Where are they now? The naysayers. The cynics. The detractors who alleged that the best days of Markus Naslund
's career were behind him. Wherever they are, it's high time to reconsider. Naslund is back.
"Ah ha, that's the truth," laughs former Canucks assistant coach Jack McIlhargey, now a member of the Philadelphia Flyers' coaching staff. "I would never count Markus out. He's a very good player who works hard on his game. He may have had a bit of a dry spell there, but I don't think there's any team that has played against him this year thinking that his game is gone. He can score and he is back with Henrik and Daniel Sedin. That line is clicking."
The fact that the Sedins are playing together in Vancouver is a story in itself. It took the creative efforts of former Vancouver General Manager Brian Burke at the 1999 Entry Draft to land the Sedins second and third overall and thereby achieve one of the most difficult tasks in hockey, securing the services of two top-six forwards in a single draft.
"Do you know how difficult that is to do?" asks San Jose Sharks chief scout Tim Burke. "Look back in history and see how many teams actually got two top-six forwards in one draft. That's hard to do. We will never know if one of the Sedin twins went to one team and one to another what would have happened. They still would have been good players, but it was a foregone conclusion with a lot of people at the draft that you had to get them together. I thought it was a gutsy move."
The twins have played together since they were 8 years old in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, and seem to know instinctively what each will do in the offensive zone.
"That's because they are twins," says Christoph Schubert of the Ottawa Senators. "They were great together over in Sweden, but they've raised their level of play every year since they came over here. It's unbelievable what they sometimes do on the ice, especially on the power play. The Sedin twins have their own set plays and they do things you've rarely seen before such as slapping the puck right into the slot and then tipping it in. They've created their own style and that's what's great about the new NHL. It's fun. It's exciting. You can try some unusual plays and sometimes it actually works."
When most hockey observers think of the great Swedes in the game, certain names instinctively come to mind -- Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin -- but this season the Sedin twins are moving into the upper echelon of Scandinavian stars.
"I think so," says McIlhargey, who coached the twins during their first five seasons in Vancouver. "Sometimes players out West don't get the same coverage as players in the East, but Daniel and Henrik Sedin are great players. And they are both improving every year."
How are they different?
"It was tough for me as their coach for so many years to even tell them apart," McIlhargey said. "And there's not too much difference in the play of those two guys. It's amazing watching them on the ice as they know where each guy is at any given time. They know each other so well it's uncanny. Being identical twins, they have it even more than other great duos. They just know.
"Daniel is a good finisher, but Henrik is too," McIlhargey said. "Henrik just doesn't shoot as much. Henrik has a good shot and he can score, but he is definitely more of a passer."
The Sedins strike terror into opposing defenses and are aided and abetted by their team captain. While Naslund is one of the most prolific goal scorers in recent NHL history, his emergence as an elite NHL player did not come easy. In fact it was a downright struggle.
After being chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round (16th overall) of the 1991 Entry Draft, Naslund led MoDo of the Swedish Elite League with 22 goals and 39 points in the 1991-92 season and followed up the next season by leading all scorers in the World Junior Tournament with 13 goals, 11 assists and 24 points. His 13 goals were a record for most goals in tournament play, and his ability to dominate impressed all observers who turned out to watch his more heralded linemate, Peter Forsberg.
Expectations were justifiably high when the young sensation joined the Penguins for the 1993-94 season, but Naslund never got his game together in Pittsburgh. He lacked confidence and was shuttled between the parent club and their minor-league affiliate in Cleveland for three unspectacular seasons before he was dealt to the Canucks on March 20, 1996 for Alex Stojanov.
The change in venue suited Naslund. The Canucks showed patience and allowed Naslund time to hone his skills in the North American game. Naslund put in two solid, if unspectacular, seasons with the Canucks, but the big payoff came in 1998-99 when he led the Canucks in goals (36), points (66), shots on goal (205) and shooting percentage (17.6). He has been the team's offensive catalyst ever since.
One of the top dozen players in the League at finding openings in the defensive zone, Naslund has excellent vision and is very strong on the puck. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound winger is not a punishing hitter, but doesn't shy away from physical play in the corners and along the boards, where his anticipation and wiry toughness make him a constant threat.
"Skill was never an issue with Markus," says Canucks GM David Nonis. "Development was an issue, but he came over here early and a lot was expected from him. I find that it takes some players who come over from Europe a little more time (to adjust), but when it comes to ability, Markus Naslund has a ton of it. He is also a better two-way player than he gets credit for. This is a guy you can rely on in the last minute of the game."
The same can be said for the Sedins. While Henrik excels in his defensive play, Daniel shows a defensive awareness to rival most of the League's marksmen. But the first order of business with the Sedin twins is to put points on the board. In that regard, it doesn't hurt when you're riding shotgun with one of the most lethal offensive weapons in the game.