GROUP B: DENMARK
Last year's finish: Won IIHF Division 1A, earning promotion to the main WJHC.
Last year's round-robin record: 4-0-0-1 (in Division 1A).
Denmark is in a grey area between being a big fish in the small pond and swimming with the sharks in the world juniors’ top tier.
The Scandinavian nation is coming of age on the ice, buoyed by a growing interest in hockey and several individual success stories. Vancouver Canucks first-round pick Nicklas Jensen, who will be one of the team leaders in Edmonton, is just the latest. The best Danes can skate with almost anybody, but are still a far leap from being able to do more than just fill out the WJHC field.
The problem, as others have pointed out, is the Danes are good enough to score at will against Division 1A competition but aren't quite ready for the next step. To have a puncher's chance against the big boys, they might have to resort to playing a version of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap.
"I would think that we're going to be more defensive-oriented, because we just have to," second-year coach Todd Bjorkstrand, told the Edmonton Journal. "We're going to be defending more than we're going to be on the offence, so we're going to have to play smart and it'll be a team effort."
Doing that out of necessity might play away from Denmark’s strength, which are their top-six forwards. Whatever line Jensen plays on might not even be the Danes' more dangerous scoring threat. Bjorkstrand -- who coaches Herning Blue Fox in Denmark's improving pro league -- can actually roll out one of his lines from Herning in its entirety with his two sons, 16-year-old left wing Oliver Bjorkstrand and 19-year-old centre Patrick Bjorkstrand and 18-year-old right wing Thomas Spelling. They, along with Jensen and two forwards who play junior in Sweden, Mads Eller and Nicolai Meyer, give Denmark its best chance of getting its first win in the top division.
Their defence and quality goaltending might be as elusive as happiness was for fiction's most famous Dane, Hamlet. Denmark's back end is fairly nondescript and perhaps as a function of being used to the larger European ice surface, played passively in its first two pre-tournament games against the Canadian Interuniversity Sport power Alberta Golden Bears.
There is some size in Herning's Patrick Madsen (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and Radovre's Tobias Hansen (6-5, 216). Goaltending will also be an open question as 18-year-old Sebastian Feuk has the most experience of the trio in Canada, but he's between club teams after obtaining his release from the Timra juniors last month.
Denmark went 0-7 and was outscored 38-15 in 2008, its one and only previous trip to the top division. Improving on that and punching a ticket to Ufa, Russia, for the 2013 world juniors seems like a reasonable goal.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Forward Nicklas Jensen (Oshawa Generals, OHL) As one just two Danes who play in North America, the Vancouver Canucks first-rounder will be expected to be a calming influence on teammates not used to North American crowds and the smaller ice surface. Jensen is a power winger who leads Oshawa in scoring, ahead of Team Canada's Boone Jenner.
Forward Nicolai Meyer (Malmö, Swedish J20 Elite) Meyer is pencilled in to play with Jensen, meaning both have to develop some chemistry almost instantaneously. The six-foot, 172-pound right-winger was ranked by NHL Central Scouting last season but was passed over in the draft; he's considered a good skater with hands to match.
Forward Mads Eller (Frölunda, Swedish J18 Elite) You guessed it — he's the little brother of the Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller. The 16-year-old is the Danes' youngest player and one of just four on the team who plays outside the country's borders. He has Mads speed, but at a whippet-like six feet and 163 pounds, there will be times when Eller might struggle physically.
Forward Oliver Bjorkstrand (Herning Blue Fox, Denmark). The Danes’ other 16-year-old will form what's hoped to be a scoring line with older brother, Patrick Bjorkstrand, and Thomas Spelling. Like Eller, he can skate and handle the puck but someone five-foot-10 and 157 pounds is going to get bounced around in this event.
MUST WIN GAME: Denmark's tournament probably does not start until the relegation round begins Jan. 2. That probably requires beating out Latvia for ninth place. A change to the world junior format is that only the last-place finisher drops to Division 1A for 2013 instead of the bottom two. Germany, led by Oilers prospect Tobias Rieder, has won promotion for next winter.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.