By Larry Wigge
Looking for a new identity.
For years, the Detroit Red Wings started their success with Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Konstantinov, Brendan Shanahan and, well, you get the picture.
Each of those star players was replaced with a quality performer. On defense, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart carried on the number of first place divisional finishes going back to 1988-89.
This year Henrik Zetterberg was named captain. The names were different. And the Red Wings had to fight for the third position in the division.
On defense, it was just Niklas Kronwell ...
"We miss Nik and Stewie," said Kromwell. "But trying to do too much ...
"The pressure come from yourself."
Niklas Kronwell's used to be the master of big hits. The hits that put the jiggy back in Motown.
No we're not talking about the Temptations, Diana Ross or any of those great sounds and harmonies from past and present. The sounds that have Hockeytown talking now come from an undersized heavyweight hit man on the Detroit Red Wings defense who grew up listening to ABBA.
The hits keep happening for Kronwall, the 32-year-old, 6-foot, 192-pound defenseman from Stockholm, Sweden, who just slams his body through opponents.
"I think if you look over my career, you can't be looking for the big hit -- otherwise you'd be getting out of position," he examined. "I've got to pick my spots. I think that I've have learned the importance of that every year."
It's that make-my-day mentality that keeps Niklas Kronwall on the radar. And much much more.
The body English is clearly that of a player who has passion for the game and a willingness to win.
Kronwall is the oldest of the club's nine defensemen. He's also the only one of the regular six who is over 29.
"He’s almost like Nick Lidstrom, a perfect human being," Zetterberg said. "He’s always doing the right things on and off the ice. He says the right things in the locker room, and I think with him and Clears (Daniel Cleary) and Pav (Datsyuk) it's a lot easier for me to be captain."
He averaged more minutes per game (24:22, up from 22:52).
"He got an opportunity to play more and hes' really taken advantage of it," Zetterberg said. "He's a really hard worker, on and off the ice, and this year he took another step on the ice."
"We've never had a D since I've been in Detroit like our D is now -- three kids who've never played in a playoff game," coach Mike Babcock said. "We've really improved our back end. Nick has been a big part of that.
"Good leadership skills. He does everything right every day. He works hard, he's a good man, has a good read on the team."
Sort of a quiet assassin? You bet. But there's so much more that fascinates about Niklas Kronwall. And it's not that he's enjoying his longest injury-free stretch since coming into the National Hockey League as a first-round pick, 29th overall, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft or the fact that this smallish hit man led more high-profiled Detroit defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski.
For starters, how about the fact that the NHL has his name misspelled in all of its publications (Kronvall) because there was a mistake on his visa when he came to North America for the first time in 2003? Or how about being overlooked for the 2006 Olympics until Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund was sidelined with an injury -- and in Sweden's gold-medal victory he scored a goal?
A hitter who breaks his own bones, uh, maybe more than opponents? Has he ever considered changing his style? Are you kidding?
"I know I can't change my style because of some freak injuries," Kronwall said. "Did anyone ever ask Scott Stevens to change his style?"
Well, uh, no.
That gold medal is Niklas Kronwall's greatest memory, although he's leaving space in his trophy room for a Stanley Cup ring. It should come as no surprise that Lidstrom was the player he watched when he was growing up in Stockholm and playing for Djurgarden. It should be pointed out, however, that he was also fascinated growing up by some of those Don Cherry Rock'em sock 'em videos, especially when he saw Scott Stevens laying someone out.
"I still love to go back and watch the videos of Scott Stevens and guys like that," Kronwall said with a big smile. "My eyes still light up when I see a guy kind of coasting into an open area just asking to be hit. To me, that's one of the best parts of the game."
"Yeah, yeah, I know I'm not the biggest guy in the world. I have never thought that hitting is about size," he added. "It's all about timing. Opposing players' size has never limited me on the ice."
And there's something to one of those big hits that sparks the entire bench. His timing is unbelievable. You'd probably laugh if I said there's an art to it. But there is. You have to catch a guy, big or small, at just the right time or you can hurt yourself.
"He kind of sneaks up on you," said winger Johan Franzen. "Maybe he has that ability because he can turn so quickly because his feet are so small."
Small feet. Big heart.
Said Coach Mike Babcock: "He's kind of like a predator."
And this year, there's no Lidstrom, no Brian Rafalski, no Stuart.
Niklas Kronwall is coming of age. He's the No. 1 guy on defense. There's still more that fascinates about Kronwall.
"Back in 1999 when I was supposed to be drafted, my agents told me to hold off a year that NHL teams would not be interested in a 165-pound defenseman and if I was picked at all it would be in the seventh or eighth round," he recalled. "I worked with a personal trainer and the next year I was 189 and I was a first-round pick by the team I wanted to play for all along."
And by the time he arrived in North America in 2003, changes were in the air in the NHL. Quickness and skill were in, especially after the lockout -- a season in which Niklas Kronwall was selected the best defenseman in the American Hockey League while playing for Detroit's Grand Rapids affiliate.
A true late bloomer.