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02/20/2005 7:49 AM - Niklas Kronwall’s play this season has people buzzing about his future as a Detroit Red Wings defenseman

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Hockey fans everywhere have bemoaned the absence of the NHL this season, but their loss has been the gain of Grand Rapids in at least one respect: Niklas Kronwall.

Griffins fans have been fortunate to get another season to watch the star in the making.

Nobody’s saying it directly, but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to envision him as the next Nick Lidstrom, the bedrock of the blueline, a solid, dependable defensive player with outstanding offensive skills, who thrives while playing against the other teams’ top lines.

Coach after coach, player after player, sings the praises of the quiet, almost shy Swede, a player whose dedication and commitment to the game underscores his desire to make the most of his considerable talent and skills.

“He’s a guy that we think is going to be on our team for a long, long time,” says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s very competitive. He comes to work every day. He’s a pro.”

Holland likes his mobility, his ability to handle the puck, his commitment to
defense, and his willingness to deliver a hit. With Kronwall, it seems there isn’t much not to like.

“Nik is a guy who brings the complete package to the table,” says Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. “At this level, he contributes to all facets of the game and he’s going to play a significant role on the Red Wings for a lot of years to come. When he gets the opportunity to go back to the NHL, he’s going to be a big piece of the puzzle for the Red Wings.”

Watching Kronwall night after night, it’s obvious where he would be playing if there had not been an NHL lockout. Other prospects might pout about their plight, but Kronwall has chosen to relish the predicament as an opportunity.

“I don’t think it’s in Nik’s makeup to not play 110 percent,” McNamara says. “The lockout isn’t an issue for him because he’s a competitor. The fire burns pretty hot and deep inside and he’s going to play hard every game, regardless of whether he’s here or in Detroit.”

Indeed, Griffins head coach Greg Ireland never saw any evidence of a drop in desire by the young star. “Nik wanted to be here,” Ireland says. “He just wants to play hockey and wants to do whatever it takes to put his best effort
on the ice.”

As far as Kronwall is concerned, there was never any question that he was going to make the most of another season with the Griffins.

“I knew the chances of a lockout were pretty high, so I had my mind set that I was going to play in Grand Rapids, maybe for the whole year,” Kronwall says. “I think it’s good for me to be here instead of playing at home. I think this is a learning process. I think I can work on everything.”

And so Kronwall approaches every day the same way, with an inner intensity that drives him to do everything to improve, to do the little things, to eliminate the mistakes, to get himself ready to play at the next level.

Many think he’s ready now.

Take it from teammates who watch him game after game – it’s obvious that Kronwall is something special. Listen to veteran defenseman Bryan Helmer, who has played nearly 800 games, including 134 in the NHL with three different teams. “I’ve never seen a young defenseman as good as he is,” Helmer says.

“Hands down he’s the best defenseman I’ve seen in this league – without question,” says Travis Richards, now in his ninth season with the Griffins.
“There’s not much more that you can say. And he’s so humble, too.

“To be that good and to be so unassuming is a pleasure to see.”

In fact, it’s Kronwall’s character, his attitude, and his approach to everything from practice to workouts to the games that have people convinced that he’s going to be a good one.

“More than anything, he’s probably one of the best people you’ll meet character-wise,” Ireland says. “You can meet a lot of very talented hockey players, but he’s one of the best. He’s just an outstanding individual.”

Of course, being a nice guy doesn’t make you a good hockey player.
Kronwall has skills that allow him to transcend mere potential.

“Nik does everything so well,” Ireland says. “He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s very talented with the puck, he sees the ice so well and he makes tremendous plays defensively. He’s got great hockey sense and awareness.”

Griffins goalie Joey MacDonald has a unique vantage point, playing in the Grand Rapids net most nights, and he marvels at Kronwall’s display of talent.

“The way he plays is unbelievable,” MacDonald says. “He’s blocking shots. He grabs the puck behind the net and, with a couple of little moves, he’s breaking out. He’s got great speed and a great shot. To top it off, he’s not afraid to use his body.

“Usually you don’t think of European guys as heavy checkers, but I haven’t seen too many guys who can lay checks and then get back into the play like he’s able to.”

