Niklas Kronwalls 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.
Nobodys saying it directly, but it doesnt 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.
Hes a guy that we think is going to be on our team for a long, long time, says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. Hes got a good head on his shoulders. Hes very competitive. He comes to work every day. Hes 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 isnt 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 hes 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, hes going to be a big piece of the puzzle for the Red Wings.
Watching Kronwall night after night, its 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 dont think its in Niks makeup to not play 110 percent, McNamara says. The lockout isnt an issue for him because hes a competitor. The fire burns pretty hot and deep inside and hes going to play hard every game, regardless of whether hes 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 its 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 hes ready now.
Take it from teammates who watch him game after game its 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. Ive never seen a young defenseman as good as he is, Helmer says.
Hands down hes the best defenseman Ive seen in this league without question, says Travis Richards, now in his ninth season with the Griffins.
Theres not much more that you can say. And hes so humble, too.
To be that good and to be so unassuming is a pleasure to see.
In fact, its Kronwalls character, his attitude, and his approach to everything from practice to workouts to the games that have people convinced that hes going to be a good one.
More than anything, hes probably one of the best people youll meet character-wise, Ireland says. You can meet a lot of very talented hockey players, but hes one of the best. Hes just an outstanding individual.
Of course, being a nice guy doesnt make you a good hockey player.
Kronwall has skills that allow him to transcend mere potential.
Nik does everything so well, Ireland says. Hes a tremendous athlete. Hes very talented with the puck, he sees the ice so well and he makes tremendous plays defensively. Hes 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 Kronwalls display of talent.
The way he plays is unbelievable, MacDonald says. Hes blocking shots. He grabs the puck behind the net and, with a couple of little moves, hes breaking out. Hes got great speed and a great shot. To top it off, hes not afraid to use his body.
Usually you dont think of European guys as heavy checkers, but I havent seen too many guys who can lay checks and then get back into the play like hes able to.
In fact, it was that aspect of Kronwalls game that convinced the Red Wings that he might be the real deal. When we drafted him, he wasnt very big, but hes 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 wasnt going to be intimidated not by the smaller rinks, the physical play or \the size of the other teams. Hes going to be physical because hes very competitive.
To some observers, Kronwall uses his body in the same fashion as former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov.
Whats really good about Nik is that hes got an edge, Helmer says.
Some guys are skilled, but they dont have that toughness. Nik has both, and that helps make him a good, all-around player.
Hes 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, theres more space for his teammates.
And its what Kronwall does with that space that impresses his teammates.
When you give him the puck, hes 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 teams best lines.
Good defensemen are hard to come by; great defensemen are even more special. I think at this level thats what Nik is, Ireland says. I wouldnt hesitate to say hes one of the best in the league.
Holland thinks the extended ice time should pay dividends in the future.
Obviously if hes 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, Im sure.
Kronwall isnt taking anything for granted. He appreciates the ice time and the responsibility hes been given this season. Its 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 wasnt playing on the level that I needed to be. Thats 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, hes 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 Im ready. If they think Im ready too, its a good thing, he says. If not, Ill just keep working down here.
Kronwall demonstrated that hes 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 wouldnt 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 thats for an old person, he says. I set my mind to come back for the playoffs in Grand Rapids.
His leg, however, didnt cooperate as quickly as he would have liked.
They made the decision that I wasnt 100 percent they didnt 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 werent about to jeopardize Kronwalls 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 years contest in Grand Rapids.
Ireland thinks Kronwall can only benefit from the experience hes getting with the Griffins.
I think youll see that hes going to get stronger as he moves up the ladder, Ireland says. Playing in the NHL, hes going to play against bigger, stronger and faster guys, but I think hell be able to handle that. Theres not much he cant do.