Jannik Hansen uses speed to climb Vancouver Canucks' roster

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After making the rare and lengthy journey from Denmark to the National Hockey League, Vancouver Canucks forward Jannik Hansen figures making the short leap from third-line checker to second-line scorer shouldn’t be much of a problem. Just as he took years to break into professional hockey, though, Hansen is in no hurry to be thrust into a scoring role, but it’s certainly in his long-range plans.

The 23-year-old from Herlev—a suburb of Copenhagen—is a superb skater, and his speed is perhaps the main reason he’s in the big leagues. That skating ability has also earned the versatile right-winger an opportunity to play in almost all situations in parts of four seasons in the NHL. At times, he’s shown flashes of the player he hopes he can become on a consistent basis. His game is not there yet, but he certainly aspires to being among the team’s top six forwards.

As a role player getting limited ice time in his first full season last year, Hansen scored six times and added 15 assists in 55 games—respectable numbers for any young player. In his first 12 games this season, Hansen (who missed the first six weeks with a broken hand) scored four times and set up two others. So he clearly possesses some offence.

The question with Hansen, however, is whether his hands will ever catch up to his quick feet to allow him to score with any kind of regularity at the highest level of hockey.

“I don’t want to put a mark out there, because then if you reach it, you want to keep stretching it,” Hansen told the Straight after a recent practice at GM Place, when asked if he saw himself as a potential 20-goal scorer in the NHL. “But when you’re on the fourth line, you want to make it to the third line. And when you’re on the third line, you want to be a second-line guy. It’s always a matter of striving to get that extra step.”

The fact that Hansen is where he is at all is pretty remarkable, considering the odds he’s already overcome: a ninth-round draft pick (287th overall) in 2004 and the first Dane to make it to the NHL. He spent one season playing junior in Portland in the Western Hockey League before making the jump to the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate in Winnipeg. And because he’s a guy who didn’t take a conventional route to the NHL, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Hansen made his Canuck debut in the 2006-07 Stanley Cup playoffs.

It was a tough situation for a baptism into the NHL, but it also gave Hansen an early indication that he could play the game at that level. And he’s been working hard ever since to see where his talents will top out.

“You see a lot of skill; you see a lot of puck pursuit—Jannik’s intentions are always really good,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault says. “He gets three or four chances every game and some of those are grade-A chances. He’s a young player that has a lot of upside, but how that upside is going to be developed and how he’s going to grow, only time will tell. His work ethic and his attitude have a lot to do with how good a player he’s going to become.”

Employed primarily as a third-liner with penalty-killing responsibilities but without any power-play time, Hansen isn’t relied upon to score on a nightly basis. But because the team is built around its star goaltender, the Canucks don’t have the offensive depth some other clubs do, and they need contributions from everyone. So Hansen wants to do his part to help the cause.

“It’s what I want to do, and it’s always fun to score goals,” he says. “In the NHL, it’s always about filling a role, and there are lots of roles on every team. You can’t have 12 scorers on your team. We need it all. So right now, if I get asked to play a shutdown role, that’s what I’ll do. If I get a tap on the shoulder and get to play with the [Sedin] twins, then that’s the game you’ve got to play. It’s just a matter of adapting to your linemates and the role you’re put into, rather than worrying about what you should be.”

For Hansen, the biggest thing about his game these days is the confidence that comes with being in the lineup on a nightly basis. In his first few stints in the NHL, he knew he was simply plugging a hole as an injury fill-in and was preoccupied with not making mistakes. But as a regular last season, he began to feel comfortable enough to start making plays with the puck.

“My offence has kind of been a work in progress where I’ve taken small steps,” Hansen says. “You’re not going to step up to any league and be the same player you were at the lower level. It takes time to adjust and to become that much better. Confidence comes with playing games and being in game situations, and as it progresses, you see a play here or there works out and then you try another one. You hold the puck a little bit more, you’re not just throwing it away. You’re looking for a play instead of just dumping it in and going off for a change.”

Hansen will continue to work on his game with the goal of proving that he can score on a regular basis in the National Hockey League. It will be interesting to see how he develops, and if he can become more than he already is.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca.

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