hockey nations, and many of these players simply aren’t used to playing hockey at this level, much less conducting a successful power play, penalty killing unit, etc. Aside from Lassen in Sweden’s Allsvenskan and True in Seattle, not one player on the squad has a bonafide top-six role in a league comparable to where most of the tournament’s players are hailing from.
Topping things off, Denmark is participating in Group A play and their history against Canada, the USA, and neighboring hockey big brother Sweden is anything but impressive. Their game against Switzerland will have to be the one the Danes enter with big hopes, but even the Swiss rightly have medal ambitions and know that a win against Denmark is their meal ticket to the medal round.
As such, anything other than a relegation round matchup, likely with Belarus, would be a major surprise. Even there, this Danish side would have to be seen as the underdog.
Follow Chapin Landvogt’s coverage of the 2016 World Junior Championship