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In a quiet moment last season, Niklas Kronwall had a question for Gustav Nyquist.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Kronwall asked.
“What do you mean?” Nyquist responded.
“Well, what do you think? All the goals.”
“I don’t know, man. I’m trying not to think.”
Nyquist was on an unthinkable run. He had started the season in the minors, and now here he was with the Detroit Red Wings, scoring like a superstar.
No one scored more than Nyquist’s 23 goals from Jan. 20 through the end of the 2013-14 regular season – not Sidney Crosby, the winner of the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player; not Alex Ovechkin, the winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the goal-scoring champion; not anyone.
Nyquist scored 23 goals in 28 games from Jan. 20 through April 2, a 67-goal pace over an 82-game schedule. He finished with 28 goals in 57 games, a 40-goal pace. He led the Wings in goals by nine. Among those who appeared in at least 37 games – the number Steven Stamkos played – he ranked fifth in goals per game at 0.49.
“It was ridiculous at times,” said Kronwall, Nyquist’s friend and teammate. “It was fun to watch, for sure. I don’t think even he realized what was going on.”
It was so ridiculous, the question entering this season was not whether the Wings had found another elite goal-scorer. The question was what would be a fair target for Nyquist. The Wings didn’t want to sell him short; they didn’t want to raise expectations too high, either.
“Well, I don’t think I’ll be scoring 80 goals,” Nyquist said with a laugh. “Let’s put it that way.”
Most inside the organization thought 25 goals would be a good number for Nyquist. Thirty goals, Kronwall said, would be “extremely good.”
Now that seems conservative. Nyquist scored seven goals in his first 11 games this season, a 57-goal pace. He entered Tuesday night fourth in the league in goals behind Corey Perry (11), Rick Nash (nine) and Stamkos (eight). He was tied with Crosby, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Hey, what’s going on?
Yes, this is another hot streak. Nyquist is bound to cool off. He scored on 29.2 percent of his shots in his first 11 games this season. He scored on 27.0 percent of his shots from Jan. 20 to April 2 last season. No one shoots at those kinds of percentages over the long term.
Nyquist scored on 18.3 percent of his shots over 57 games last season. Even that should be unsustainable. Stamkos, the most efficient elite sniper in the league, has a career shooting percentage of 17.4.
Remember that before Jan. 20 last season, Nyquist had one goal in 18 games. His shooting percentage during that stretch: 2.3. After April 2, he had no goals in 11 games – six in the regular season, five in the playoffs. His shooting percentage: 0.0. He has had his droughts and will have them again. Over time, things even out.
Remember, too, that Nyquist did his damage last season largely while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were out of the lineup with injuries. That gave him first-line minutes. That put him on the first power play. He and his teammates weren’t deferring to Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and though he faced top competition, his opponents didn’t know him well. Now Datsyuk and Zetterberg are back, and Nyquist is no secret anymore.
The Wings have shuffled their lines often this season, but if everyone is healthy, Nyquist probably won’t play a first-line role. He has been bumped from the first power play once already. As coach Mike Babcock told reporters, when Nyquist plays with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he “never gets the puck.” The Wings thought he would get more touches playing with Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar. When Nyquist was hot last season, he was averaging 3.03 shots per game. Now he’s averaging only 2.18.
“I’m hoping these young guys, just because Pav and Hank are back, that they’re not going to take a backseat and say, ‘OK, now I don’t want to be seen too much, because now it’s their team,’ ” Kronwall said. “We need them to keep developing and keep pushing, keep scoring, keep playing hard just the way they did last year.”
As for Nyquist losing his sleeper status, Kronwall said: “I’m sure guys will have scouted him, teams will have scouted him. They’ll know more about him and his tendencies, and that’s going to be a good challenge for him.”
But maybe Nyquist is up for the challenge. Though no one can sustain shooting percentages like these, maybe Nyquist can shoot better than 10 percent, maybe in the low to mid teens. He shot 14.5 percent and scored 22 goals in 56 games in the minors in 2011-12. He shot 13.6 percent and scored 23 goals in 58 games in the minors in 2012-13.
Maybe he will take advantage of better matchups playing second-line minutes. Maybe he will click with Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the first power play. After he was put back on the first unit, he scored two power-play goals Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings. He already has four power-play goals this season; he had six last season.
Maybe it’s good he still has something to prove.
Nyquist has exceeded expectations his entire career. He was a fourth-round pick in 2008, an undersized skill player. In three years at the University of Maine, he led the NCAA in scoring once and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award twice. In two seasons in the AHL, he put up more than a point a game and helped the Grand Rapids Griffins win a Calder Cup. He was more of a natural playmaker, and the Wings’ brass urged him to shoot, shoot, shoot.
After he finally made the NHL to stay as a 24-year-old, 5-foot-11, 185-pound right winger, Nyquist lit it up. The more he scored, the more his confidence grew. The more his confidence grew, the more he scored. The snowball hasn’t stopped. But confidence does not equal comfort.
“I don’t think you can think like that,” said Nyquist, now 25. “There’s so many players that want to play in this league. I myself, I know from experience how tough it is to make it to this league. There’s a lot of players knocking on the door trying to take your job, even this season if someone’s doing good down in Grand Rapids. You can’t be satisfied, and I don’t think any hockey player is. You’re always trying to improve your game.”
What does Nyquist think would be a realistic target for himself?
Why put a number on it?
“I’m just trying not to think too much about it,” Nyquist said. “I’m just going to go out there and play my game and do the best I can.”
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