Having finally been promoted to Detroit full time, Gustav Nyquist can look forward to flights aboard the Red Wings' jet after completing the long journey from highly touted college player to NHL regular.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
For the ideal illustration of how to "mind your Ps and Qs," you need look no further than Gustav Nyquist.
There are many theories behind the origin of the phrase for watching your tongue and being on your best behavior, but all of them might pale in comparison to the story of the Swedish hockey player who came to North America to play college hockey for the Maine Black Bears.
After leading his team in points for all three of his seasons at Maine, including 2009-10 when he was the NCAA regular-season scoring leader, Nyquist came to Grand Rapids as a relatively high draft pick (4th round, 121st overall in 2008) of the Detroit Red Wings.
He recorded an assist in his first AHL game, then scored his first goal in his second game off a pass from Jamie Tardif. He became a consistent high scorer for the Griffins – one of the best in the team's history – and continued at a point-per-game pace while waiting for the opportunity to play in Detroit.
Nyquist scored his first career NHL goal off a pass from Pavel Datsyuk against Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 26, 2012, a year and a day after making his debut with the Griffins. He looked ready to make his mark in the NHL, but the lockout at the beginning of the 2012-13 season forced him back to Grand Rapids.
He continued to excel with the Griffins, leading the team in scoring for a second straight season (60 points in only 58 games) and helping the team become one of the best in the AHL. He saw action in a couple of post-lockout games in Detroit, then was recalled by the Red Wings on March 20 for the balance of the regular season and playoffs.
After the Red Wings were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Nyquist returned to Grand Rapids with Joakim Andersson and Danny DeKeyser and helped the Griffins win their first-ever Calder Cup championship.
Having accomplished about all he could in the AHL, it seemed like the time had come for Nyquist to finally show what he could do in the NHL once and for all. But Detroit's free agent signings of Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss and Dan Cleary last summer put the organization in a numbers crunch, and Nyquist – who could be sent back to Grand Rapids without being exposed to waivers until playing two more NHL contests – found himself the odd man out.
Here is where Nyquist minded his Ps and Qs.
Some players might have protested, but Nyquist stayed quiet. Others might have chosen to pout, but Nyquist had no quarrel with the situation. Knowing the Red Wings were in a quandary, Nyquist remained professional.
While Red Wings fans and media types quibbled on the Internet about the unfairness of the circumstances, Nyquist remained polite and patient, continuing to persevere on the ice while becoming almost philosophical about his status.
"Obviously, I hear about it from the media, but I'm trying not to think about it too much," he said in early November. "It's nothing I can control. If I start thinking about it, it'll get to be too much."
Nyquist's poise under duress came as no surprise to Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill.
"What I know for sure is that Gus Nyquist is a really good person, a really good teammate who carries himself really well in the locker room and who plays to win hockey games," Blashill said. "He's done a great job of controlling what he can control and that's his play, and he's obviously played very well for us. He's one of the best players in the league, and where he plays isn't up to him."
The Red Wings publicly proclaim their process of over-ripening prospects, but Nyquist had long passed the use-by date. He was more than ready.
“I've been working hard every day to be ready when that call comes,” Nyquist said after a Griffins practice. “That's all I can worry about down here. If I don't do my best, I'm not going to be ready when that call comes. While I'm in Grand Rapids, it's important for me to play as well as possible."
It had to be a relief for all parties involved when Nyquist was recalled to Detroit on Nov. 21. A day earlier, the Red Wings had learned they would be without DeKeyser for 3-6 weeks due to a separated shoulder, thereby opening a roster spot for Nyquist.
True to form, Nyquist did everything that was expected of him and more in his first game back with the Red Wings, a 4-3 victory over Carolina. He scored just 17 seconds into the game when he collected a loose puck at the bottom of the right circle, then scored the eventual game-winner on a breakaway with 4:04 left in the game. His two goals helped Detroit break a seven-game losing streak.
"I wanted to bring as much energy as possible and come out to play with speed and creativity," he said. "The first goal was just a lucky bounce right on my stick. I tried to put it on net as fast as possible and it squeaked through the five-hole. It was nice to get that quick one.
"On the second goal, 'Z' (Henrik Zetterberg) made a great play off the wall. He knew I was coming up the middle and I just skated, made a move and shot the puck. It was nice to see it go in."
Nyquist played on the top line with Zetterberg, the Red Wings' captain, and Johan Franzen, a fellow Swede who was nicknamed “Mule” by former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.
"Obviously I've been given a great opportunity, playing on a line with Z and Mule," Nyquist said. They're obviously fun players to play with; you get to touch the puck a lot. It's always nice when you can score a couple goals."
Nyquist was held scoreless in his next two games, but tallied goals in his fourth and fifth games back, adding an assist as well. After five games, he had four goals – more than he had in 22 games last season with the Red Wings.
