Wings Preview: Polarizing Franzen key to season

Johan Franzen has been a Jekyll and Hyde for the Detroit Red Wings in recent seasons.

He’s a maddening figure.

At his best, he’s virtually unstoppable, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound mule with deft hands and a deadly snipe. Ask the 2008 Colorado Avalanche, who were mutilated by his franchise-record, nine-goal series.

That’s his best.

Then there’s his worst: A Houdini act, nowhere to be found. We saw it back-to-back postseasons, encapsulated by his milk-carton performance against Nashville.

Johan Franzen is the most polarizing figure on the Detroit Red Wings roster. It’s hot or cold, feast or famine, nothing in between. If the Wings are gonna challenge for a Central Division title, they’re gonna need The Mule to kick back and dominate, rather than loaf down the left wing, or, even worse, rest his ass on the injured list.

This isn’t 2007-2009, when Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were at their peak. That duo is older, a tad less potent, and they need help.

And the only source of goal-scoring assistance seems to come from Franzen.

Judging by the past, when Franzen performs, the Wings fly. When he doesn’t, they crash and burn, as evidenced by April’s five-game humiliating defeat to Nashville, the worst Wings series we’ve seen since 1985, bar none.

Franzen recorded 18 points during the 2008 Cup run, 23 during a run to Game Seven of the Finals in 2009, then 18 more in 2010. He cemented his name in the record books alongside legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

But ever since, he looks more like Keith Primeau or Petr Klima: a talented player who falls grossly behind expectations.

Franzen really doesn’t make sense. Consider the 2010 post-season: He had two goals through 10 games, then scored three in a span of 3:26 during Game 5 against San Jose, an incredible display that was two seconds shy of the fastest playoff hat trick in NHL history.

Feast or famine. Sink or swim. All or nothing.

Which version of The Mule will we see in the abbreviated 2012-’13 season? That’s the burning question as the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era begins.

The Wings have recorded 12 straight seasons of 100 points or more. But that number is ballooned by 3-point games (shootouts, overtime losses) and this isn’t a championship-caliber team.

The 21-year playoff streak is endangered.

Can you imagine Joe Louis Arena, empty in April?

Lots of holes in the offense

Last November’s six-game losing streak was a red flag. It was just the third time the Wings lost six consecutive games or more since 1990. It was six flat losses, a skid entailing six whopping goals in six games.

And what did you see in April? The same. A punchless team with minimal offensive force that scored nine times in five games.

Will we see a similar output in 2012-’13?

Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary were great in 2008, but that’s when they were ages 31 and 29, respectively. They are no longer spring chickens.

Valtteri Filppula can hold onto the puck forever – but his shot power is weak and he cannot finish.

Todd Bertuzzi makes the wrong play consistently and is a liability defensively. In the Nashville series, he was a minus-5 with nine penalty minutes and zero points.

The fourth line of Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader is a far cry from Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper, who, for years, were the best penalty killing unit in the league.

Jordin Tootoo’s addition should add feistiness to a team that desperately lacked grit in past years. Goal scoring, however, is another issue.

Five things to watch

Brendan Smith
He can do it all: check, fight, and score.

Smith was selected 16 picks higher in the 2007 NHL Draft than Montreal’s standout defenseman P.K. Subban, who made his NHL debut late in the 2009-10 season. It makes you wonder if Smith should’ve been brought up to Detroit much sooner.

It’s imperative that Wings coach Mike Babcock unleashes Smith and gives him considerable ice time. He cannot be held back any longer.

Smith is intelligent and highly skilled. He can jump into the play on an offensive rush like a poor man’s Scott Niedermayer. He may experience defensive hiccups during his first full year in the NHL, but he will grow, and could very well become the next great Red Wing (“great” on a Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Shanahan scale; TheYzerman-Howe-Lidstrom scale is out of reach.)

Don’t be surprised if Smith is manning the power play by season’s end.

