It might seem as if Detroit Red Wings sniper Gustav Nyquist has come out of nowhere to lead the team's charge to the playoffs in the absence of its brightest stars.
He's scoring almost at will, piling up early career totals that only superstars Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Bure previously accomplished.
But the 24-year-old Swedish sensation is making this incredible impression because of the way the Red Wings have allowed him to develop. His progression and performance at every level is proof he's no flash-in-the-pan scoring story—he's the real deal. He's a player who has honed his skills in the American Hockey League and is now reaping the benefits of maturity, confidence and opportunity.
It might surprise you to know he was drafted back in 2008 and wasn't even taken until the fourth round. Another gem of a late draft choice for the Wings.
|Later-round picks pan out for Wings|
What they've done with Nyquist since the draft has set him up for this success. Well...that and his obvious natural talent.
Some might suggest bringing along talented prospects slowly is a luxury the Red Wings and perhaps a few other top teams have, thanks to the quality of their prospect pipeline and NHL depth that has allowed them to rack up 22 straight playoff appearances.
Others would point out the Wings had no choice but to send Nyquist back to the AHL's Grand Rapid Griffins last fall due to salary-cap constraints.
But the franchise has never forced a player into the lineup before he was ready, and that includes its marquee players Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
Datsyuk was 23 when he came to the NHL after three more years in Russia following his selection—in the sixth round, 171st overall—at the 1998 draft.
Zetterberg spent three campaigns in Sweden after the Wings drafted him 210th overall in the seventh round in 1999. He made the jump as a 22-year-old.
Others have followed similar paths or, like Nyquist, are skating them now in various stages.
Fellow countryman Daniel Alfredsson, who was also Nyquist's teammate at the Sochi Games in February, told Ansar Khan of MLive.com he's seen a lot of growth in Nyquist even since training camp:
It’s a natural progression from what I’ve seen from camp and since coming up from Grand Rapids he’s been really good. He brings speed, brings work ethic. He’s a young guy who really is mature in terms of where to be on the ice in different situations and he’s been very impressive.
The torch will eventually pass from Zetterberg and Datsyuk to Nyquist and perhaps Tomas Tatar or Tomas Jurco in the coming years, the same way it has in relatively seamless fashion from the leadership of players like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov to Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shannahan to Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
It was a plethora of injuries to Wings veterans that gave Nyquist his opportunity to string together more NHL games than he has in scattered appearances the last couple of seasons. It was a solid college career, a dynamic championship season in the AHL and some playoff experience a year ago that showed glimpses of what the Red Wings were facilitating.
|Nyquist by the numbers|
|2011-12||Red Wings (NHL)||18||1||6||7||4-0-0-0|
|2012-13||Red Wings (NHL)||22||3||3||6||14-2-3-5|
|2013-14||Red Wings (NHL)||53||28||19||47|
There's no guarantee where Nyquist may go from here.
Some might argue a healthy Datsyuk and Zetterberg will take ice time and opportunity away from the young star in the making.
In reality, when opponents have to focus on the already established stars, it could lead to even more mismatches for Nyquist.
The young speedster with finishing touch has already shown he's capable of beating the best of the best in highlight-reel fashion, burning Boston Bruins beast Zdeno Chara with his speed through the neutral zone for a spectacular goal.
Teammate Johan Franzen is impressed by the type of goals Nyquist is creating. He explained to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press:
He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon. It’s more his speed getting away from the D’s and creating such great chances for himself — it’s not like anyone is really setting him up. He’s just waiting for the right opportunity, and it usually comes from his own blue line when he can beat the D to a puck and skate around them.
Maybe most impressive about the 5'11", 185-pound winger is how much better he seems to get as the season progresses after being promoted in late November. He did score twice in his debut, and four times in his first five games, but his last 30 contests have been extraordinary. In those, he's scored 23 times and totaled 36 points. Four of the goals were the game-winners, and he has six of those in 53 games this season—as many as Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Jaromir Jagr.
There's a reason people are mentioning him and the Hart Memorial Trophy in the same sentence, even though he's a long shot to win it based on his part-time season.
Don't worry, though, it looks as if there will be plenty of opportunity of that trophy becoming a reality for Nyquist if he continues to progress the way he has. The Red Wings have been hoping—and planning—for that.