DETROIT – For months, Henrik Zetterberg heard about this up-and-coming fellow Swede, whom the Red Wings picked up in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.
“I heard something about him the last two years when I talked to Hakan Andersson, the scout in Sweden, who said he’s been good,” Zetterberg said. “Two years ago, he played with Magnus Johansson in Linköping. I know him very well and he said that ‘You guys have a good guy coming into the system here soon.’ ”
The high praise from the Red Wings’ European scout, along with a former NHL defenseman, is good enough for Zetterberg, who has had the chance to see for himself what 21-year-old Mattias Bäckman brings to the table.
An offensive-minded defenseman, who is experiencing his first full season in North America, Bäckman appears to be the latest player to join the ranks of young, gifted defensemen now in the Red Wings’ pipeline.
In a short time, Zetterberg has been impressed by the 6-foot-2 defenseman, specifically his effortless skating and his ability to distribute the puck under duress.
“He sees the ice very well and obviously he’s young and has to put some muscles on him, but that will come,” Zetterberg said. “This year will be a big year for him with just playing over here and getting used to the ice surface.”
Even with four young defensemen – Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko, Ryan Sproul and Nick Jensen – ahead of him on the minor-league depth chart, Zetterberg said he wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Bäckman makes his NHL debut this season.
Bäckman came to Michigan last spring and played 12 games with AHL Grand Rapids, including 10 playoff games. He hopes that experience will help him assimilate quicker to his Griffins’ teammates this season.
Besides the smaller ice surfaces in North American rinks, the biggest differences for Bäckman has been picking up the Red Wings’ system and the language. Fortunately, the organization is crawling with Swedes like Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall, Gustav Nyquist, Jonas Gustavsson, Joakim Andersson and Johan Franzen willing to indoctrinate him in the Wings’ ways.
“I feel more comfortable at the rink every day,” Bäckman said. “Of course, with a lot of Swedes here they can help me a lot with the new language and everything, show me around and make me feel more comfortable. So that helps me a lot.”
Bäckman has played the past three seasons in the Swedish Elite League where he produced nine goals, 55 points and a plus-37 rating in 148 regular-season games.
Many in Detroit’s organization feel Bäckman has the potential to be part of the Wings’ next wave of stellar NHL blue liners.
“He’s a good young player,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He needs to spend another year in the minors and get stronger and get used to the game a little bit. I think the guys that are pushing are Ouellet and Marchenko. Jensen’s been a real surprise. Sproul’s a good player. I thought there was four D, there’s actually five of them looking to play in the league.”
Jensen scored the winning goal in Monday’s preseason victory over Toronto, while Ouellet, Marchenko and Sproul all picked up an assist.
Their performances Monday serve as motivation, Bäckman said.
“I can learn from them too,” he said. “I get more prepared with a fighting spirit after seeing them play good.”
Bäckman is expected to play in his third preseason game when the Red Wings finish the home portion of their exhibition season Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
Injuries are bound to happen during the season, and Ouellet, Marchenko and Sproul are the likely candidates to be called up. But it’s good to have depth, even in the minor-league system, and that’s what the Red Wings hope they have with the development of Jenson and Bäckman.
“We want some push from the bottom,” Babcock said. “We think in Marchenko and Ouellet and Sproul and Jensen and Bäckman that we have that.”
THE OLD GUY: Brendan Smith
Defense - DET
Goals: 5 | Assists: 14 | Pts: 19
Shots: 90 | +/-: -2
laughed when he was asked about having the most NHL seniority among the Red Wings’ defensive corps in Monday night’s exhibition game.
“I like having us pushed against the walk and having to lead the charge,” Smith said. “I think I play my best hockey when I need to step up and help the team and take a bigger role. I feel that some of my best games are when I have had to do that.”
The 25-year-old Smith logged nearly 26 minutes of ice time in the 3-0 win over the Maple Leafs, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed by his coach.
“I thought Smitty was the best defenseman on the ice last night, bar none, on both teams, which is great,” Babcock said. “I’ve never been able to say that about Smitty in an NHL game ever. A lot of NHL players played, I thought Smitty was great.”
Center - DET
Goals: 12 | Assists: 8 | Pts: 20
Shots: 83 | +/-: 2
The Red Wings are hoping Darren Helm
(groin) and Gustav Nyquist
(right knee) will get a chance to play in one of the last three preseason games before the start of the regular season, which is Oct. 9.
Helm skated for the second straight day. Nyquist returned to the ice for the first time since his knee-on-knee hit late in Saturday’s game against Boston.
Babcock said he would take a wait-and-see approach to whether or not the two forwards play against the Penguins Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena.
“Nyquie was feeling not bad today,” Babcock said. “I didn’t talk to Helmer about it. He said he’s been feeling better.”
Ericsson (groin/hip flexor) did not practice for the second day in a row.
“E had all his equipment,” Babcock said. “I saw him out there and the next think I know he was gone.”
GOALIE ROTATION: Each of the Wings’ NHL goalies will get a start in the final three preseason games. Babcock said Jimmy Howard will play Wednesday, Gustavsson will play Friday in Toronto, and Petr Mrazek will get the start Saturday in Boston.