When it comes to goaltending, Oscar Dansk is serious. But he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Take his Twitter account. The No. 1 goaltender for the Erie Otters routinely makes puns with his surname. Asked after a recent game to provide a reporter with a headline for a story profiling him, Dansk shows off his playful side.
“Learn how to Dansk!” he said, then adding later, “I’m a good Dansker, but I’m not a good dancer, so I’ll tell you that.”
Once he’s in the crease, though, the puns stop and the puck-stopping takes precedence. The 18-year-old’s talent and diligence have caught the attention of both the Otters and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who made Dansk a second-round pick in June’s NHL entry draft.
“He’s an extremely diligent worker,” said Ian Clark, the Blue Jackets’ goaltending coach. “At his age, he has a very special mental skills package. … Oscar has an extremely calm, even-keeled manner, so he has – given his age – a real mature mental skill set for a goaltender, which is going to serve him extremely well.”
That maturity was developed very early when Dansk decided, with the blessing of his parents, to leave home in Stockholm at the tender age of 13 to play hockey at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s school in Faribault, Minn.
“It was exciting,” said the Swede of the move to North America. “It was something that was different, and I think it helped me get to where I am today. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but after visiting I was really pleased with what I saw.
“I did miss home a bit the first couple of weeks. It was tough in the beginning.”
While the initial adjustment was difficult, the culture shock was tempered by the fact that when he was younger, he and his brothers -- older brother Victor and younger brother Emil -- would spend their summers in Vancouver.
“We all stayed here for a bit to learn the culture and the language,” said Dansk, “as well as the hockey aspects, too.”
He returned to Sweden to play two seasons in Brynas IF’s junior program before being drafted and heading to Erie. The Otters selected Dansk with the third-overall pick in the CHL import draft this summer, ending the speculation that he was going to play with the defending OHL champion London Knights.
It’s only 18 games into the OHL season, but the initiation into major junior hockey has been a difficult one. The trouble started even before the season began when the 6-foot-2, 187-pound netminder suffered a knee injury – the first real injury of his young career – while playing for Sweden at a three-country world junior evaluation tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“I think he was a little behind the eight ball,” said Peter Sidorkiewicz, the Otters’ assistant coach and a former NHL goaltender. “He couldn’t skate for about the first 10 days he was here, but once he got his conditioning back he’s been playing pretty well.”
In his 15 starts, Dansk has gone 4-9-0-2 with a 4.04 goals against average and an .894 save percentage. But what those numbers fail to show is that Erie, a young team to be sure, is one of the worst defensive teams in the OHL.
On average, Dansk is facing 38 shots per night behind the Otters.
“He makes a lot of saves for us, and he has to because there are some nights we don’t give him a lot of support out there,” said Sidorkiewicz. “He’s focused.
“With goaltenders, you don’t have a choice in net. It is what it is – and that’s what they have in front of them. He’s trying to give us a chance to win every night.”
There have been a lot of bad nights, too.
“It’s a learning process that’s for sure,” said Dansk. “I’ve never really had a group of guys this young in front of me before, but we’re all learning from each other. It’s a process and I think we’re pretty close to start winning. I think we can all feel that in certain games.”
Part of Dansk’s learning curve included trying to keep himself from playing too deep in his crease. Both Sidorkiewicz and Clark said his penchant for sitting back was allowing attacking forwards too much time and space to pick him apart. Clark said this is fairly common for young Swedish goalies, in particular, because they’ve grown up watching New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist – an icon amongst his netminding countrymen.
“Swedish goaltenders have a little bit of a tendency to player deeper in the net,” said Clark. “They’re very economical in their movement and very conservative. And again, it’s just that desire to emulate one of the top goaltenders in the world.
“We just tried to nudge Oscar out a little bit … closer to the top of the crease.”
Dansk said that he feels his adjustments have paid off in more saves. It’s all part of the experience Dansk was hoping to gain by playing hockey in the OHL, and the reason he decided to come to North America in the first place.
“I came over here because I wanted to make the next step,” he said. “This was the path I wanted to take and hopefully that’s going to get me to where I want to go in the future. And that’s the NHL.”