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Upstart Denmark determined to build on foundation

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
Lars Eller was the first Dane to be taken in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
No matter what happens at the 2008 World Junior Championships in Pardubice and Liberec in the Czech Republic, the past 12 months have been a watershed year for Danish hockey.

Within the course of the last year, the Danes earned promotions to elite levels of both the Under-20 and Under-18 World Championships, saw their first two native-born and European-trained players reach the NHL, and witnessed young center Lars Eller become the first Dane to be taken in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. In all likelihood two more Danish players -- right winger Mikkel Bødker (Boedker) and defenseman Philip Larsen -- will be taken early in the 2008 Draft.

But while Denmark is clearly a hockey country on the rise, the Danish Under-20 team is likely too inexperienced at the top level to avoid relegation back to Division I. Among the four teams likely to play in the relegation round -- Slovakia, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and the Danes -- two will be sent to Division I. The Danish team is going to need to elevate its level of play, and have a little luck on its side, to play in the 2009 WJC in Ottawa.

The WJC has historically been dominated by 19-year-old players. The Danes may have arrived at the top level Under-20 tournament a year too early, as their most talented players are their 17-year-old and 18-year-olds, with a couple promising players who are even younger than that.

The key players for Denmark will be the ones who’ve been recruited from their homeland to play for top foreign teams during the club team season: Bødker of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and a trio playing in Sweden (Eller and defensemen Larsen and Oliver Lauridsen).

Leadership

The Danes employ a Canadian head coach, Ken Babey, to steer their Under-20 team. It’s been a successful relationship so far.

Babey, who is the athletic director at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and was previously head coach of its hockey team, led tournament host Denmark to an impressive victory at the 2007 Division I World Championships in Odense.

In that tournament, Team Denmark downed Poland by a 4-1 score, won 4-2 over Ukraine, beat Slovenia by an identical score and routed Estonia 7-1 before sustaining their only loss in a 5-4 game with Latvia.

"We accomplished what we set out to do, our goal heading into the tournament was to win the Gold Medal and advance to the A Pool for next year, something Denmark has never done in the U20 category. What got us through this tough challenge was the guys buying into a team concept, that and some key individual performances,’ Babey told the official SAIT site upon his return to Canada.

For Denmark to have any shot at retaining its elite-level status in the WJC for next year, Babey is going to need an even better performance from his team this time around. One thing working in the Danes’ favor is the fact that many of the players are already familiar with playing together.

Denmark has brought back eight players from last year’s victorious Division I squad: Eller, Bødker, Larsen, Lauridsen, Herlev Hornets forward Nichlas Hardt, Herning Blue Fox forward Morten Poulsen and goaltender Frederik Andersen, as well as EfB Ishockey forward Lasse Holgaard.

Minnesota Wild prospect Morten Madsen (Houston Aeros) and goaltender Sebastian Dahm (Sudbury Wolves) are no longer available because they turned 20 earlier this year.

Forwards

All eyes with be on Lars Eller (selected by the St. Louis Blues with the 13th overall pick of the 2007 Entry Draft) and highly rated 2008 Draft prospect Mikkel Bødker. Both players are highly skilled with the puck and outstanding skaters.

For a player in his first half-year of hockey in North America, Mikkel Boedker's 15 goals and 32 points in 34 games is decent production.

Eller and Bødker both developed in the Frölunda Indians system in Göteborg, Sweden. They were teammates on last year’s Frölunda Under-20 team that won the J20 SuperElit championship. Eller is currently on loan from Frölunda to Allsvenskan (top Swedish minor league) team Borås HC, while Bødker opted to come to North America early to play for the Kitchener Rangers.

Eller is a gifted playmaker first and foremost, but can also put the puck in the net. He missed the start of this season after undergoing off-season hand surgery. After a three-game tune-up with Frölunda’s J20 team (scoring one goal and assisting on two others), he was loaned as originally planned to Borås, in order to move up a level of hockey.

In his first game against adult pro competition, he registered an assist. Thereafter, a still-rusty Eller struggled with his timing for several weeks. More recently, he’s started to get back on track, including scoring his first two Allsvenskan goals in one game. For the season, he has seven points in 15 matches.

Meanwhile, Bødker has been as advertised to the Kitchener faithful. For a player in his first half-year of hockey in North America, his 15 goals and 32 points in 34 games is decent production. He’s capable of producing at a higher clip over the remainder of the season.

Team Denmark also features a pair of brothers from Sweden’s Linköpings HC junior system. Right wing Nicholas Jensen, 18, has performed respectably since being promoted from the J18 to the J20 team. In 29 games at the J20 SuperElit level, he’s tallied six goals and 13 points, to go along with a plus-seven defensive rating.

