"If I'm not doing anything, somebody else steps up. It's always like that. It's hard to predict who's going to step up game after game."
-- Mikael Samuelsson
A big part of coaching is putting the round plugs in the round holes.
Detroit Red Wings right wing Mikael Samuelsson, 32, has become a round plug in a round hole after a career of disappointment with the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers. He didn't even cut it with a Swiss team during the work stoppage, returning to his native Sweden to play the remainder of that season.
But he has flourished in four seasons with the Red Wings and he's never been better. Samuelsson scored in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals in Detroit's 4-3 win against Anaheim. He then had the game-winning goals in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against Chicago.
Samuelsson did that while playing on Detroit's third line, with center Valtteri Filppula and left wing Jiri Hudler. On Thursday, Darren Helm skated in the middle as Filppula was shifted to the first line to replace Pavel Datsyuk, whose status for Game 3 Friday is in question due to a leg injury suffered in Game 2 on Tuesday.
Samuelsson believes he can continue his successful ways with Helm or Filppula at center.
"We've played before with 'Helmer' pretty late in the season for 15 games. It went fine," Samuelsson said. "We know what we're going to get from him. He brings great speed to that line. Filppula does as well, so it doesn't change much."
After struggling earlier in his career, Samuelsson now is having the time of his life. Playing on a star-studded team, he loves his relative anonymity. He cringed when asked if Detroit's third line might one day be considered a top line. After all, everyone's getting older and free agency changes teams each summer. Hossa, for instance, is on a one-year contract.
"I'm getting older, too," Samuelsson said with a hearty laugh. "No, no, no, I'm not thinking like that. You know what? I'm not thinking about the future at all. I just go out there and play. It's so much fun right now. I have to take care of that right now. If you're thinking about the future and this and that, and whatever it is, it's wrong. I like to enjoy the moment right now."
So Game 3 is the only thing you're thinking about right now?
"Exactly. Honest to God, I can only do my best on the ice. That's all I can do," Samuelsson said. "I don't how many contracts I've signed in my career. If I worry about things, it doesn't do me any good anyway. I just go out there and play and try to enjoy it. This is a fun time right now. It couldn't be any better from my perspective, so I'm going to keep trying to enjoy it and keep it going."
Samuelsson said it's the presence of those superstars carrying the offensive load that makes it easier for him to succeed.
"If I'm not doing anything, somebody else steps up," said Samuelsson. "It's always like that. It's hard to predict who's going to step up game after game. Obviously we have superstars here -- every team has some stars. Everybody would like the stars to do it every night, but that's not going to happen. The superstars here feel good about that because maybe they don't have the pressure that the stars on other teams have. They know other guys on this team can step up."
With his first-line stars struggling to score, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was asked if what Samuelsson said is the same advice he gives Datsyuk, Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom: Don't worry, we've got your back.
"That's a 100 percent right," Babcock said. "All I do is I look every year, July 1 at free agency. Your good players get signed by some other team. Instead of being the second-line left winger playing with two good players, they put them at first-line center. And they wonder at Christmas why he has no goals.
"No. 1, he has this huge salary he's carrying around on his back. No. 2, he's got no one to play with and huge expectations. The most fun you can have in hockey is play with the best players you can. They make you look good."
Babcock has put Samuelsson in a position to succeed, and as a result, the Red Wings hold a two-game lead in the Western Conference Finals.