Oh, and the last time the Wings had a “Brendan” from “Mimico, Ontario,” things turned out OK.

The Power Play
This has to be better. It was 22nd in the NHL last season. And with today’s ticky-tack NHL, the special teams units are even more vital.

God bless Nicklas Lidstrom, but his shot power diminished greatly over the years and was a non-factor in 2011-’12. He had four power-play goals, one of the lowest outputs of his career.

Remember Lidstrom’s freakish ability to hold pucks inside the zone on the power play? How he could glove any clearing attempt, or bat the puck out of mid-air? That disappeared his final three years. His brain was just as quick, but his aging body was a step slow.

The “step slow” argument can also be made for Tomas Holmstrom, who lost his ability to hold pucks in the corners and cycle with teammates.

Change is good here.

Newly hired assistant coach Tom Renney comes aboard to control the unit after spending the past two years in Edmonton. Note to Renney: Make Datsyuk the focal point of the unit – mirror Philadelphia, which centers its power play around Claude Giroux.

Damien Brunner
Brunner is another interesting character for the Wings’ chances.

Is he Ville Leino part deux? Another skilled forward who can dominate the European leagues, only to falter in the NHL?

Brunner shined with linemate Henrik Zetterberg for EV Zug in The Swiss League during the lockout. He had 25 goals and 32 assists in 33 games. (Zetterberg had 16 goals and 16 assists in 23 games.)

The newly anointed captain credited Brunner’s competitive fire, saying he hates to lose. Maybe that’s why Brunner had 49 penalty minutes, third on the EV Zug team. That could be a good trait.

But the Swiss League is a far cry from the National Hockey League: The Chicago Blackhawks are a much different opponent than the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers.

But one would have to think Brunner will produce on a first-line unit with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Another question is: How long will Babcock keep that line together? If it sputters, will the hard-nosed coach remain patient? A shortened 48-game season cannot allow it.

Jimmy Howard
It’s contract year and he’s an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

Through 28 playoff games, he’s 13-15 with one shutout. That’s not exactly steal-you-a-series numbers.

Howard was not the main reason the Wings lost in five games to Nashville last April, but he was not a series-changer either, as evidenced by his .888 save percentage.

The infuriating trait of Howard: he looks brilliant at times, but then allows the back-breaking soft goal. That needs to be eliminated from his game to garner a long-term deal.

Can Jonas Gustavsson become a solid backup? He’s 6-foot-3, a towering stature that earns him the nickname of “The Monster.” The good news is: He’s Swedish and will blend into the locker room scene quite well. The bad news is: His career stats (2.98 GAA/.900 save percentage) are why he was let go by Toronto, a franchise so desperate to win a Cup, it would bring back Johnny Bower, if possible.

Waiting in the wings (no pun intended) is Petr Mrazek, a rookie with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins who’s starred in junior and world competition.

The AHL Kids
It’s only a matter of time before Gustav Nyquist becomes a fixture. He’s ranked seventh among AHL scorers (13 goals, 23 assists) and looked good during the late stages of last regular season in Detroit.

Tomas Tatar, who ranks 20th among AHL scorers (15 goals,17 assists) is another prospect who should be in Detroit.

Cory Emmerton (6-foot, 190 pounds) was rather vanilla last year and it’s too early to gauge his long term use. Riley Sheahan and Joakim Andersson could make appearances, barring injuries.


It will be a fight to make the playoffs. Each regular season game carries heavy weight, more than ever before. It would be that way with an 82-game schedule, let alone a 48-game tilt.

The division is tough. Chicago has more firepower (Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews), St. Louis is young and deep, and Nashville proved last post-season that they are better than ever before. Say what you want about Ryan Suter departing, but that just means more minutes for ultra-stud Shea Weber, who is a favorite to win the Norris Trophy as league’s top defenseman.

Here’s to thinking Detroit will finish fourth in the division and get the #8 seed, just barely squeaking inside the door, only to be knocked out in the opening round.