Technically speaking, the Detroit Red Wings’ most valuable players are Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
However, Johan Franzen has utilized the absence of the latter to put together what could be a serious bid for team MVP for the 2012-13 season.
Since Datsyuk went down to injury against the Ottawa Senators seven games ago, Franzen has amassed nine points (4G, 5A), a plus-seven rating and has averaged 3.5 shots per game - all this while switching between playing on the wing and at center.
Despite the absence of Datsyuk, as well as Zetterberg and Darren Helm, the Red Wings have gone 5-2-0 their past seven games thanks in large part to “the Mule” putting the team on his back.
Now, considering how Franzen came to have that particular moniker bestowed upon him, his performance of late shouldn’t exactly be unexpected.
Indeed, it was during Franzen’s first training camp prior to the 2005-06 season, then penciled in as a third-line center, that captain Steve Yzerman noticed how hard the rookie Swede worked. Yzerman made the offhand equivocation between the determined player and the humble pack animal that yielded the nickname that will stick with Franzen forever.
However, there’s been a heavy dose of irony thrown onto this story over the past few seasons as Franzen, despite stellar playoff performances in 2008 and 2009, has developed a reputation for being inconsistent.
In fact, his apparent play-when-I-feel-like-it attitude prompted some to speculate last season that Franzen may be a compliance buy out target on general manager Ken Holland’s radar.
Franzen has proved to his team and fans alike that, when properly motivated, he can be an utterly dominating offensive player. The trouble is, motivation has grown ever more elusive over his past three seasons.
However that requisite internal fire is kindled, Franzen’s compete level has been so red-hot that, should he continue at his current pace (and given his skill set and history, there’s no reason to think he can’t), he could very well cap a career-best 60-point year.
What has been Johan Franzen's biggest contribution to the team's success so far?
He may also blaze a trail to becoming the Red Wings’ most valuable player this season. As impressive as his offensive output has been, it’s been his work ethic and versatility that has allowed head coach Mike Babcock to continually throw Franzen over the boards to plug various holes at forward and never think twice about his decision.
It is Franzen’s work ethic and versatility that has allowed his team to win despite missing so many key players.
Babcock recently said as much to MLive.com’s Ansar Kahn:
"Anytime you miss good players it’s hard, but for my two cents, I thought Franzen was a star when Pav was out; leadership-wise, determination-wise, how he played. And so now that’s the benchmark. You don’t go back to the other (inconsistent) guy you continue to be what you’ve been and he should be proud of how he played and we need him to keep playing like that.''
It’s that last bit that provides evidence of the proverbial rub. The Red Wings do need Franzen to continue playing as he has, but his history suggests that he may soon revert back to “the other guy,” as Babcock so graciously put it.
Should Franzen simply continue playing as “the Mule," there’s no question he can emerge as Detroit’s most valuable player this season.
That said, here’s hoping his team has seen the last of the “the other guy."