"He brings a winning attitude and has that experience and leadership qualities that a lot of guys look up to. Whether it be during plane rides or practices, there are guys who are constantly picking his brain about the Stanley Cup run that they had in Detroit and then losing last year in the finals. He is just a bundle of knowledge that everybody tries to extract." -- Kevin Bieksa on Mikael Samuelsson
Why? Because the 32-year old native of Mariefred, Sweden is a quintessential NHL late bloomer and his evolution as a hockey player gives testimony to his dogged determination. Normally quiet off the ice, Samuelsson has a fire burning inside typical of many late bloomers who graduate from the school of hard knocks. That fire burst forth when he got the news he would not represent Sweden at the 2010 Winter Olympics, ironically in Vancouver.
"I pretty much have one comment and maybe I'll regret it," an angry Samulesson said before going outside the bounds of a family newspaper, or web site, or TV show.
Originally drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 1998 Entry Draft (No. 145), Samuelsson didn't see NHL action until he was 24, playing in four games with the Sharks. He subsequently saw spot duty with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers before finally established himself as a bona fide NHL forward with the Detroit Red Wings.
With the Wings in 2005-06, at the age of 29, Samuelsson established career marks with 23 goals, 45 points and an impressive plus-27. During his four seasons in the Motor City, Samuelsson gained the confidence to play in all tight situations and be a difference maker in some of them.
"I took a step in Detroit," Samuelsson said. "It was quite an easy team to play for when you consider that I played with so many good players. I realized that I could do things there that maybe I didn't realize before. Detroit was a big part of my career."
The Red Wings didn't put pressure on Samuelsson to pace the team. Surrounded by high-end talent like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Nicklas Lidstrom, the late bloomer was allowed to develop his game and soak up valuable lessons from a dressing room stacked with leaders and experience. He gained confidence. And though relegated to the Red Wings' third line, Samuelsson's work ethic and deadly shot earned him responsibility on the mighty Detroit power play.
He proved to be a valuable player in the club's Stanley Cup championship in 2007-08 and their drive to the Stanley Cup Final last season. In the belief that the powerful 6-foot-2, 220 pound winger could emerge as a top six forward and bring a winning attitude to Vancouver, the Canucks wasted no time in signing Samuelsson to a three-year contract on July 3, just two days after he became eligible for free agency.
Samuelsson is proving that the Canucks quick decision to bring him out West was not made in haste. He is delivering as advertised. In 47 games, he has scored 15 goals and 16 assists and is plus-6.
"Everything that I thought he was supposed to do for this team, he is doing," teammate Ryan Kesler said. "Mikael is a good top six forward that generates a lot of shots and has a good shot to score goals. He is very good on the power play. Mikael doesn't say too much in the (dressing) room, but does his talking on the ice. He is a proven winner at this level and he knows what it takes. He has won the Stanley Cup."
As in Detroit, the Canucks have not put pressure on Samuelsson to lead the team in offense.
"No, not at all," Samuelsson said. "I expect that from myself. And I hope that I can continue to do that but they haven't said anything like that but have asked me to just go out and play my game. That's what I like to hear. As long as I have confidence I know that I can do a lot out there."
In addition to his contributions on the score sheet, Samuelsson brings a sense of calm to the team, something he witnessed consistently during his four years in Detroit. His new teammates value that special quality.
"It's great to have him on our team," Vancouver forward Ryan Johnson said. "He has a very calm, confident way about him which rubs off on a lot of players. Mikael works hard and spends a lot of time on his game. It's great for the younger players to be around a guy like that. He is a competitor and he has won the Stanley Cup. It's important to have a guy that has been there, has played in the big games and has played well in the big games."
"Michal has been extremely consistent for us," agreed defenseman Kevin Bieksa. "He brings a winning attitude and has that experience and leadership qualities that a lot of guys look up to. Whether it be during plane rides or practices, there are guys who are constantly picking his brain about the Stanley Cup run that they had in Detroit and then losing last year in the finals. He is just a bundle of knowledge that everybody tries to extract."
"Absolutely," Bieksa said. "Michal is a calming influence both on and off the ice. On the ice he is very good at settling the puck down, holding it and having poise with the puck and making a play. Off the ice he is a great teammate, always joking around and constantly bantering with somebody. He sits across from me on the plane so we kind of go back and forth with the chirping. He is a lot of fun."
He is not much fun for opposing players, as Bieksa learned prior to the current season. Samuelsson is a tremendous physical specimen whose sturdy ice presence is fuelled by a powerful lower body that resembles the physique of an international soccer star.
"He's got the biggest calves in the league," said Bieksa. "He is very strong. I remember when I used to play against him and we would battle all the time. I used to hate playing against him. He would never back down. You can learn a lot from his example."
One young player who is learning from the seasoned veteran is forward Mason Raymond, whose own confidence has soared during his pivotal third year in the league.
"Part of being a pro is being good every night and not having days off," said the speedy Raymond, who has already set a single-season goal-scoring mark with half the schedule still left to play. "Consistency is something I really try to focus on and of course playing hard every shift. There are a lot of guys I can learn from on this team. Michal is a guy that has won the Cup and he knows what it takes. The more years you play in the league the more experience you get and you acquire a feel for what's going to happen out there. But any questions you have you ask. You are trying to get better yourself every day and learn the tricks of the trade. I am always trying to get better and improve in any area that I can."
Is the Mikael Samuelsson experiment as a top line player working?
The last word on the subject is reserved for coach Alain Vigneault, who has tested different line combinations all season in Vancouver.
"Considering our forward situation and all of the different people I have asked him to play with so far, Mikael has done extremely well," Vigneault said. "He is on the score sheet quite a bit and on most nights has been one of our better forwards."
One who figures to be even better as he has something to prove to Sweden.