A more mature and wise Oscar Dansk isn't looking back at his first foray into North American hockey with regret, even though struggles on and off the ice led to a return to his native Stockholm and further from realizing his NHL dream.
"I really wanted to play for a major junior team and like I always have, I went with my gut feeling," says Dansk, who opted to leave Sweden at age 18 after the Ontario Hockey League's Erie (Pa.) Otters selected him third overall in the 2012 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. A week earlier at the NHL draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets chose Dansk 31st overall.
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Dansk's big break, though, wouldn't come for another five years after the expansion Vegas Golden Knights signed the free agent to a one-year contract worth $650,000 US this past July 3.
Despite a solid training camp, he was staring at a second tour of duty in the American Hockey League, this time with Chicago. That is, until Golden Knights starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) and backup Malcolm Subban (right leg) suffered long-term injuries within a week in October, leading to Dansk's promotion.
Beat on the first shot in his NHL debut — a slapshot by St. Louis defenceman Alex Pietrangelo — Dansk turned aside the next 10 shots to earn the win in a 3-2 overtime decision. From there, he made 29 saves in a 4-2 victory over Chicago, posted a 32-save shutout against Colorado – the first in Vegas franchise history - and stopped 17 of 19 shots against the New York Islanders on Oct. 30 before exiting in the second period with a suspected leg injury.
"It feels good where I am as a goaltender right now and I just want to stay with it," says Dansk, who remains on injured reserve and won't be in the lineup Monday night at Toronto. "It's exciting when you feel like you're going somewhere."
Dansk also seemed to be in a good place in 2012, appearing in 43 of 68 regular-season games as a rookie for a weak Erie squad that went 19-40-9 and missed the playoffs. He cut his goals-against average from 4.11 to 2.39 in his second and final season with the Otters as they advanced to the 2014 conference finals.
A few months earlier, Dansk had propelled Sweden to a silver medal at the world junior championship while capturing top goalie honours before flashing a .925 save percentage in September 2014 to help Columbus win the Traverse City (Mich.) rookie tournament.
But Dansk couldn't establish himself in the Blue Jackets organization, posting a GAA north of 3.50 in consecutive seasons for the Springfield Falcons of the AHL and ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings. With Joonas Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg and Elvis Merzlikins ahead of him in the pecking order, Dansk wasn't extended a qualifying offer by Columbus last spring and became a free agent.
'It was all hockey and I got caught up in it. If I had a bad game, I got caught up in it.' — Golden Knights goalie Oscar Dansk on 1st taste of North American hockey
Otters general manager Dave Brown remembers Dansk arriving to Erie as a pro, in terms of his work habits and preparation to play, saying the young netminder "had the ability to steal a game outright." But over time, the pressure to perform coupled with an inability to block out a bad game became too much.
"It was all hockey and I got caught up in it. If I had a bad game, I got caught up in it," Dansk recalls of his 32 combined appearances in the AHL and ECHL. "Sometimes you can work almost too hard … and you've gotta find that [balance]. You have to relax off the ice as well."
After the 2014-15 season, Dansk wanted to return to Sweden to work on his game at a slower pace, so Columbus agreed to loan him to Rogle BK, a defensively challenged outfit that missed the playoffs in each of Dansk's two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League.
"Goaltenders in the NHL, even at our level, they take a little longer to mature. We just rush them sometimes," says Brown, who remembers working with the Erie coaches to try to get Dansk to not play deep in his net. "I think for Oscar it was just a maturity process."
Since joining Vegas, Dansk's approach has been overhauled under Golden Knights goalie coach Dave Prior, who puts very little emphasis on his goalies stopping the puck in practice while stressing how they execute in game-like situations.
"The game at the NHL level is unforgiving," says Prior, who previously coached Vezina Trophy winners Olaf Kolzig (2000) and Braden Holtby (2016) with the Washington Capitals. "There are great shooters and you have to play a more strategic game to have success. We're trying to make [Dansk] more of a presence in the goal and take more net away."
Dansk, who admits to feeling "a little faster" on his feet this season, is now more aggressive, standing up longer, cutting his angles better and more mobile in his positional play. He sports a 3-0-0 record, 1.78 GAA and .946 save percentage in four appearances with Vegas.
"Dave took everything I had and bumped it up a notch. I also feel a bit more calm, on and off the ice," says Dansk, the NHL's second star for the week ending Oct. 29. "I'm still young but I feel I know how to handle certain situations better on the ice. It's part of the growing-up process and becoming a more mature goalie."
Prior admits to not being fond of some Swedish goalies because they play a more passive style, but was intrigued by the "consistent nature of Dansk's game" in his draft year. And while Dansk's skills were evident at Golden Knights training camp, Prior said he wasn't as effective as what fans have seen early in the season.
"Every game he's tidying up his game quite well and playing better," Prior says. "I know it is a small body of work but I have no reason to believe you're going to see much of a departure from that.
"I believe in the goaltender staying up much more than the modern-age goaltender does. The automatic default to the ice was something that made [Dansk] vulnerable. I also like the more aggressive goaltender who plays his angles, and those two things were not present in his game [at training camp].
"We're trying to take his great work ethic and change his game where he's working smarter and it's allowed him to enjoy more success."
And have no regret.