They call him the Mule on account of his hulking size, but Detroit Red Wings right-winger Johan Franzen has quietly developed into an offensive thoroughbred.
Selected in the third round (97th overall) of the 2004 draft, Franzen, all six-feet-three and 225 pounds of him, whizzed past former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman in practice one day during his rookie season.
"He's big and strong, just like a mule," Yzerman noted at the time.
The nickname stuck and after two solid but relatively quiet campaigns in the NHL, Franzen posted a career-best 38 points in 2007-08, including an amazing run when he scored 15 goals in the last 16 games of the regular season.
Then came the playoffs when the shy Swede exploded for 13 goals — including five game-winners — and 18 points in 16 games, helping the Red Wings win their first Stanley Cup in six years.
Against Colorado in the Western Conference semifinals, Franzen scored nine goals, including two hat tricks, and outscored the entire Avalanche team to break Gordie Howe's franchise record for most goals in a playoff series
Playoffs a turning point
If he hadn't suffered a concussion and missed six games in the post-season, he might have beat out teammate and fellow Swede Henrik Zetterberg to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
Nonetheless, Franzen's amazing playoff performance was a turning point in his career, allowing him to become one of the league's best power forwards as he announced his presence to those in the NHL who hadn't noticed his hard work in the Motor City.
"It's interesting, when Franzen first joined Detroit, teammates would marvel at his shooting ability in practice but like many Europeans when the games started he was reluctant to shoot, always looking for the perfect pass not shot," said Hockey Night in Canada Radio host Jeff Marek.
"When Dan Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom went down with injuries last season, Franzen found himself on the power play more and his confidence grew from there. We saw him hang on to the puck more and get more shots on net, and just like in practice his shots started finding the back of the net."
It's hardly a surprise that Franzen is overshadowed on a Detroit team littered with goal-scoring stars such as Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
But you cannot underestimate his value to the Red Wings. Hossa, Datsyuk and Zetterberg provide the sizzle, Franzen the grit and steel.
"Not only does Franzen have a very hard and accurate shot, he goes to the net hard," Marek said.
"He's fearless. When he decides to do something, whether it's along the boards, in the middle of the ice or in front of the net, he has the size and skill to do it."
Adds scoring threat
Franzen had 12 goals his first year in Detroit, 10 the next, and 27 in 2007-08. This season, he's become almost point-a-game player, tallying nine goals and 12 points in 13 contests.
"He brings yet another scoring threat to an already potent offence and allows head coach Mike Babcock to have scoring balance through his lines," Marek explained. "He's great on the boards, fearless in front of the net and has the ability to score the big goal at the right time.
"Also, like every Red Wing he is responsible on the other side of the puck as well. And as we saw in the playoffs last year when your best offensive players are also your best defensive players, it's almost impossible to lose a line matchup."
Whether he remains in Detroit is another story. The No. 1 priority in the off-season of Red Wings general manager Ken Holland will be to sign Zetterberg to a contract extension.
Like Zetterberg, Hossa and Franzen will also become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, which will likely mean Holland can't re-sign all three players.
Any number of teams in the NHL would climb over each other for a chance to sign Franzen, but Marek believes the Swede will stay in Detroit.
"I think after Zetterberg's contract gets done, Detroit will turn its attention to Franzen, knowing that Hossa will be out of their price range considering the cap implications. Holland has already said he can't sign all of the big three, so look for the team to keep the two Swedes," said Marek.