-- There is a perception in the Detroit Red Wings
dressing room that Johan Franzen
still might not realize how good he could be.
The 28-year-old native of Landsbro, Sweden, kind of shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't know how to answer that question.
"Do you mean do I realize I might not be that guy who gets one goal ever 10 or 15 games anymore?" laughs the 6-foot-3, 220-pound power forward with speed and the touch of a gifted football tight end. "Well, yeah. I'm pretty confident now. I guess I go out there with the mindset that I can do this, because I have proven I can. Amazing, isn't it?"
"I thought it was the best sign in the game for us," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, when Franzen used his unique combination of size and speed to turn Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi
inside-out and then lift the puck high into the net from a near-impossible angle in tight on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
late in the second period of Game 3 to give the Red Wings life in a game they lost 3-2. "'The Mule' was back. He was dominant. We're excited to see that."
The importance wasn't lost on Babcock that this was just the second game back in the lineup for Franzen and he wound up with a game-high six shots, two hits and one blocked shot after he missed six games because of concussion-like symptoms that kept him out since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Dallas.
"He's a good, good player. We're excited to see that. And he'll be feeling good about himself," Babcock added. "It's amazing how much energy you can get from scoring a goal."
More important, that goal gave Johan a League-leading 13 goals in 13 playoff games and 28 goals in 29 games since March 2 – an outrageous stretch for a guy who had just 22 goals over 149 games in his first two NHL seasons. Franzen surged when he began to get key minutes while power forwards Tomas Holmstrom
and Dan Cleary
were both out of the Detroit lineup.
"I try that move in practice almost every day," Franzen said, laughing, before he added, "and I never hit the net."
But that was the old Mule – the one-goal-in-10-or-15-games Mule, although Franzen went scoreless in Detroit's 2-1 Game 4 victory Saturday night. He still used his big body to make an impact on several occasions.
Before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, players in the Detroit dressing room were still talking about Franzen.
"He's going to be the best power forward in the world," teammate Dan Cleary
raved. "He didn't realize how big and strong and talented he was. Now he does. He's got hands that are so strong ... only they're capable of this soft skill, if you know what I mean."
And Cleary wasn't finished.
"He can play on any line and in any situation," Cleary continued. "He's got that net presence that not too many can handle because it's such a heavy traffic area where life can be difficult. I don't like to compare players, but he's faster than John LeClair
was. If he gets mad he can be like Keith Tkachuk
, only faster.
"All I know is this isn't a one-time thing for Johan. This is just the beginning."
Veteran center Kris Draper
said he's seen enough in his three Stanley Cup seasons in Detroit to know when he's looking at someone pretty special.
"I played with a bunch of Hall of Famers -- Stevie Y (Yzerman), Brendan Shanahan
, Brett Hull
-- what the Mule did was unbelievable," Draper said. "But in some ways it's not surprising because he's working hard at both ends of the rink and he's getting tough goals, going to those areas where you have to score at this time of year."
"His goal was obviously a great goal," Penguins forward Maxime Talbot
admitted. "You don't see Rob get beat too often."
Drafted at the age of 24 after being passed over six times by NHL scouts, never having scored more than 12 goals in any season before this one, he has emerged in the final month of the regular season and the two playoff months as the most dangerous of Detroit's weapons.
"People keep telling me buy a lottery ticket," Franzen laughed. "I just want to keep going, I just want to win this thing.
"I know this is something special that's happening to me, because any other time I'd miss a game or two and I'd come back and something didn't work – my hands, my legs, something. This time, I felt like I hadn't missed a beat. Everything was the same. No rust."
When Franzen was sidelined with headaches, he had scored goals in five straight games, tying a team record shared by legends Gordie Howe
and Ted Lindsay
. Howe accomplished the feat in 1949 and repeated it in 1964, and Lindsay pulled it off in 1952.
Franzen had nine goals in the four-game sweep of the Colorado Avalanche
, setting another franchise record for goals in a playoff series originally held by Howe, who had eight goals in a seven-game series back in 1949. Franzen also became the first player to get two hat tricks in the same series since Edmonton's Hall of Famer Jari Kurri
tricked Chicago twice 23 years ago.
There are those in Hockeytown trying to compare Franzen's burst onto the scene with another Swedish power forward some 10 years ago. But Holmstrom, known for his infamous tactics of screening goalies and tipping in shots and scoring on rebounds, never had the speed and skills that Franzen does.
Holmstrom broke through for the Red Wings when they won the Stanley Cup in 1998, scoring seven goals and 19 points. The seven goals were two more than Homer had in 57 regular-season games.
But this late bloomer never had a hint that a career in the National Hockey League might beckon him until European scout Hakan Andersson called in June of 2004 to tell him the Red Wings had selected him in the third round, 97th overall, of the NHL Entry Draft.
"I figured I could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League. Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when I got a call from Hakan Andersson to tell me that Detroit had picked me in the draft," Franzen recalled. "I was 25 at the time. I didn't know exactly what it meant, but everyone back home knows about the success of the Red Wings because of Nicklas Lidstrom
, Henrik Zetterberg
, Tomas Holmstrom
and the rest of the players they've picked from Sweden and around the world. So, that made me wonder if I had a chance."
Franzen still wondered what this all meant.
"Yeah," he continued. "I was a real late bloomer. Didn't start playing hockey at anything, other than a lower tier hockey back home, until I was 19. I wasn't drafted by the NHL until I was 25. I'd say that's a late bloomer.
"Back in Landsbro, I had to get a job in the summer. I remember working at a metal factory. I also remember working in a window company. And I hated every minute of it. I guess you could say that was motivation for me to work harder at my hockey career."
And that ... well, it would be incentive enough to take the mule by the horns – excuse the poetic license – and work harder and harder at your trade.
We all know that a mule is a stubborn animal. He sometimes doesn't know his own strength, doesn't always know exactly what he can and can't do.
When long-time Red Wings great Steve Yzerman
quickly put that nickname on Franzen, after Johan came to his first Detroit training camp when he was already 24, Yzerman couldn't have possibly realized how appropriate it was for a power forward with burgeoning skills, size and strength.
"To be honest," Franzen says today, "I didn't know what he meant. But who's going to question Steve Yzerman
The big and stubborn part of that nickname makes sense because of the stubbornness he has in front of and around the net, where a lot of players refuse to tread.
But Franzen looked around the Wings dressing room as a rookie in 2004 and saw the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk
and Henrik Zetterberg
. Heck, everyone.
"That's when I decided to use my size and be more physical," he remembered.
He also worked on his footwork, because Babcock kept putting him out there with players who had much more speed than him.
"Now, I realize how smart he is," Babcock told me. "Look at how much he's worked at his game since he came here in his first training camp in 2004. He's watched and learned. He's gotten quicker by watching our skill guys – and he's gained a physical edge by watching a guy like Tomas Holmstrom
"I'll tell you one thing: You don't find many players 6-3, 200-plus pounds who can do the things he can offensively and defensively."
This stubborn-as-a-Mule performance is simply a great story of perseverance.