VANCOUVER Ė In 2009, Dallas Stars director of scouting Les Jackson compared Philip Larsenís abilities to those of Brian Rafalski during an interview. That was exceptionally high praise.
Any time youíre mentioned in the same breath as a three-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympian (Rafalski was named Best Defenceman in Vancouver in 2010), there also has to be a certain amount of pressure. Particularly for a young blueliner from Esbjerg, Denmark, who was chosen in the fifth round (149th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. That selection made Larsen the first Danish-born and trained defenceman ever drafted by an NHL club.
But at age 22, Larsen appears to have established himself as an NHL regular after spending most of 2010-11 with the AHLís Texas Stars. Prior to that, he honed his craft with five years in Sweden, four with the FrŲlunda Gothenburg organization.
Blessed with fine skating and a good first pass, the 183-cm, 86-kg rearguard has also paid his dues in international hockey. He was a member of the Danish national teams that finished 13th at the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland and a history-making eighth in Germany in 2010.
IIHF.com caught up with Larsen after the Stars earned a 5-2 road win over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena.
How satisfied are you with your play in your first full NHL season?
Iím happy. There are always things you can get better at, of course, and Iím trying to listen as much as I can to the older guys on this team, the defencemen, and our coaches. I try to get better all the time. Hopefully I can keep playing.
You logged close to 19 minutes of ice time tonight, including a couple of minutes on the power play. What does that say about the confidence coach Glen Gulutzan and his staff are putting in you?
Itís nice that you can feel that your teammates and the staff believe in you. It gives you confidence and makes you a lot calmer on the ice. I feel really good out there. I think my D partner [Alex Goligolski] and we are playing well together, helping each other. Itís always important that you connect.
When you play with another smooth-skating guy like Alex Goligoski, how do you split up the duties?
Weíre both pretty offensive. We always try to have a guy going, getting up the ice, and if Iím going, Alex stays back a little bit. It depends on the game. If youíre, say, behind two goals with 10 minutes left, youíre always going to try to push it. But if youíre up one goal, youíve got to be smart and choose your opportunities, not forcing anything. I think weíve been doing a pretty good job of that.
Youíve had a bit of tough luck this season. You missed nine games with a concussion after taking a hit from Bostonís Milan Lucic on New Yearís Eve, and you got a puck in the head against Minnesota on February 24.
These things happen. You canít blame Milan Lucic for my concussion. Heís a big man. I stepped in and tried to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone. Heís maybe 60 pounds heavier than me! [chuckles] I saw him coming and I was trying to get out of the way, but it was bad luck. You canít blame the guy. Heís only doing his job and youíve got to have respect for that. Next time I just have to be smarter and get out of the way quicker.
On a brighter note, you got your first NHL goal on Minnesota netminder Josh Harding on January 22. What was the reaction back home to your becoming the first Danish-born and trained defenceman ever to score in the NHL?
Well, of course my family was happy. I had some friends calling me. I donít think about it that much, but itís nice for Danish hockey.
For you, whatís the biggest difference between living in Scandinavia and living in Texas?
Itís always hot. The weather is unbelievable. During the season, we play so many games, itís tough to get out and see things. Iím just trying to get some rest most of the time, because our schedule is pretty busy. When youíre not playing, youíre eating, sleeping, or trying to relax as much as possible. But I really enjoy it. I have some great teammates here, and itís been easy for me to come into this group. The Swedish guys Ė of course Nicklas Grossman is gone now [to Philadelphia] Ė they really took me in at the beginning of the year.
You played in Sweden before coming over. How did you enjoy suiting up alongside guys like Kenny JŲnsson with RŲgle and Erik Karlsson with FrŲlunda?
I played with Kenny and he was my big idol. In my eyes, heís one of the best defencemen ever. Always ahead of the play. Heís really smart, and I was always trying to learn a lot from him. Erik is one of my best friends to this day. We talk a lot today. Iím really happy for him. Heís having an unbelievable year with Ottawa. Heís a good guy and really talented.
How do you feel about the progress Danish hockey is making?
We are taking a step forward every year, developing more and more good players that have a chance to play in the National Hockey League. Weíve just got to keep going. Hopefully weíll see even more guys. Look at Nicklas Jensen, who was drafted by Vancouver [29th overall in 2011]. Great guy, big. I wouldnít be surprised if he made the Canucks next year. Weíve got guys coming.
Do you stay in touch with the other Danish guys around the NHL? For instance, if you come to Vancouver, do you meet up with Jannik Hansen?
Iíve never really gotten to know Jannik that much, actually. I talk to him on the ice and always say hi and stuff. But he came over here to play junior [with the WHLís Portland Winterhawks]. I played with him once at the World Junior Championship in Slovenia [Division I Group A, 2006]. I was 14 or 15 at the time and he was a little bit older, one of our big stars. It was tough for me to just jump in and start talking to the big guys. Me and Mikkel BÝdker were the two youngest guys on the team that year. But Iíve heard Jannik is a great guy and Iíll try to reach him after tonightís game.
What was it like to be part of the Danish team that earned your countryís best finish ever Ė eighth place Ė at the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany?
It was great for Danish hockey. You could really feel the interest from back home. All of a sudden people were watching our games. We were on the front page of the newspaper every day. It was a great experience. We know we have a good team if we have everybody with us and we really play as a team. So you never know. I think our next goal is to play at the Olympics. Weíll try to get some good results at this yearís World Championship. I know [Sochi 2014] is far away, but hopefully we can get a good result and qualify.
Denmark has never been relegated since making the elite World Championship division back in 2003. What is your secret? People are often surprised by how good the Danish power play is.
Yeah, weíve got a good power play. But, I donít know. We have a really good team spirit. We know we are the underdogs, and we know we have to work really hard to get our points and stay up. So everybody is buying in and doing their job. I think thatís the key to our success with the national team. We also have a great staff. All of them are good guys. Itís really fun to go with the national team.
What are your goals for the immediate future?
I want to get better every day, and hopefully we can build on some of the success weíve had here [with the Stars] lately. Keep pushing it, and hopefully we can make the playoffs this year.