Commentary

Bruins are next test for Nyquist

Swede continuing to adjust, improve and is poised for playoff success

Updated: April 18, 2014, 8:32 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

When Detroit Red Wings center Gustav Nyquist attended the University of Maine, the Black Bears' staff conducted on-ice tests to measure just how fast their skaters were.

One was called the Flying 50, in which skaters took off from one goal, skated around the far net and came back. Laser timers between the blue lines recorded how long it took them to skate through the neutral zone.

The other was more grueling. The Chicago Three Lap required skaters to skate three laps around the rink, then rest three minutes, skate another three laps around the rink and rest three minutes, then skate three more laps.

When Nyquist arrived at Maine from Sweden as a skinny freshman, his performance in those tests didn't lead you to believe he might one day be in the NHL blowing past Zdeno Chara to score a crucial goal for a team pushing to make the playoffs.

"He was quick but not fast," former Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said. "Initially, it was quick bursts. Now you see him using those quick bursts of speed, and he can really sustain it now."

Watching Nyquist now -- physically filled out, his game matured by three years in college, another 122 games in the American Hockey League and 97 games in Detroit over the past three seasons -- you wonder how it was possible for the hockey world to miss the guy who scored 28 goals in 57 games this season to help lift the Red Wings into the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeGustav Nyquist
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesGustav Nyquist was a major factor in Detroit making the playoffs.
Even the Red Wings, widely praised for landing Nyquist in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, passed on him completely when he was first draft eligible the previous year, just like every other team in the league. Before taking him in 2008, they made two other picks (Thomas McCollum and Max Nicastro), and Hakan Andersson, their head scout in Europe, didn't sense a ton of NHL interest in Nyquist aside from the Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers.

If you're looking to credit someone for the development of a star, the credit goes to the player. Just look at his improvement in those fitness tests at Maine. A fast time for a professional hockey player in the Flying 50 is anything under 1.51 seconds. In 2009, Nyquist was at 1.57. In 2010, he got it down to 1.49.

When he arrived at Maine in September 2008, he weighed 166 pounds. When he left to play for the Red Wings' minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., he was at 184 pounds with 7.8 percent body fat. Those 20 pounds weren't the kind you and I put on in college. This was pure strength and power.

"He trained so hard in the weight room," Whitehead said. "He was driven to get better and better and better."

That's the attribute Andersson liked best when he sat down with Nyquist the first time leading up to the draft. Some players Andersson would talk to were shy and stared at the floor. Other players were so confident in their abilities they wouldn't take instruction. Nyquist was neither. He was inquisitive. He made eye contact, asking questions in such a way that his eyes are still something Andersson remembers about those first conversations.

"Curious eyes. Happy eyes," Andersson told ESPN The Magazine while scouting a game in the Czech Republic. "He looks like he wants to learn. He wants to find out more ... it's a very good approach to have to your own career. To have that in that in you. He wants to go there and look around that corner."

Give instruction to a wise person and they get even wiser, and that's what happened with Nyquist. Whitehead and his staff at Maine helped build his strength. Under Curt Fraser and Jeff Blashill in the AHL, he learned how to be a pro. Under Mike Babcock in Detroit, he has learned how to score on a regular basis in the NHL. The advice is sometimes as simple as "shoot more," something Nyquist heard early and often.

In his first 18 NHL games during the 2011-12 season, Nyquist averaged 1.06 shots per game. In 22 games the following season, he averaged 2.09 shots per game. This season, that number grew to 2.68.

"That's something Babs has been on him since I was with him in Detroit when I came up there," Blashill told ESPN The Magazine. "I think he understood it. You still have to change your habits."

Those who have watched Nyquist have noticed a trend with him. There's an adjustment period as he moves from one level of hockey to the next, and during that period, questions inevitably arise about whether he's fast or big enough to compete at that level. It might well happen in the playoffs this season, too.

"And then, boom. He figured it out," said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, who ran the drafts in Detroit when Nyquist was drafted. "That's hockey sense. He figures it out."

It's the hockey sense Andersson saw when a skinny kid was playing in Sweden, a kid who would look like he was contained by bigger defensemen in the corner and then two seconds later was in front of the net setting up a scoring chance.

It's the hockey sense Whitehead saw at Maine in the form of subtle dekes, faked shots and how, with his head always scanning the ice, Nyquist was able to connect the dots on where everyone else was going a moment before anyone else in the building. After a while, Whitehead noticed that when Nyquist had the puck coming up the ice, everyone on the Maine bench instinctively stood up.

There's always an adjustment for Nyquist, but so far, those periods have always been followed by success. The playoffs are his next barrier. Nyquist remembers being called up to play four games against the Nashville Predators in the 2012 postseason and the nerves that came with it. He wasn't calm. Players talk a lot about playing their game, and he admits now that he didn't over that stretch.

In four games, Nyquist managed just one shot on goal and did not record a point. In 2013, he got off 26 shots in 14 playoff games, scoring two goals and handing out three assists.

He'll pass the 20-playoff game threshold against the Boston Bruins, and with that comfort should come better production. It won't be at the same pace he enjoyed during the regular season, when he shot an unsustainable 18.3 percent in 57 games, but when Nyquist gets comfortable, production follows.

Against the Bruins his comfort level will be the highest it's been in the postseason. As comfortable as anybody can be playing Boston in the playoffs, at least. He's excited for the challenge.

"Everyone plays like their lives are on the line," Nyquist told ESPN The Magazine. "It's a fun battle out there."

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.