He's showing the consistency that had become a hallmark of his time with the Griffins.
"He's been a great American Hockey League player by consistently performing at a high level," Blashill said. "That's all he could do and he's done it. Consistency is one of his greatest strengths, both from a point-generation standpoint and also in his general play.
"More nights than not, he's a highly impactful player in the game, and on the nights that he's not, he's not a liability defensively. He's still a good player from the defensive side of the puck."
In fact, his defensive play might be what he has improved the most since turning pro.
"Coming from college, it's definitely a different game here, and it takes a little while to adjust to the pro style, which is a little more structured," Nyquist said. "The biggest change is the speed of the game. Everything happens a lot faster up here; you've got to be a lot quicker."
"Coach Blash has worked hard to help me improve so I can be a better defensive player. Offense frequently comes from good defense. I think that's something I've learned over the course of my time in Grand Rapids."
Nyquist credits Blashill and his predecessor, Curt Fraser, for showing him how to become a better two-way player. He has always been a steady point producer. Learning how to shut down the other team's top lines took time.
"Looking back, Grand Rapids was a great learning opportunity for me," Nyquist said. "I got to play in a lot of different situations and I learned a lot from my coaches, plus we always had a great group of guys in the locker room to show the way. The whole city, the coaching staff and the team have been great to me."
Nyquist made the most of his opportunities in Detroit last season, showing that he was a capable NHL player who could be accountable on the ice.
"I would have liked to have contributed a little more offense-wise, but I thought with Andy (Joakim Andersson) and Damien Brunner we had a good line going in the playoffs, and we did some good things. I thought the whole team did. I was pretty satisfied with my play."
Nyquist was crushed when the Red Wings lost 2-1 to the Blackhawks in Game 7 of conference semifinals after having built a commanding 3-1 series lead.
"People say we took the champions to the final game, that no one expected that, but everyone in our locker room felt we had a really good thing going. We believed in ourselves. Even though we did a lot of good things, we were pretty disappointed to have lost."
Nyquist was happy when the Red Wings informed him and Andersson that they would be coming back to Grand Rapids for the end of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"We were told right after Game 7 in Chicago that we were going to fly down to Oklahoma City the next day to rejoin the Griffins," Nyquist said. "We were really happy. We felt like we were still part of this team after having played more than half of the season in Grand Rapids, and we weren't ready to spend time on the beach."
Nyquist said he felt the Griffins had something special early in the season after a tough start in which the team won only one of its first six games.
"Coach told us it was a process and that if we kept doing the right things, things would turn around. A lot of the young guys developed and improved, and after that bad start, we won eight in a row, beating a lot of good teams in that stretch. I think that's when a lot of us felt we had a really good thing going.
"We weren't thinking about a championship. Our goal was to be a playoff team and once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. When me and Andy saw how good they were doing in the playoffs, we were really excited to come back and contribute as much as possible."
Nyquist had seven points (two goals, five assists) in 10 playoff games as the Griffins came back to eliminate Oklahoma City in seven games, then knocked off Syracuse in six games to win the franchise's first Calder Cup.
"It was my first time winning anything," Nyquist said. "Going all the way was a tremendous experience. The leadership from the veterans was unbelievable. (Jeff) Hoggan, (Brennan) Evans, (Nathan) Paetsch and Bubba (Triston Grant)– those guys are great leaders.
"Winning the Calder Cup was a great experience. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
When Nyquist signed a new two-year contract with the Red Wings last August, he knew a spot in Detroit was far from guaranteed.
"We all knew that the forwards would be fighting for spots," he said. "We knew they had too many guys up there, that some guys were going to be beat out for a spot on the roster. I obviously thought about it, but all I could control was to play as best as I possibly could in camp."
Nyquist refused to get down on himself or his situation when he came back to Grand Rapids. He recorded 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 15 games during his time with the Griffins, tying him for fourth in AHL scoring at the time of his recall. "I wanted to be a role model for the younger guys," he said. "We all felt like we have a great team in Grand Rapids again. It's exciting and a lot of fun to come to the rink every day when you're winning."
Now that he's in Detroit, Nyquist is intent on showing the Red Wings that the NHL is where he belonged all along.
"I want to be a consistent player and play my best every day," he said. "All of the great players are everyday players. You look at Kronner (Niklas Kronwall), Z and Pav – it seems like they never have a bad day. Even though some games they don't score, they still do so many good things defensively, they shut down the other top lines. They never stop working.
"For a young player, seeing how hard those guys work is impressive. Even though they score 80 to 100 points, they still work the hardest. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups over the past 20 years and they're still not done. They're still working hard every day. That's what I want to do as well. I want to be a consistent player and play hard every day."