Left wing Alexander Jensen, a 17-year-old forward in the Linköpings HC junior system in Sweden, has played at both the J18 Elit and J20 SuperElit level this season. He has one goal and five points in seven J18 games, plus one goal, three points in 22 games at the J20 level.

File the name Sebastian Svendsen in your memory, because you’ll likely being hearing more about him in years to come. He’s the youngest player suiting up for any team in the tournament this year. Svendsen is four months younger than Team Sweden’s highly touted Magnus Svensson-Pääjärvi. He’s unlikely to do much other than gain valuable experience this year, but in a couple of years, Svendsen could be a pivotal player.

Svendsen turned 16 on July 16 and won’t be eligible for the NHL draft until 2009. He has been tearing up the Swedish J18 Elit level with the Frölunda Indians Under-18 squad (20 goals and 31 points in just 17 games). Svendsen’s Frölunda teammate, right wing Mark Mieritz (17 goals, 33 points in 17 games) did not make the Danish U20 team this year.

Among Team Denmark’s players who still play in their home country during the club season, look for Morten Poulson and Nichlas Hardt to play significant roles.

As last year’s Division I WJC, Poulson played on Eller’s line and produced a team-high six goals in the tournament. This season, he has nine points in 26 games playing for the Herning Blue Fox in Denmark’s top league.

Hardt scored twice and added five helpers in five games at last year’s Division I WJC. This season, he leads the Herlev Hornets in scoring with eight goals and 27 points.

Defense

Philip Larsen has taken a similar path to Eller. The mobile, puck-moving defenseman developed in the Frölunda system and has also been loaned to Borås HC. Larsen actually spent much of the early part of the season with Frölunda’s Elitserien (Swedish Elite League) team, but after 13 games of limited ice time, he was sent to Borås to play more minutes. Larsen turned 18 in December and is expected to be chosen in an early round of the NHL 2008 Entry Draft.

Last year, he was a mainstay on the blue line of the Danish team that won the Division I Under-20 tournament. This time around, he’ll log heavy ice time in all manpower situations and take the ice against other teams’ best players. He probably won’t end up with a picturesque plus-minus rating, but it will be a tremendous challenge.

Huge defenseman Oliver Lauridsen (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) was rated as a mid-grade prospect in last season’s Central Scouting ratings for the 2007 Entry Draft. The Linköpings HC prospect was not selected, however. He will turn 19 in March and is eligible once again for the NHL Draft. He’s a defensive defenseman who is at his best when he uses his size and reach to his advantage.

Rødovre Mighty Bulls defenseman Emil Bigler, 19, adds some much needed experience and a right-handed shot to the Danish blue line. Nordsjælland Cobras junior back Christoffer Norre performed well for the victorious Danes at the 2007 Division I Under-18 World Championships. The 17-year-old brings a combination of a size (he stands 6-foot-3, but only weighs 171 pounds), mobility and a willingness to mix it up. Mathias Pedersen, 19, has worked his way up the Herning Blue Fox ranks and now plays for its pro team.

The youngest defenseman, and second youngest player, on Team Denmark’s roster is 16-year-old defenseman Simon Grønvaldt. The 6-foot-2 back is a standout in the Rødovre Mighty Bulls junior system. As a 15-year-old last year, he had three points in five games at the Division I Under-18 World Championships. Grønvaldt is a shoo-in to play for the Danes at the elite level Under-18 Worlds in the spring of 2008.

Goaltending

Herning Blue Fox junior goaltender Frederik Andersen served as the backup goaltender to Sebastian Dahm at last year’s Division I WJC. He did not start a game in the Under-20 tourney, but started four of five games in the Division I Under-18 World Championships. He was outstanding at that level, with a 1.25 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

Of course, there’s a huge difference in competition between the Division I tourneys and the highest level. The 18-year-old Andersen is going to be severely tested, as the Danes figure to be significantly out-shot in every game. The 6-foot-3 Andersen plays a butterfly style.

Herlev Hornets goaltender Christian Møller, 19, will back up Andersen and is likely to see some game action along the way.

Intangibles

The underdog Danes are playing with relatively little pressure on them in their first elite-level WJC. The odds are against them avoiding relegation. Nevertheless, Denmark would love to find a way to get to the 2009 tourney in Ottawa, with their top players having gained an extra year of experience.

In order to accomplish the feat, the Danes cannot finish any lower than eighth in the 10-team field this year. One scenario that would make this possible would be for Denmark to steal a game against Slovakia, and then pick off a second win against either Kazakhstan or Switzerland.

Even if Team Denmark is relegated this year, they could someday earn their way to the top level and stay, if the proper steps are taken to build upon the foundation that has been laid down in recent years.

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