Gustav Nyquist would have an NHL spot already locked up on most teams.
The speedy Swedish wing, who turned 24 Sept. 1, has a skill set that might make him a top-six forward on a number of teams. He's been an elite scorer at every level but the NHL, and conventional thinking suggests all he needs to score there is an extended opportunity.
The problem is that he's with the Detroit Red Wings, a team with a logjam of forwards, most of whom are veterans. After Detroit general manager Ken Holland signed free agent forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss this summer, then retained veteran Daniel Cleary unexpectedly as training camp started, the picture for Nyquist got a lot foggier.
It's not impossible for him to stay in Detroit to start the season, but it's far from sure.
"In every organization, it's the same thing," coach Mike Babcock said. "You have a number of kids you bring into every [preseason] and everybody talks about how good they are … but they've got to take someone's job. We're in a process right now. We have only eight exhibition games and I'm just watching to see what happens."
After scoring six points (three goals, three assists) in 22 games during the regular season, Nyquist settled into a spot at left wing on Detroit's third line during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Playing with fellow rookies Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner, Nyquist helped the Red Wings upset the Anaheim Ducks in seven games in the first round before pushing the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to seven games in a memorable Western Conference Semifinal.
Nyquist, who scored two goals and had three assists in 14 playoff games, helped the checking line frustrate opposing scorers. He used his skating to hound the puck and took advantage of opportunities to display his impressive offensive skills for Detroit's "Kid Line."
Most important for his development was the confidence boost that came with succeeding at the highest level.
"The further we went, we all got more confident," Nyquist said. "That's the same for me personally. For every game I got, I became more and more comfortable. That's important for a young guy to feel that. We had a good line there."
There's emphasis on the "had" part this season.
Brunner's already gone, trying out with the New Jersey Devils after turning down a couple of contract offers to stay, and there's a chance Nyquist might start out with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. He's caught in Detroit's forwards glut, which includes veterans Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo, not to mention rookie Tomas Tatar, who'd have to be exposed to waivers to be sent to the minors.
Nyquist is the only one who can be sent down without being put on waivers, so it's not a stretch to imagine him in the AHL, where he was leading the league in scoring for the Griffins at the time of his call-up last season. The Red Wings have 17 forwards competing for a maximum of 14 roster spots; according to Capgeek.com, Detroit is also about $5.4 million over the NHL's $64.3 million salary cap.
After signing a two-year, one-way contract this summer that averages $950,000, it's up to Nyquist to make his case for starting in the NHL instead.
"Unfortunately for him, we don't have to put him through waivers to go down [to the AHL]," Holland said. "We want him to be on the team. We want to ice our 14 best forwards, certainly our 12 best, on opening night against Buffalo. With the signing of Alfredsson and the signing of Weiss … Samuelsson's healthy and Bertuzzi's healthy and Tatar can't go down [without waivers], so we have a good competition going on. [Nyquist] has got to force his way into the lineup."
He's well aware of that.
"We have a lot of forwards right now, so you've got to show the coaching staff what you've got out there," Nyquist said. "I'm just in camp trying to earn a spot on the team and get as much ice time as possible. First and foremost [for me] is just earning a spot on the team right now."
Alfredsson, who's expected to play right wing on one of the top two lines, has spent a brief time in camp working in the same group as Nyquist. It's been long enough, however, to see some serious potential from his countryman. Alfredsson picked Markus Naslund as a comparable talent among Swedish players who've starred in the League and said Nyquist might even be a tick faster.
"He's a real speedy guy," Alfredsson said. "He has really good vision, good speed, strong on the puck, and I think he's a guy that could mature and become something really good. He has that potential. He's fun to watch."
Whether that's in Grand Rapids or Detroit is to be determined.