Chalk up another successful draft-day heist for the tireless and always industrious scouting department of the Detroit Red Wings
Why? Because towering defenseman Jonathan Ericsson
, the final pick (No. 291) of the 2002 Entry Draft, is here to stay. And to think, the experts label the last selection in the draft, "Mr. Irrelevant."
Not only has Ericsson earned the praises of his coaching staff and teammates, but Columbus Blue Jackets
coach Ken Hitchcock.
"He's huge and he reminds me of Vladimir Malakhov
in the way he skates and plays," Hitchcock said. "He has the body language that Vladdie had with his mobility and ability to be calm with the puck and get up the ice. He doesn't go fast, but still goes by people and has really stabilized their blue line."
After earning a full-time slot in April after fellow Swede Andreas Lilja
suffered a concussion Feb. 28, Ericsson has become a regular alongside Brett Lebda
while becoming a critical component to the team's penalty-killing unit during its four-game series victory against the Blue Jackets in the Western Conference Quarterfinal.
He's becoming the next great player on a long list of draft-day steals for the Wings, including Tomas Holmstrom
(257th overall in 1994), Pavel Datsyuk
(171st '98), Henrik Zetterberg
(210th in '99), Niklas Kronwall
(29th in 2000), Jiri Hudler
(58th in '02), Valtteri Filppula
(95th in '02) and Johan Franzen
(97th in '04). And really, the only reason why the 6-foot-4, 206-pound Ericsson hasn't already reached this status in his career is the fact he's just now earning his opportunity -- at the age of 25.
"Jon's been a pretty good player for a number of years, but we just chose not to have him on the team," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "When you watch him play, he's a big talented guy who knows how to play the game. He's mature beyond his years and he's been very effective for us. With the loss of Lils (Lilja), we needed another guy to step up and solidify our defense and he has done that."
You get the feeling Babcock must feel like a kid in a candy store at times, having so many talented players at his disposal, yet scanty opportunity to get them on varsity.
"For me, I didn't know what the draft was at that time (in 2002) so I was just happy to get over there and get a chance," Ericsson said. "Then they had a lot of faith and confidence in me and gave me a chance so I'm so happy about that. I watch (Nick) Lidstrom a lot, but (Niklas) Kronwall has taken care of me, really. I stayed at his home for a couple of months when I first came over but there are a lot of players on this roster you can look up to as a youngster."
Lidstrom, Detroit's captain, admits Ericsson is performing beyond his years.
"He's able to hang on to the puck and doesn't throw it away because he's trying to make a good pass every time," Lidstrom said. "He's good at using his size because he likes to take advantage and knows how to play the body. He's been playing very well defensively in these playoffs."
In four postseason games, Ericsson has a goal and plus-2 rating while averaging a little more than 16 minutes each game. His goal in Game 1 of the series against Columbus snapped a 1-1 tie in the second period and provided the impetus in a 4-1 victory.
His defensive partner, Lebda, remembers the goal well for all the wrong reasons.
"The kid is like 7-foot-7; I couldn't even reach the top of his helmet when he scored," the 5-foot-9 Lebda said. "But what's not to like about him? He's poised for a young guy. He's an older rookie and when he gets the puck he doesn't rush things or throw it away and makes good outlet passes. That's something we need on this team because our 'D' needs to get the puck to our forwards."
Ericsson played eight games with the Wings in 2007-08 and scored once before starring 19 games this year, chipping in a goal and three assists. He really impressed in his final campaign with the Wings' American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids in 2006-07, notching 5 goals, 29 points, 102 penalty minutes and a plus-5 rating.
Ericsson, often referred to as "Johnny," "Big E" and even the "Swedish James Bond," is enjoying his initial tour of duty in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I'd compare the playoffs to the last five minutes of a regular-season game," he said. "That's how it is for 60 minutes in the playoffs. But I'm not trying to be too physical out there but I just want to keep them to the outside. You don't want to go too hard or run them too hard because if they get a step on you, they'll take advantage, so you have to keep them to the outside and not allow them to use their talents."
If Ericsson's a rookie, he certainly doesn't sound like one. Despite not gaining any ice time during the team's Stanley Cup run last spring, Ericsson was a healthy scratch during the playoffs and learned plenty.
"I think as a first-year player, sometimes you get a little nervous and are not really sure what to do with the puck in some situations," Kronwall told NHL.com. "But Jon is penalty killing and playing pretty much in all situations out there and doing a great job of keeping it simple for himself and taking charge every time he's out on the ice. He's very calm with the puck when he's out there and we're very happy to have him."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.