Is This Red Wings Trio Bucking The NHL Trend?

By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

The NHL is driven by speed, now more than ever, and those who can’t keep up are getting left behind.

Not so fast, three Red Wings might say.

Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, reunited by coach Jeff Blashill two games ago, are proving there’s still a place in the league for players who don’t burn holes in the ice.

Theirs is a more deliberate style of hockey, at once calculated and off-the-cuff.

“The one thing about that Zetterberg, Tats and Nyquie line is they all kind of play the same way. I don’t want to call it Euro hockey, but it’s less north-south. It’s a little more east-west than maybe what some other people play,” said Blashill.

Euro hockey is by some means an apt term. Zetterberg and Nyquist are from Sweden, Tatar is from Slovakia. Hockey players of European descent aren’t any slower by nature, but they tend to play a less hurried game. Zetterberg, Nyquist and Tatar are no different. They carve more than they charge.

“That’s why it’s been a successful line, really going back to last year, because they all kind of play alike. They all play off each other. Z and Nyquie definitely have real good chemistry together,” Blashill said.

The three forwards began the 2016-17 season on the same line. They were separated amid Tatar’s woefully slow start, but Blashill saw enough to reunite them later in the year. They quickly fell back into harmony, combining for 26 points in Detroit’s final 10 games.

Zetterberg, Nyquist and Tatar finished the year as the team’s top three scorers, in that order.

When the Red Wings fell into a six-game losing streak last month, Blashill brought the band back together. So far it’s worked. The team has won its last two games and Nyquist, after a slow start, has come alive.

“Confidence is an amazing thing,” said Blashill. “I just think when he’s feeling it confidence wise he’s way more apt to hold onto the puck and make the right play, as opposed to being afraid to make a mistake.”

Nyquist couldn’t get enough of the puck in the Wings’ slump-busting win over Florida on Saturday. Midway through the second he carried it end to end, carefully weaving through the neutral zone before slipping past the defense and burying his own rebound. It was like he lulled the Panthers to sleep.

He struck again on Tuesday night versus the Coyotes, in the same serpentine fashion. This time, Nyquist picked up the puck along the boards in the offensive zone, snaked his way toward the high slot and flung a seeing-eye wrist shot on net just as Tatar and Zetterberg were criss-crossing above the crease. Goalie Scott Wedgewood lost sight of it at the last second.

It’s an interesting combination, Zetterberg, Nyquist and Tatar. Linemates typically have complementary skillsets, but this trio plays the same way. It’s homogeny on skates, and for Blashill that’s fine.

In fact, it’s why he put them together.

“I think they all have moments of controlling the puck, to be honest with you. I have to remind that line to make sure they have a net presence, and I thought they did a pretty good job of that (Tuesday) night,” Blashill said.

The pace of play in the NHL is getting faster and faster, and never has there been such a premium on speed. But there remain other ways to succeed.

“There’s lots of room for guys that are real smart, crafty hockey players. We saw one (Tuesday) night in Clayton Keller,” Blashill said, referring to the Coyotes’ 19-year-old rookie and their leading scorer. “That’s not to say Keller doesn’t have any speed, but his best attribute is how crafty he is and how smart he is.”

The same could certainly be said of Zetterberg, and to a degree Nyquist and Tatar. None of the three is going to win a fastest-skater competition at practice, but they’re all valuable players on a team that itself is trying to keep up with the times.

Or maybe the NHL isn’t all that different than it used to be.

“I think it gets overstated a little bit about the speed league,” said Blashill. “There’s lots of guys that are real successful that aren’t super fast. What’s happened in this league is at times teams appear fast because they get behind you and they get you on your heels. Teams are throwing pucks into space, getting in foot races, getting behind the D, and all of a sudden they feel way faster than they are because of how they’re playing.”

No one would mistake Zetterberg, Nyquist and Tatar for speedsters, and maybe that makes them outliers in today’s NHL. But it doesn’t make them obsolete. Harmony isn’t easily achieved, and there’s enduring value in keeping the beat.

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