NHL's hottest scorer Gustav Nyquist shooting for goals, glory & playoffs after starting the season in AHL

DETROIT — The hottest scorer in the NHL started the season in the AHL. Gustav Nyquist still couldn’t stick with the Detroit Red Wings, who had too many veterans and too little cap space, so he went back to the Grand Rapids Griffins. Again.

He wasn’t a kid anymore, and he wasn’t a long shot anymore, either. He was 24. Yeah, he was a 5-foot-11, 185-pound right winger drafted in the fourth round in 2008, 121st overall. But he had led the NCAA in scoring, ranked among the AHL scoring leaders, won an AHL championship and played in the NHL playoffs. After spending three years in college and two years mostly in the minors, he had paid his dues.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t disappointed, of course he was,” said Griffins coach Jeff Blashill. “It wasn’t that he was void of that kind of human emotion, of course he had it. But he handled it incredibly.”

Now he’s playing incredibly. Decimated by injuries, missing superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, trying to extend their playoff streak to 23 seasons, the Wings have relied heavily on call-ups – none more than Nyquist. Without ‘Goose,’ they’d be cooked.

Since Jan. 20, Nyquist leads the NHL in goals with 18, three more than anyone else. No other Wings player has scored 18 goals all season. He ranks second in points with 29, tied with the Boston Bruins’ Jarome Iginla and the Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin, one behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux.

Nyquist had six goals and seven points as the Wings earned seven out of eight points in their past four games, rising into a wild card spot in the East. The NHL named him first star of the week, ahead of the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Iginla.

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“I think confidence grows every game you’re up here,” Nyquist said. “Right now, obviously scoring a little bit, that gives me more confidence out there with the puck.”

This hot streak does not necessarily mean Nyquist will become another Datsyuk or Zetterberg, the sixth- and seventh-round draft picks who became cornerstones in Detroit. It does not necessarily mean he will become an elite goal-scorer, either. He has always been more of a playmaker than a sniper, and he’s bound to cool off.

But this does mean the Wings identified yet another smaller prospect with skill, hockey sense and character, then took him later in the draft and let him mature into a player. He was ready when they needed him – more than ready – and they think he can be a productive top-six NHL forward for years to come. He had 22 goals in 56 AHL games two seasons ago. He had 23 goals in 58 AHL games last season. He has 23 goals in 46 NHL games this season.

“It’s a good example for young players,” said Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, the former Wings assistant GM who drafted Nyquist. “Everybody wants to get to the league real quick. But it’s a tough league, and you need your development time. He might have come up two years ago and struggled and got sent down, and before you know it, you’re back in the minors and nothing happens. He stuck with it.”

This is the Detroit way. Wings GM Ken Holland takes heat at times for holding back young players, but he has good reasons. The Wings’ success means they don’t draft high enough to land youngsters who can step in immediately, and it means they have a roster that isn’t easy to crack. Holland doesn’t want to hand jobs to youngsters, and he doesn’t want them to come up too soon and crumble. He doesn’t want them to come up and survive. He doesn’t want them to come up and contribute. He wants them to come up and thrive and help the Wings contend for the Stanley Cup. Being ready to play is one thing; being ready to win is another.

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Holland wants internal competition and depth. He wants as many NHL-ready players in the AHL as possible. That way, if he runs into injuries, he has a Plan B – as well as Plans C, D, E and so on, as he has had this season. Goaltender Jimmy Howard, a second-round pick in 2003, had to spend extra time in the AHL. He is now a starter. Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, the last pick in the 2002 draft, worked his way from the AHL to the NHL and up the Wings’ depth chart. He is now a top-pair defenseman when healthy. There are many examples in between.

The Wings knew about Nyquist his draft year, but he didn’t really catch their eye until he showed something in a tournament late in the season at St. Petersburg, Russia, where Nill and scouts Hakan Andersson, Joe McDonnell and Mark Leach were watching. Leach lived near the University of Maine, where Nyquist was headed to college.

“He was another one of those guys – an undersized, undeveloped guy that had good skills that just kept working at it and got better,” Nill said. “Probably going to college was the best thing for him. It gave him time to develop at his own pace.”

Nyquist spent three years at Maine. He led the NCAA in scoring as a sophomore in 2009-10, and he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore and junior. He put up more than a point per game in his first two AHL seasons. He had only four goals and 13 points in 40 NHL games, but he played 18 playoff games, too, and he chipped in two goals and five points in 14 playoff games last year. After the Wings were eliminated in the second round, he went back to Grand Rapids and helped the Griffins win the Calder Cup.

Over time, Nyquist learned to make the most of what he has. “Lots of guys probably shoot the puck harder but don’t know how to use their shot as well,” Blashill said. “Lots of guys might be bigger but don’t know how to leverage their body as well. Lots of guys might be faster but don’t know how to dart to spots at the right time.”

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Nyquist could have made the Wings to start the season. But Holland signed 40-year-old free agent Daniel Alfredsson, and then he re-signed 34-year-old Dan Cleary in training camp. Cleary was a surprise, because he had bad knees and better offers elsewhere. But coach Mike Babcock wanted him back. The team leaders wanted him back – from Howard to Zetterberg to Datsyuk. And he came back on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million, when he turned down the Wings’ offer of three years at $2.25 million per on July 5 and the Flyers, Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets were offering three years at $2.75 million per.

Suddenly there was no room at right wing, and there was no room under the cap, either. Nyquist didn’t have to pass through waivers to go to the AHL, so down he went.

“I talked to him quite a bit, actually, during that stretch,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall. “He’s got the right mindset. He knows why he had to start down there because of salary cap issues and whatnot. He made the most of it. It’s easy to get sent down and get a little down on yourself or whatever. But he stuck with it and he did really well there. He just waited for his chance.”

“He’s got great mental toughness, he’s got great competitiveness and he’s really a team guy,” Blashill said. “So when he got sent down, it wasn’t, ‘Woe is me.’ It was, ‘How can I keep getting better? How can I help this team win while I’m here?’ And he competed every night to try to help us win.”

Nyquist produced seven goals and 21 points in 15 games for the Griffins. Then the Wings ran into injury trouble and recalled Nyquist to play Nov. 21. Nyquist scored 17 seconds into the game. He scored again in the third period, the eventual winning goal as the Wings beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3. The Wings still could have sent him back to the AHL afterward. He could have played one more game in the NHL before he would have had to go on waivers first. But he was in the NHL to stay.

He got a shot to play for Team Sweden in the Sochi Olympics, after injuries to Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen opened up roster spots, and he won a silver medal. Now he’s got a shot to play important minutes, thanks to injuries to Datsyuk, Zetterberg and company. He’s on the first power-play unit.

The last two seasons, the Wings’ executives and coaches gave Nyquist the same advice in exit interviews, because he often would make one pass too many. “We’ve all hammered away on him,” Holland said. “ ‘Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.’ ” Well, shoot. Look at this. He isn’t deferring to anyone, maybe because there are fewer veterans to whom to defer, and the puck is going in. “He’s looking to shoot,” Holland said.

This is his shot, finally. He’s taking it.