Gustav Nyquist hasn’t scored a lot of goals on Jonas Gustavsson at Red Wings practice recently.
“I think lately he saves them for the game,” Gustavsson said.
Nyquist’s scoring prowess has helped save Detroit’s NHL-best streak of 23 straight playoff appearances. Thanks in large part to Nyquist’s 14 goals and 10 assists in 22 games since the Olympic break, the Red Wings overcame a season rife with significant injuries to extend their playoff run.
“With all the injuries we’ve had, it’s been pretty crazy,” Nyquist said Tuesday in Buffalo. “But with all the injuries, I think all of us young guys have gotten more opportunity out there and (are) playing bigger minutes. ... As a young player I think that gives you confidence, knowing that you can make more plays with the puck when you’re confident out there.”
The Red Wings’ injury list reads like almost like a full NHL roster. Pavel Datsyuk missed 37 games, captain Henrik Zetterberg 35 and counting, Darren Helm 40, Johan Franzen 27, Danny DeKeyser 16, Daniel Alfredsson 13 and Jimmy Howard 13.
What’s even crazier is how the Red Wings seemingly haven’t missed a beat. And the craziest thing is that Nyquist, who spent the first 22 games of the season in the minors, still leads the team with 28 goals in just 55 games.
And it’s not even close.
“He made a splash right away: first game, two goals, when he came up, so I don’t know if it’s a surprise,” Alfredsson said. “Maybe a surprise he’s been able to keep up that pace. We hadn’t seen him in the NHL as much. He’s made a name for himself, a reputation for himself.”
Nyquist, soft-spoken and humble at 24 with 137 regular-season AHL games under his belt, wouldn’t agree that he has been one of the best goal-scorers in the world lately. But with a stretch of 23 goals in 32 games, Nyquist helped the Red Wings go 17-10-5 to beat out the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals for a playoff spot.
“It feels like he’s one step ahead sometimes, knowing where the puck’s going to end up, and that’s how he scores a lot of goals,” Gustavsson said on a recent trip to Toronto. “He’s going to the right spots. I’m not surprised that he has been scoring a lot for us. Maybe he’s scored more than I thought right now.”
Certainly more than the Red Wings could have envisioned in September, when Nyquist was sent to the Grand Rapids Griffins instead of making the opening-night roster. That was more a consequence of the salary cap than an indictment of his play, as Nyquist was still exempt from going through waivers, but his three goals and three assists in 22 games last year didn’t seem a preview of future NHL stardom.
Nyquist brings up “playing with great players” as one reason for his stellar scoring output. But after back problems put Zetteberg on the shelf, Nyquist kept scoring with Franzen, Riley Sheahan, David Legwand and Tomas Tatar rotating as his linemates.
“Sometimes in the NHL if you’re playing with great players, you’re going to find a way to put that in, and he’s done that,” defenceman Brendan Smith said. “It’s been huge for our club.”
But where did this all come from?
“Gus would tell you that he was a pretty good player when he came out of college, I would assume, and that it took the coaches a long time to figure out he was good enough to play him enough to give him the confidence he needs to score enough,” coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s probably his theory. My theory is you have to grow as a player and earn your way. I think he’s a really intelligent player. He’s got hockey IQ off the chart. He makes good plays, he can shoot the puck, he’s got a good release but he gets himself in good spots and we’ve needed him.”
Smith’s time at the University of Wisconsin overlapped with Nyquist’s at the University of Maine. Smith can count the ways Nyquist can beat opponents.
“He’s a hell of a skater, he’s a great puck-mover, he makes great plays, he’s got great skill, he can dangle you, he’s hard to hit, he’s wormy or snakey, whatever you want to call it,” Smith said. “I knew he was this good, but I didn’t see the scoring nature of it.”
It would’ve been hard for anyone to see this coming. In 40 career NHL games entering this season, Nyquist had a grand total of four goals.
Maybe it’s just the growth and maturation of a young player, something the Red Wings’ organization has become very proud of over the years. Or perhaps practice makes perfect.
“He’s one of those guys that’s always staying till the end of the of practice putting the puck in the net,” Gustavsson said. “He works hard and he deserves all the success that he has right now.”
Gustavsson said Nyquist is just entering his prime and can still get better. And Alfredsson sees ingredients that could ensure this isn’t a one-season wonder.
“Goal-scorers, a lot of times, they just have a knack for it,” Alfredsson said. “It doesn’t have to be the perfect shot. They seem to find a way, and they shoot the puck a lot. He’s got everything to be able to be a consistent goal-scorer in this league.”