Feb. 15, 2011
by Karen Patterson - griffinshockey.com
A quick glance at the Detroit Red Wings roster shows a talented group of hockey players vying to be the best team in the National Hockey League. A more detailed look reveals that six of the team’s top players all hail from the same Scandinavian country. Swedish imports like Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg have brought talent to the Red Wings that many NHL coaches hope for; Griffins' center Joakim Andersson
hopes that someday soon he will be able to join his fellow countrymen on one of the strongest squads in North America.
Similar to some of his Griffins teammates, Andersson’s road to the AHL was slightly unconventional. As the Red Wings second pick (88th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, Andersson continued to play in Sweden before making his North American debut. His first opportunity to play this side of the pond came during the Griffins’ 2008-09 playoff run, where he tallied a goal and two assists during 10 appearances – a series of games Grand Rapids was not even expecting him to play in.
“When he came over here the first year, he was just supposed to be introduced to the systems and practices,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “He wasn’t scheduled to play at all. Then we lost five or six guys to injury and didn’t have enough players.”
The Griffins approached Andersson, asking if he’d be interested in filling a gap on the roster. Frolunda, the Swedish Elite League team for which Andersson played 49 games that year, expressed concern and preferred that Andersson not suit up, knowing he would be returning for another season in 2009-10. Seizing the opportunity at hand, Andersson told Fraser that he was willing to play.
“And he wasn’t just good,” Fraser said. “He was one of our best players and did a terrific job.”
After signing a three-year entry-level contract with Detroit last April, Andersson transitioned over to the AHL full time this season. However, the road has not been without a few bumps.
“It’s been tougher than I thought, actually,” Andersson said. “[Two years ago] I did pretty well and so did the team, so I thought it’d be easier to come here.”
Switching from 50 games a season to 80 has meant more games during the week as well as more hours traveling, an adjustment that Andersson didn’t foresee as problematic. Additionally, North American rinks are also smaller than those in the European leagues, creating a faster, more physical game.
“I have been struggling on the ice a little bit. You don’t have as much time here [with the puck], so I’ve got to find a way to get quicker and still have confidence to keep the puck,” Andersson said. “Guys are more aggressive and it’s tighter, with more hits. That takes energy out of you three nights in a row.”
While Andersson sees room for improvement in his game, his commitment has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“He’s a very, very good defensive player,” Fraser said. “Nothing bothers him on the physical side of the game. He’s good on draws, a strong penalty killer and blocks shots. He’s just got to develop a little better touch around the net and when he does that, he’ll be a complete player.”
Andersson’s strong defensive play stems from his size. At 6-foot-2, he stands as the second tallest forward on the Griffins’ roster, while his 205-pound frame is tied for the second-largest among the same group.
Like the Swedish players currently with Detroit, Andersson hopes to make his mark on the storied franchise in the future. While players like Zetterberg and Johan Franzen left the Swedish circuit before Andersson had the chance to share ice with them, the 22-year-old center relishes any future opportunities he may have.
“The Red Wings are big in Sweden because of all the Swedes who are playing there and doing so well,” Andersson shared. “I watch a lot of the Red Wings games and try to pick up on things they do. Zetterberg is the most rounded player in the league, probably; I’m not going to be as good as him, but I try to play the same type of game.”
Despite being his first season in North America, Andersson has appeared in all but one Griffins’ contest and has found ways to contribute. Through 53 appearances, he has tallied 11 points (4-7—11) and is a mere minus-5.
“He went through some stretches this season where he wasn’t getting a ton of scoring chances,” Fraser said. “Then he had a really good stretch where he put up a lot of points. He’s got to work on the offensive side of things in this last stretch here until the end of the season.”
Andersson recognizes that he hasn’t been as productive as he hoped coming from a highly competitive league in Sweden.
“I have to find my game,” he said. “I maybe haven’t shown that I’m pretty good with the puck, but I still want to have those opportunities to make plays and be hard to play against.”
With less than thirty games remaining, Fraser sees both the strengths of Andersson’s game and the areas for improvement.
“He’s a very good player. This has been a good first year for him to get a taste of the league and learn what he has to do to be successful over here,” Fraser shared. “He does all the little things very well, and for a young player that’s not very common. It’s tough to step in and be successful right away; you kind of have to feel your way along and learn the league. That’s what Andy’s doing and I think he’ll have a real bright future with Detroit.”