DALLAS – Defenceman Philip Larsen has played a lot of hockey since he left Dallas last spring, logging major minutes for Denmark at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and shining for Lukko Rauma in Finland during the labour conflict.
He may look like the same guy, but the Philip Larsen that arrived in Dallas for the Stars training camp last weekend is not the same player who finished the 2011-12 season there.
Since completing his rookie NHL season last April, the 23-year-old defenceman has accomplished quite a bit.
First, he fulfilled a huge role at the World Championship for the Danish national team, logging 25:05 of ice time per contest, ranking second overall in the tournament, all while facing the opposition’s top forwards every night.
Then, once the labour conflict in the NHL began on September16, Larsen joined several of his Danish countrymen skating with Lukko Rauma in Finland’s SM-Liiga and excelled in a key role on his team’s blue line.
Now that he’s back in North America, a more experienced and confident Larsen hopes to build on his solid performance from last year by absorbing more meaningful minutes in the shorter 48-game schedule that begins on Saturday.
“Of course you want to be a big part of the team, everyone wants to be,” said the slick-skating Larsen, who hopes to improve on his modest totals of three goals and 11 points in 55 games last season.
“If I can, I want to be better points-wise than last year, maybe help more that way, but of course, I’m a D-man, so defence is first. But I do what the coaches tell me. As long as the coaches are happy and you do what you’re supposed to do, work hard defensively, then the chances are going to come offensively, too.”
As a rookie, Larsen focused more on solidifying his defensive game, and the results were impressive, as he registered a +11 plus/minus rating, ranking tied for first among Dallas defencemen while averaging 17:57 of ice time per game.
“I thought he had a great year last year – for a rookie coming into the league, it’s tough,” said Stars defenceman Alex Goligoski, who was often paired with Larsen last season. “He got some good minutes and he handled them with no problem. It was fun playing with him – obviously, he’s good moving the puck. I think him going over to Finland and playing was a good thing. I would expect him to take the next step this year.”
Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan was happy Larsen played in Finland, noting that the Finnish game more closely resembles the North American style because it has more smaller-sized rinks. He feels the experience clearly helped Larsen’s development.
“I think he’s the guy that we can see maybe the biggest leap from,” Gulutzan said. “Sweden has real big rinks, it’s more of a tactical game, a puck possession game, but Finland – take a North American rink, take an Olympic sheet and mix them together for a little bit of a hybrid, so that game in Finland is a little bit more North American than the Swedish game. So he played a real pacey, kind of a North American game for the past few months and he played against the best players in that league. We’re glad he went over there. Add the World Championship to that, add the year of experience last year, and I think you’ve got a different player.”
Larsen’s performance with the Danish national team, even though the Danes barely avoided relegation with a 13th-place finish, represented a significant step up in responsibility for the 183 cm (6-foot-0), 86 kg (190 pound) defenceman.
“It was a lot of fun at the World Championships, and to play a lot – it was a lot of fun,” acknowledged Larsen, who added two assists and a team-leading 23 shots on goal in seven games. “It’s always nice to put the national team jersey on, no matter where you play and you put a lot of pride in it. We had a little bad luck – we played pretty good as a team, as good as we could, but we had some bad bounces and some trouble scoring, but it was a really fun tournament. We stayed in the top division and hopefully we can do better the next time we get to play there.”
Once the CBA expired and the labour conflict in North America began, Larsen found himself back on the ice with three of his Danish compatriots with Lukko Rauma, another valuable learning experience he enjoyed thoroughly. Joining him in Finland was Phoenix winger Mikkel Bødker, New York Islander centre Frans Nielsen, and Nielsen’s brother, Simon.
“Simon Nielsen, he’s a goalie in that league, so that was why Frans was there and we just came together, all of us,” explained Larsen, who ranked third in the SM-Liiga in ice time, averaging 26:16 per game while amassing five goals and 15 points, along with an impressive +11 plus/minus rating, in 27 games.
“It was a lot of fun, hockey-wise, they play a fun kind of hockey there. It’s a really fast game in Finland and they have some really good players. The rinks are smaller, which makes the games physical, too. All of us had a good time.”
Larsen pointed out that the four Danes hadn’t pre-arranged to all play together in Finland, it just ended up that way.
“I knew Frans was going there because of his brother, and me and Bødker have the same agent, and he said that me and Bødker could go somewhere together,” Larsen explained. “We played together with Frölunda in Sweden, so we’re really good friends from way back and he told us we could play for the same team. When he mentioned the team, I didn’t realize it was the same team that Frans was going to, so it was a funny coincidence. It was a pretty simple choice once we knew that all three guys would be there. We all know each other pretty well, so that was pretty fun.”
Of course, as much as he enjoyed the experience in Finland, Larsen is thrilled to be back in Dallas, geared up to help the Stars get off to a quick start and hopefully reach the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“I feel ready, I think all of us do, everybody is really excited to get going,” said Larsen, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (149th overall) in the 2008 NHL Draft.
“Hopefully (the experience in Finland) helps and it was nice to have been playing coming in here. It’s 48 games, it’s full speed. Everyone wants to make the playoffs, so in a short season, you have to be ready from Game 1, so I hope I can bring some energy and some confidence from the Finnish League. It feels great to be back here. It’s here you want to play and I’m looking forward to playing the real games.”