Monday, February 13, 2012

Franzen Always Sneaky and Go-To Guy for Wings

By Larry Wigge

A master of being at the right place at the right time.

Call it magic. He could be called escape artist. Now you see him ... now you don't. 

Johan Franzen, a second- , third-chance player who was drafted into the NHL at 25. Yes, that's right.

On this night in February, the 6-3, 222-pound right wing from Landsbro, Sweden, suddenly appeared for the winning goal 52 seconds in the third period to give the Detroit Red Wings a 4-3 triumph -- a victory which extended Detroit's home-ice winning streak to 20 games.

Picture it ... simply ... Henrik Zetterberg with the puck at the right point, rocketing a pass across the seam through a maze of sticks to Nicklas Listrom, who was parked down at the left-wing faceoff circle and as quickly as Lidstrom got the puck, he relayed it to Franzen for a goal-mouth pass and goal to the right edge of the goal crease.

Three marvelous players made the impossible happen. 

It was Franzen's 22nd goal of the season. But, more important, it was his 10th game-winning goal.

"If I wouldn't have gotten it ... someone else was going to," Franzen explained of Detoit's home-ice mastery. "That was the feeling tonight. I'm sure somebody else would have gotten the winner."

A winner. Franzen, escaped into his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't, uniform.

A couple months ago, Johan admitted to me, "You have to be a little s-n-e-a-k-y. Do it as quicky and as quietly as possible."

Back on February 12 ... said Lidstrom, "I knew Mule was there."

Tic, tack, toe passing play. Magic. Or sneaky.

A playful smile cut across Franzen face. Protecting his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't artistry. Ten game-winning goals in 22 chances. There's more to this ...

There's nothing sneaky or suspicious about Franzen. Along with his 22-goal, 24-assist in 57 games, he has a plus 25 rating.

Back in the 2008-09 season, at the ripe old age of 29, Franzen emerged as a big-time player, signing an 11-year contract, worth around $4 million per year.

Think about it, the old Mule went from a 1-goal-in-10-or-15-games player in 2007-08, the Wings latest Stanley Cup year, to a league-leading 13 goals in 13 playoff games and 28 goals in 29 games since March 2.

From a developmental player to fourth-line player to a top six forward. With power forwards Dan Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom out for significant amounts of Franzen played his way to the top of Detroit lineup.

To think, this good-natured guy finally making it to the stardom at 28 or 29 ...

"I figured I could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League. Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when I got a call from Hakan Andersson to tell me that Detroit had picked me in the draft," Franzen recalled. "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."

Franzen still wondered what this all meant.

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

"Back in Landsbro, 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."

Jobs in a metal factory and working for a window company ... how far has he come.

From a perception in the Red Wings locker room that Johan Franzen still might not realize how good he could be was reality. He kind of shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't know how to answer that question.

"Do you mean do I realize I might not be that guy who gets one goal ever 10 or 15 games any more?" laughs the power forward with speed and the touch of a gifted football tight end who can turn any play into a touchdown with his combination of size and speed. "Well, yeah. I'm pretty confident now. I guess I go out there with the mindset that I can do this, because I have proven I can. Amazing isn't it?"

"He's going to be the best power forward in the world," teammate Cleary raved. "He didn't realize how big and strong and talented he was. Now he does. He's got hands that are so strong ... only they're capable of this soft skill, if you know what I mean."

And Cleary wasn't finished.

"He can play on any line and in any situation," Cleary continued. "He's got that net presence that not too many can handle because its such a heavy traffic area where life can be difficult. I don't like to compare players, but he's faster than John LeClair was. If he gets mad he can be like Keith Tkachuk only faster.

"All I know is this isn't a one-time thing for Johan. This is just the beginning."

"We are thrilled," Wings GM Ken Holland said. "He's a power forward. There's not a lot of those guys on the open market. He's a unique player. There aren't many guys who are 6-3, 220 pounds and can score 30 goals."

Drafted at the age of 25 after being passed over six times by NHL scouts. Six times undrafted by the NHL. He went from never having scored more than 12 goals in any season in the first 2 1/2 seasons. Until March 2, 2008.

Back to the 2007-08 season. When Franzen was sidelined with headaches, he had scored goals in five straight games, tying a team record shared by legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Howe accomplished the feat in 1949 and repeated it in 1964 and Lindsay in 1952. He had nine goals in the four-game sweep of the Colorado Avalanche, setting another franchise record for goals in a playoff series set by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who had eight goals in a seven-game series back in 1949. Franzen also became the first player to get two hat tricks in the same series since Edmonton's Hall of Famer Jari Kurri tricked Chicago twice 23 years ago.

There are those in Hockeytown trying to compare Franzen's burst onto the scene with another Swedish power forward some 10 years ago. But Holmstrom, known for his infamous tactics of screening goalies and tipping in shots and scoring on rebounds, never had the speed and skills that Franzen does.

It didn't come about without hard work. When Franzen looked around the Wings locker room as a rookie in 2004 and saw the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Heck ... everyone.

"That's when I decided to use my size and be more physical," he remembered.

He also worked on his footwork, because Coach Mike Babcock kept putting him out there with players who had much more speed than him.

"Now, I realize how smart he is," Babcock told me. "Look at how much he's worked at his game since he came here in his first training camp in 2004. He's watched and learned. He's gotten quicker by watching our skill guys -- and he's gained a physical edge by watching a guy like Tomas Holmstrom.

"I'll tell you one thing: You don't find many players 6-3, 200-plus pounds who can do the things he can offensively and defensively."

This stubborn-as-a-Mule performance is simply a great story of perseverance.

"Every game Johan Franzen makes two or three game-changing plays," said Lidstrom.

More work to stay ahead of the game for Franzen.

"The challenge for him every night is to skate and be physical. If he skates and is physical the rest looks after itself," Babcock said. "He’s got one of the best shots in the league and can wire it like nobody.

"Mule’s one of those guys that has to decide if he’s going to be a great player in the league or a good player in the league for a long, long time. If he wants to be a great player then you have to call on yourself every single night. The great players dig in every night."

Johan Franzen.

Right place ... right time.

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