In fact, it was that aspect of Kronwall’s game that convinced the Red Wings that he might be the real deal. “When we drafted him, he wasn’t very big, but he’s made a great commitment the last three or four off-seasons to get himself physically stronger,” Holland says.

“We were in Toronto for one of our first exhibition games last year and I remember Nik got run over by Owen Nolan. He got right back up and the puck went into the corner and he went and ran over Nolan.

“I kind of felt right there that he wasn’t going to be intimidated – not by the smaller rinks, the physical play or \the size of the other teams. He’s going to be physical because he’s very competitive.”

To some observers, Kronwall uses his body in the same fashion as former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov.

“What’s really good about Nik is that he’s got an edge,” Helmer says.
“Some guys are skilled, but they don’t have that toughness. Nik has both, and that helps make him a good, all-around player.”

“He’s not afraid to throw his shoulder out there,” says Griffins defenseman Danny Groulx, who is often paired with Kronwall in even-strength situations. “He makes those middle ice hits look easy.”

Those hits open up the ice for his teammates.

“He makes the people around him better because he creates space for them,” McNamara says. “Nobody wants to give Nik space to allow him to do what he wants; consequently, there’s more space for his teammates.”

And it’s what Kronwall does with that space that impresses his teammates.
“When you give him the puck, he’s got a play in mind already,” Groulx says.
“When he gets the puck, you know something good is going to happen.”

As a result, Kronwall is seeing a lot of ice time this season, playing in all situations – even-strength, killing penalties, power play, facing the other team’s best lines.

“Good defensemen are hard to come by; great defensemen are even more special. I think at this level that’s what Nik is,” Ireland says. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say he’s one of the best in the league.”

Holland thinks the extended ice time should pay dividends in the future.
“Obviously if he’s in Detroit, veterans like Nick Lidstrom and Derian Hatcher are going to eat up all those quality minutes, so in Grand Rapids he can play in all those key situations.

“Confidence is what all young players need, and playing as many minutes as he has will only help his confidence, I’m sure.”

Kronwall isn’t taking anything for granted. He appreciates the ice time and the responsibility he’s been given this season. “It’s huge, for sure,” he says. “When you get a lot of ice time, you feel more comfortable. The more you play, the better you get.

“When I came over here last year, I realized I wasn’t playing on the level that I needed to be. That’s why my time in Grand Rapids really helped me.
The same is true this year.”

And so Kronwall puts in extra time. Often in practice, he’s one of the last to leave the ice. He knows where his future lies.

“When the time comes to play in the NHL, I want to be sure that I’m ready. If they think I’m ready too, it’s a good thing,” he says. “If not, I’ll just keep working down here.”

Kronwall demonstrated that he’s a hard worker before this season even began. He put in extra time this past summer to return to the ice. A broken leg prematurely ended his season with the Red Wings a year ago.

“It was a freak accident,” he says, recalling the injury. “I was skating during warmups in L.A. and I just caught a rut with my skate. A lot of times things hurt a lot more in the beginning, so I was hoping that it wouldn’t be that serious.

“But I could tell right away that something was wrong.”

X-rays in the locker room revealed the break. He was told he might have to miss the start of the playoffs. “When they said 8-12 weeks, right away you think that’s for an old person,” he says. “I set my mind to come back for the playoffs in Grand Rapids.”

His leg, however, didn’t cooperate as quickly as he would have liked.
“They made the decision that I wasn’t 100 percent – they didn’t want to take any chances,” he recalls. “It was hard because I had been waiting three months.
That was really frustrating.”

The Red Wings – thrilled with what they had seen during the regular season – weren’t about to jeopardize Kronwall’s career. “When he came to us in Detroit, he played very, very well,” Holland says. “Unfortunately, the broken leg ended his season.”

Kronwall did a lot of running and foot exercises to get ready for this season. The preparation has paid off.

Enjoying a breakout season, Kronwall was rewarded by being selected to play the AHL All-Star Game for the second consecutive year. The leg injury forced him to miss last year’s contest in Grand Rapids.

Ireland thinks Kronwall can only benefit from the experience he’s getting with the Griffins.

“I think you’ll see that he’s going to get stronger as he moves up the ladder,” Ireland says. “Playing in the NHL, he’s going to play against bigger, stronger and faster guys, but I think he’ll be able to handle that. There’s not much he can’t do.”

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