02/03/2012 12:03 AM -
The more minutes under his belt, the more likely that center Joakim Andersson will earn a job in Detroit.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
If there’s one thing that works to the advantage of a young hockey player, it’s time.
For Swedish prospect Joakim Andersson, who turns just 23 on Feb. 5, it means everything.
Time to improve his English. Time to get more comfortable with living in a new country. Time to adapt to smaller rinks and a more physical style of hockey. Time to improve his skating and quickness. Time to strengthen his play at both ends of the ice. Time to teach his teammates how to correctly pronounce his name.
“It’s ‘you-uh-kim,’” said the affable Andersson, who hears his name pronounced “joke-im” time after time; so often, in fact, that he is resigned to living with the American pronunciation.
Now in his second season with the Griffins, Andersson is starting to show why the Detroit Red Wings selected him in the third round (88th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
Andersson is the all-time leader in international games played for the Swedish national team. He has four major international tournaments on his resume, starting with the 2006 IIHF World U18 Championship.
He helped Sweden win a bronze medal at the 2007 version of the same tournament, then boosted his homeland to a silver medal at the 2008 World Junior Championship when he tallied six assists in six games.
Andersson was an alternate captain of the Swedish team at the 2009 World Junior Championship, once again taking home a silver medal. Centering his team’s second line, he recorded three goals and three assists in six contests.
Not surprisingly, he treasures his time spent playing on the international stage.
“It’s helped me a lot,” he said. “Playing against the best guys in your age group in the world is a great experience and a lot of fun. We didn’t win, but we came close twice by making it to the finals. When you get to play in a final (game), you learn what it’s all about.”
Andersson also values his time in the Swedish Elite League, playing for Frölunda, a professional ice hockey club based in Gothenburg, located on the west coast of Sweden alongside the North Sea.
He had played two full seasons and a part of another in Sweden’s top league by the time he was 21. “When I got brought up to the big club, I had more of a defensive role than I had in the second division, and it helped make me a stronger defensive player,” he said.
Andersson credits his strong two-way play in Frölunda to the coaching of Ulf Dahlén, who played 14 seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.
“He taught me a lot about faceoffs,” Andersson said. “We also had a lot of veteran centermen during my three years there.”
Andersson felt he had paid his dues in Sweden by the time he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Red Wings in 2010. He talked to a cousin, Fredrik Johansson, who played for the AHL’s Springfield Falcons as an Edmonton Oilers prospect a couple of years earlier.
“I looked up to him and I wanted to do the same thing,” said Andersson, who chose hockey over soccer when he was 14. “There really never was any question of whether I was going to play hockey instead of soccer.”
His cousin warned him that the transition would not be easy and that it would take time to adjust. In fact, Johansson eventually returned to Sweden after one season.
“He told me that it was a long season with a lot of games, and that it was a big difference between here and home,” Andersson said. “He also talked about the smaller rinks, that it was more physical and that you were expected to shoot more.”
Indeed, playing an 80-game schedule was the greatest challenge for Andersson, who played in all but one of the Griffins’ games during his rookie season.
“You’ve got to prepare yourself, both physically and mentally,” he said. “We never play three weekend games in Sweden. We hardly play back-to-back games, except for once or twice in a season. It was a big adjustment.”
Andersson learned to sleep on 10-hour bus rides to places like Rochester, N.Y. “You don’t get as much sleep as you would like, so you have to figure out how to save energy, how to sleep on the bus,” he said.
The 2010-11 season, his first with the Griffins, was an exercise in time management, learning to make the most of his minutes, both on the ice and off.
He admits that he discovered that he had a lot to learn. “Last year, I was a little up and down,” he said. “I had some good periods, but I wanted to be more consistent.”
His play this year has demonstrated that his rookie year was time well spent. By the midpoint of the season, he had already topped his goal total from a year earlier and matched his points, in half as many games.
“Andersson has probably been our most consistent forward,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “He’s played well in a lot of different situations, and he’s been contributing offensively as well as defensively.”
Fraser has rewarded his young center with more minutes, putting him on the ice during critical situations, including the final minutes of close games, and by naming him an alternate captain.
“He’s done a very good job since the day he first got here,” Fraser said. “He’s improved a lot and he continues to get better and better, which is why he got a chance to play with the Red Wings.”
Andersson was promoted to Detroit on Dec. 27 and saw action in four games before returning to Grand Rapids in early January.
“Of course, I had hoped to play some games (in the NHL), so it was good news when Curt told me that I was going to get called up. It was our first morning on the ice after our Christmas break, so it was like a late Christmas present. I called my dad and he spread the news. I got a lot of texts and calls after that.”
Andersson made his debut in a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at Joe Louis Arena. Although he played only eight shifts, logging 5:10 of ice time, he made a good impression.
"He’s been here at a few camps and he’s working his way into being an NHL pro,” remarked Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “He’s a big body, real good instincts. He’s probably going to be a third- or fourth-line center (eventually)."
Andersson was excited to get an opportunity to play in Detroit so early in his career.
“It was a special feeling to put on the Red Wings jersey and skate onto the Joe,” he said. “I was a little nervous the first game, but when the puck dropped and I got in a shift, I felt comfortable right away.”
Wearing the #63 that he was given in his first training camp, Andersson stayed in Detroit for three more games, eventually playing on a line with two other players with Griffins ties – rookies Gustav Nyquist and Cory Emmerton.
“I think we played pretty well and created some chances,” Andersson said, a feeling echoed by the Red Wings coach. “I thought the Emmerton line was good,” Babcock said after unveiling his all-rookie line. “Nyquist gave us a spark; Andersson was good, made good decisions.”
There is little question that Andersson is a better player this season than he was a year ago. Whether it’s a matter of minutes or shooting more, he’s putting the puck into the net at a brisker clip.
“I feel like I’m in the right spots more. Last year I had a hard time getting to the net because the ‘D’ here are bigger and stronger. Now I’m finding my way to the net. Almost all of my goals are rebounds or tips around the net. I love battling around the net.”
Andersson knows he will need to continue to improve to earn more minutes in Detroit. He is determined to ensure that his skating isn’t the issue that holds him back.
“Since I was 13, people have told me that I need to become a better and faster skater, but I work hard in the summer and do workouts during the season to keep getting quicker. I know I’m not going to be a great skater, but I don’t think it’s a concern. I’ll keep working on it.”
He would love to earn a job in Detroit next season, when the Red Wings are likely to host the 2013 Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium.
Andersson played in the first outdoor game in Sweden, the 2009 Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic. His team beat archrival Farjestads BK, 4-1, in front of 31,144 fans, which set the attendance record for a European game at the time.
He remembers having goosebumps at the start, although it may have been the weather’s doing. “It was freezing cold,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to play outdoors in front of a good crowd.”
Taking a regular shift with the Red Wings’ large Swedish contingent is something that he’s long dreamt about. He figures it’s just a matter of time.
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