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Central: Detroit's Renaissance Man

by Larry Wigge /

Want the real scoop on the Detroit Red Wings? Just ask Kris Draper.

The 36-year-old center always has been refreshingly honest and down to earth. He’s one of those roll-with-the-punches, no-frills guys. Hard worker. Great defensively. But once in a while he gets on a roll and scores goals that even he has trouble explaining.

Like during the recent five-game stretch after Detroit coach Mike Babcock reshuffled the lines after Johan Franzen suffered a knee injury in the Wings’ second game of the season. Draper was moved from right wing back to center and scored goals in five consecutive games to tie for the team lead in goals with the big boys, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom.

"All I’m doing is going to the net and throwing pucks at the net," Draper said, hands in the air and shaking his head when asked to explain the early success that could very well give him a shot at beating his career-high 24 goals accomplished in 2003-04. "I don’t know what else to tell you."

Never underestimate the impact an ultimate checker like Draper can make. The Toronto native may be just 5-foot-9 and about 190 pounds; but when we talk about how players play big, it’s hard to omit Draper from the scenario. After all, he’s been a big part of three Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings.

Don’t let the red hair and freckles fool you. This former third-round pick (62nd overall) of the Winnipeg Jets in the 1989 Entry Draft is a fierce competitor who is as tough in the faceoff circle as he is in the corners and in front of the net defensively. He was a member of the Wings’ famous Grind Line with Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty, formed before Detroit won the 1997 Stanley Cup.

Actually, Draper’s recent success has happened since he was moved back to a Grind Line, at center with Daniel Cleary and old-buddy Maltby. And if you are in the right place defensively, that often puts you in the right place offensively as well, right?

A lot of Draper’s success since he’s come to Detroit has come because of the reality check he had to face on June 30, 1993, when Winnipeg put him on waivers and the Red Wings, on the advice of then-assistant general manager Doug MacLean (who was running Detroit’s American Hockey League team in Adirondack) recommended that $1 was a bargain price for a competitor like Draper.

Boy, was he ever right!

"He’s relentless," McCarty once told me. "No one works harder than Drapes. And if you give him a defensive assignment, he’ll make it like hand-to-hand combat out there. Anything to neutralize the opponent."

"You talk about leaders ... a player who is like a man in motion out there ... that’s Kris Draper," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "He and Kirk Maltby are both really good at reading plays and anticipating where to go and being in lanes. Just watch them killing a penalty or out there in a defensive situation trying to slow down the big guys on the opposition. You’d be amazed how many times the other side is forced to go back and start over because they are so effective in the checking game."

Draper is energetic. He’s quick and dangerous, on offense or defense. He never stops working.

While Draper’s early season offense has reporters in Detroit wondering if General Manager Ken Holland is trying to sign Draper to a new contract since he is on the final year of his current deal; don’t worry. Holland knows the value of his feisty checker-turned-goal scorer.

Checkmate is a strong move to win. Checklist is a litany of the many things that make up a strong leader. But never report that the check is in the mail when you are talking about a hard-working, heart-and-soul player like Draper.

Check-in ... and check-out is one thing, however, that Kris Draper never quite mastered.

There was a smile on Draper’s face as he began to tell the story of his first game in a Red Wings uniform – Jan. 24, 1994.

"I was checking into the Pontchartrain Hotel after being called up from Adirondack," he said. "I remember standing at the counter with my bags, waiting for the clerk to find my name. ‘Oh, yes, Mr. Draper, with the Detroit Red Wings.’ "

He was feeling pretty good, until the clerk added; "‘We have you checking in today ... and checking out tomorrow.’ "

The sound of being in Detroit temporarily only scared Draper for a moment. Then, it charged him up. For the record, he’s been a Wing ever since. A leader and driving force in Detroit.

"And who knows," Draper said, laughing at the irony of going from Winnipeg to a winning franchise like Detroit, "if that dollar was ever even paid?"

You could say this bundle of energy has bucked the trend from his first days with the Red Wings.

Draper no is longer just a single-digit goal scorer. Meanwhile, his versatility and value was on display as he led all players in last spring’s playoffs with a 61.4-percent faceoff efficiency as the Red Wings came within two wins of going to yet another Stanley Cup Final series.

Draper clearly doesn’t need to score goals to make an impact in Detroit. But if you asked him how he suddenly was challenging for the team lead in that category, that’s one thing about hockey this meat-and-potatoes player probably couldn’t explain anyway.

