It never ceases to amaze me the way superior athletes show us different glimpses of themselves and their incomparable skills day after day.
On one play, it might be a dazzling move that pulls you out of your seat. The next time it might be a show of speed or strength. It could be a shot, a pass, or the ability to stickhandle around a couple of defenders to gain time and space for a teammate.
Recently, several members of the Vancouver Canucks acknowledged all of those skills when talking about captain Markus Naslund. But it was another talent that was overheard inside the team’s dressing room that took center stage.
“We had a bad flight after our game in Edmonton (Oct. 20),” goaltender Curtis Sanford said of not arriving in Minnesota for a game the next night until 4 a.m. “This would have been a perfect time to use excuses like we were too tired, jet lag, whatever. But from the moment we stepped on the ice that night, Markus just willed us to a different level with his performance.
“He scored three goals, but he also pulled everyone along with him at a level higher than we had been playing, even though we were 5-0-2 in our previous seven games. You hear stories about great leaders ... Mark Messier ... Steve Yzerman ... Scott Stevens. For me, this was especially special because it was my turn to be in goal.”
The six goals in four games that Naslund had scored and the confidence and energy he seems to be showing on the ice in a 10-game stretch since coach Alain Vigneault put Naslund on the team’s top line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin
is just one of those glimpses of greatness we’ve seen from the 34-year-old winger from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.
“The way Markus is shooting ... quickly and with confidence ... is what I grew up in Ornskoldsvik idolizing and trying to duplicate,” said Daniel Sedin
, smiling widely. “Since all of that success he had on the line with Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, I just think he lost a little of that natural confidence he had going for him for so long.
“Seeing him fire the puck and dance on his skates the way he has in the last few weeks, it’s vintage Markus Naslund.”
“How do you stop a guy like that?” defenseman Willie Mitchell said. “I remember trying to stop him when I was in Minnesota and Dallas. What makes him so good is that you cannot read and anticipate what he’s going to do. He’s so good with the puck, he doesn’t tip off whether he’s going to shoot or pass – and the way he gets off his shot so quickly that it catches defensemen and goaltenders off guard.”
When you’re dealing with a player as smart as Naslund, there might be a short learning process involved. But in the end, Naslund is going to learn that maybe he doesn’t have to carry the puck as much as he did when he, Bertuzzi and Morrison were scoring well over 100 goals combined as a line and Naslund was netting 40-plus goals in 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03.
With the Sedins, Naslund has learned that he can be even more dangerous by disappearing for seconds and magically popping up in open areas on the ice where he can get the puck with milliseconds to shoot or tip in a well-placed pass.
The six goals and two assists in a four-game stretch can be compared to Naslund scoring his previous six goals in a 32-game stretch dating back to last season. But to say that he is now scoring like people never thought he would again is unfair.
“I’m an offensive player, plain and simple,” Naslund said. “I never doubted my scoring touch or my skills or anything like that. Maybe I became dependent on Bert and Brendan. But ...”
It was at that point that I reminded him of his comments following a second-round playoff loss to the Anaheim Ducks last spring, in which he vilified himself for a large part of the team’s inability to get goals – the Canucks had 13 goals in beating Dallas in six games in the first round, but had only eight goals in five games against Anaheim – while goaltender Roberto Luongo
was standing on his head making saves for the team.
“I remember how I felt I let the team down,” Naslund continued. “The 24 goals I scored last season was the lowest I’ve had in a long time (since 1997-98). If we had averaged three goals a game in the playoffs, I’m convinced it would have been us instead of the Ducks playing for the Stanley Cup with the kind of goaltender Roberto gave us.
“I said it then and thought about it all summer, that I wanted to take my game to the next level. I came to camp with more confidence ... and I’ve been telling myself and retelling myself that I should shoot more. To me, that’s a change I can control.”
From a team standpoint, Canucks GM Dave Nonis had no problem with Naslund’s performance, then ... or now.
“Markus has always been too hard on himself,” Nonis said. “We have never been unhappy with his game. In fact, just the opposite. We were more than thrilled with his play, going from a minus-19 in 2005-06 to a plus player (plus-3) last season.
“Can he score more? Yes. But Markus cares about his teammates, he leads them – and that’s just fine with me.”
Leader. Captain. Glimpses of greatness.
“I’ve never asked Markus to be the player he was before,” Vigneault admitted. “I brought in a more defensive system and he’s done everything I asked of him. To this coach, it’s more about present and future than the past.”
Still, that 25-foot wrist shot that was wired like a vintage Markus Naslund shot to complete his hat trick in Minnesota certainly has improved Naslund’s confidence level.
“Hockey is so much mental ... feeling good, feeling comfortable and confident,” he said. “I’ve heard the critics who say I can’t be the same Markus Naslund who scored 48 goals (in 2002-03). But you know something? I saw Teemu Selanne come back to get 40 or more goals the last two seasons. I’ve seen Daniel Alfredsson continue to score goals at an elite level, and he’s older than me. I just don’t think you lose it over a summer or over a couple of years.”
With that kind of confidence, Vancouver fans can look for more of those defense-paralyzing vintage wrist shots from Markus Naslund. And other glimpses of greatness.