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Franzen a pleasant surprise for Red Wings

by Larry Wigge / Detroit Red Wings
Johan Franzen is Detroit's biggest forward measuring 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 220 pounds. Franzen highlights
Sometimes the best thing about an unpleasant first impression is the pleasant surprise when you find out you were wrong.

Exhibit A is Johan Franzen of the Red Wings, whose nickname is Mule – given to him by long-time captain Steve Yzerman because the Vetlanda, Sweden, native is a big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), hard-working, productive player.

When I asked coach Mike Babcock for his first impression of the 28-year-old forward a short time ago, he said, "I remember looking at him as a third-line guy. You know, that big center who could do a good job defensively with his big body, leaning on some of the other big centers in the West. ... Then coming into this year I remember telling (GM) Kenny Holland that I had the impression that Mule was going to score a little more than I first thought. But when he started this season slowly, I went back to my original observation. ... Now I realize how smart he is. He's gotten quicker by watching our skill guys and he's gained an edge by watching a guy like Tomas Holmstrom. You don't find many players 6-3, 200-plus pounds who can do the things he can offensively and defensively."

Don't be concerned about the inconsistent scouting views. The Red Wings scouting staff has proven time after time how they can see things in players at a young age that have panned out on the ice at the NHL level, regardless of the first impression. And Babcock can be excused for his thoughts on Franzen coming into this season because of the fact that Franzen injured his knee in the second game of the season, missed the next 10 games and took a while to regain his touch and feel around the net.

Most of Detroit's success at the draft table comes back to the character of a player – and in this case, Franzen is one of those intuitive, stubborn-as-a-mule players who refuse to stop at Point A in his development when Point B or C could be much more exciting.

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Game 1:  April 10 @ Detroit
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Game 2:  April 12 @ Detroit
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"I guess stubborn is a good word," Franzen said when he began a late-season offensive roll that included 15 goals in a 15-game stretch in March and April, as well as a club record six game-winning goals in March. Scoring 24 of his 27 goals since Dec. 15 represented more goals than the 22 he scored (12 and 10) in his first two NHL seasons. "I love playing this game. Besides, I've seen the alternative ... and I hated it."

Whoa, big fella. Alternative?

"Yeah," he continued. "I was a real late bloomer. Didn't start playing hockey at anything other than 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, wouldn't you?

"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."

All that would be incentive enough to take the mule by the horns – excuse the poetic license – and work harder at your trade.

"I figured I could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League,” he said. “Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when I got a call from (Wings director of European scouting) Hakan Andersson to tell me that Detroit had picked me in the draft. 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."

Every year when players get ready to step up the energy and begin the playoffs, there are a few intriguing players who can make more than just a little impact when the checking gets tighter and tighter. I'm betting that, even though most of the damage Franzen did offensively came while Holmstrom and Dan Cleary were out with injuries, that this big body with a smile on his face is ready to play on the edge and be an impact player for the Red Wings in this playoff run.

Babcock laughed when someone wondered if he would go back to being that big-body center to match up against Nashville's Jason Arnott in the first round or San Jose's Joe Thornton or Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf as the playoffs continue, rather than use him on one of the team's top two scoring lines.

"Ideally he's just improving as a hockey player with his size, with his strength, with his courage, with his ability to hang onto the puck and shoot the puck," Babcock said. "I was giving him a hard time today. I told him he was starting to pass the puck too much for my liking. I told him I don't need him passing the puck, I need him shooting it."

"I wouldn't worry about Johan getting his scoring opportunities, whatever line he plays on," Lidstrom said. "He's shown us he can score on the rush with his skills and size and that hand-to-eye skill he has. But what he's shown us in front of the net, tipping shots, blocking out the vision of the opposing goalie like Homer. To me, paying the price to go to those heavy traffic areas with confidence tells me he's going to succeed no matter who he's playing with."

Intuitive? Stubborn? Smart?

Per Gunnar and Annica Franzen didn't raise a slow-to-develop son. PG was a forward back home – still is, in fact, playing once a week. Annica is a social worker. Johan obviously got his love of hockey and ability to watch, learn and interact with people from his parents.

When I was in Sweden I used my skill more. But halfway through my first training camp here, I quickly saw I was overmatched by the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg ... everyone was skilled. I realized I would have to change my game, that the only way to get a spot on this team was to play more physically, play with an edge, like Homer and Dan Cleary. - Johan Franzen
What the Red Wings were asking Johan, however, was something very hard. They wanted Franzen to change his game, to play with more size, more of an edge. But the Mule was smart enough to see what changes needed to be made for himself after just one training camp in Detroit.

"When I was in Sweden I used my skill more," he said, laughing. "But halfway through my first training camp here, I quickly saw I was overmatched by the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg ... everyone was skilled. I realized I would have to change my game, that the only way to get a spot on this team was to play more physically, play with an edge, like Homer and Dan Cleary."

Franzen also laughs at how important Babcock was to his development ... with little things he did. Little signs the Mule picked up on right away, like how he had to improve his grittiness by putting him on a line with players like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby.

"My first training camp he put me out there a lot with Darren Helm, who skates like the wind," Franzen said. "It was coach's way to tell me that I had to improve my speed and quickness. So last summer when I went back home I did a lot of running ... quick sprints ... to improve my speed."

For a quiet, intuitive guy like Franzen, finding the identity he now has was hard at first. He's not edgy or gruff off the ice. Except when his girlfriend wonders why he's always in front of the TV watching other teams and other players play.

"I like movies ... and my girlfriend's OK with that," Franzen said. "But when I tell her I'm watching other teams and other players play, hoping to pick up a little something that I might be able to use in my game to make me better, well, she shakes her head. She hates it. I don't think she believes me. But that's my excuse ... and I'm sticking to it."

With what you've already learned about hulking Johan Franzen, I think you'll agree that there might actually be something to his story to his girlfriend based on how much he's watched, learned and changed his game to make him better.

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