Around the Central Division -- A 2-for-27 stretch on the power play wouldn’t have been called unusual for last season’s St. Louis Blues, who finished next to last in the NHL with a 12.1-percent conversion rate. But that was a stretch of concern for the Blues early this season, especially since management expected more from a team that just shelled out $6 million to acquire Paul Kariya in free agency from Nashville and another $4 million to re-acquire Keith Tkachuk from Atlanta. A hard week of power-play work at practice paid off for coach Andy Murray as his new No. 1 power play -- Brad Boyes and Lee Stempniak on the No. 1 unit with Kariya, Tkachuk and defenseman Christian Backman -- clicked for two extra-man goals in a 3-1 victory at Chicago on Oct. 17. Kariya scored his first goal in a Blues uniform, after getting six assists in his first three games, to start the victory, and Tkachuk put the game out of reach with another man-advantage tally. ... It was the first time since 1997-98 that the Blues had started the season 4-1. ... Losing 15 pounds has helped make Manny Legace a lean, mean goaltending machine for the Blues, as his three straight one-goal performances show. ... Could Henrik Zetterberg now be the best forward Sweden has to offer the NHL? He’s certainly been more productive than Peter Forsberg or Mats Sundin. So it comes down to Zetterberg and Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson -- and we’d all likely take Henrik’s upside, wouldn’t we? After seeing him score in his last seven games last season before a back injury sidelined him from late February until the start of the playoffs, Zetterberg started this season with points in his first six games. That included four multi-point games and a three-point effort in Los Angeles on Oct. 14. For the record, Zetterberg has points in his last 20 home games -- dating back to Dec. 9, 2006. ... Could career checker Michael Peca be the No. 1 center the Columbus Blue Jackets have been looking for? The biggest free-agent acquisition for the Jackets in the offseason ostensibly was signed away from Toronto for his leadership skills and to strengthen Columbus up the middle. On Oct. 17, Peca became the seventh center since training camp to step alongside Rick Nash on the team’s No. 1 line. Result: Nash responded with a goal and assist against Dallas, and new linemate Nikolai Zherdev added two assists -- even if the Blue Jackets lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Stars. Peca did have a 56-point season (27 goals, 29 assists) with Buffalo in 1998-99 and a 60-point season in his first year with the New York Islanders (25, 35) in 2001-02, so the stats could follow steering Nash and Zherdev in Peca’s direction. ... The bigger stories in Columbus are how hard Zherdev has worked to earn a spot on the No. 1 line with five points in his first four games before the two-assist effort against Dallas. That, plus the fall from the No. 1 line of David Vyborny -- one point in the team’s first five games after leading the team in scoring the last two seasons. ... After watching Tomas Vokoun recover from an early-season slump to stand tall in the Florida goal, the Nashville Predators are hoping the same kind of turnaround happens quickly for Vokoun’s replacement as No. 1 netminder in Nashville, Chris Mason. Mason allowed 15 goals in a three-game stretch before he went back in the goal crease at Anaheim Oct. 17. He had opened the season with his ninth career shutout (4-0 against Colorado) and stopped 63 of 64 shots in his first two games. For the record, Mason gave up more than three goals in a game only six times last season -- and only twice did he surrender as many as five. ... The 3-1 loss at Anaheim gave the Predators an 0-10-2 record at Honda Center. ... Alexander Radulov celebrated his transfer to the team’s No. 1 line by assisting on Nashville’s only goal against the Ducks, a tally by defenseman Ryan Suter. After getting 18 goals as a rookie last season, Radulov seemed to be a cinch to replace Kariya on the team’s No. 1 line, with David Legwand and Martin Erat. But it took six games for Radulov to earn that promotion, after he had one goal and two assists in his previous three games. Look for big things from the Legwand-Erat-Radulov line after seeing how many scoring opportunities they created against Anaheim. ... Falling behind 4-0 to St. Louis, 2-0 to Phoenix, 3-1 to Calgary and 1-0 to Anaheim has Predators coach Barry Trotz concerned. ... The battling young Chicago Blackhawks? That’s a good perception of this year’s Hawks after five one-goal games (three wins) to start the season. ... Jonathan Toews is as good as advertised, getting at least one point in his first four NHL games, on one goal and three assists. ... With such a young lineup, the Blackhawks are counting on players like Robert Lang to contribute big-time under pressure. His first two goals came against his former Red Wings teammates -- the first one tying the contest Oct. 6 and setting up a shootout goal by rookie Patrick Kane for the winner, the second one winning the game against Detroit on Oct. 12. Lang also had a pressure goal with just 1.5 seconds left in Dallas on Oct. 13 to send the game into overtime and set the stage for a winner by Jason Williams.

The week ahead -- Columbus faces off against two division rivals this week, playing at Chicago on Oct. 23 and hosting St. Louis two nights later. Those teams were each 4-4 in their eight-game series last season. The Jackets are hoping that David Vyborny can get on track again against the Blackhawks and Blues -- he had two goals and eight assists against Chicago last season and one goal and 10 assists against St. Louis. Chicago’s Martin Havlat had four goals and eight assists against Columbus, but he’s out for another month after the Hawks learned their leading point man from a year ago would not need surgery on his injured shoulder. Against St. Louis, Fredrik Modin was Columbus’ leading sniper with five goals, while Stempniak led the Blues in scoring with one goal and six assists. This could be Fredrik Norrena’s game since the veteran netminder was 3-0-2 with a 1.95 goals-against average against the Blues last season.

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