“Obviously I was very pleased and very happy that it was the Red Wings that took a chance on me,” says Niklas Kronwall. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
Detroit — Niklas Kronwall sat in a corner of the visitors dressing room in Edmonton, peeling off equipment after a narrow escape.
It was a moment of mixed emotion.
The Red Wings had just defeated the Oilers, 3-2. But they put themselves in the position of requiring a furious third-period comeback.
"I think, both of their goals, I could have done something differently, for sure," Kronwall said.
After assessing himself, he turned to the team.
"I think the first two periods were awful tonight, to say the least, a step behind and just watching," Kronwall said. "It wasn't enough."
He credited the forwards for generating the dynamic cycling game and Jimmy Howard's brilliant performance for the win.
It was all classic Kronwall, and evidence of why he is a leader among leaders for the Red Wings. Kronwall, 32, assumes personal responsibility. He also identifies the reality of game situations and the team's overall performance so deftly that his words and analysis carry considerable weight.
There is one Nick, now. Nicklas Lidstrom has retired. Kronwall leads a young defense that has jelled over the course of the first 29 games.
"He talks really well and motivates us that way," said Brendan Smith, one of two rookies among the six defensive regulars, among which Kronwall is the only 30-year-old. "But he shows it on the ice, too.
"He shows by example, which is a big thing for a leader like him. But he is a vocal leader as well. He does it whether it's in the room or on the ice. On the ice, he's always talking."
Kronwall's leadership was on display in the dressing room during a recent game when the Red Wings played a poor first period.
"We came in here," Smith said, standing at his dressing stall, "and he was one of the first guys talking, to give some tips for the boys to work on or things that maybe we should think about so we could get better and get some momentum that way."
'Still things to work on'
When he heard Lidstrom finally decided to retire, Kronwall did not assume a great weight on his shoulders.
"I don't really try to think of it that way," Kronwall said. "It is what it is, and the rest of us are trying to pull it together as a unit, and there's still things to work on."
But the biggest mistake he could have made was to do too much. When defensemen do that, they can take themselves right out of their game and the team's game.
"Nick is the perfect example," Kronwall said of Lidstrom. "If you look at Nick, he never put himself in trouble. A lot of times when you try too hard, you try too much, that's when you put yourself in trouble, you run out of time. And that's when you put your team mates in a bad spot.
"That's something I don't want to do. I know it still happens every once in a while."
And when young players like Smith, Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff see Kronwall working, remaining within himself and talking about the importance of doing so, the impact is real.
"He was the guy I was paired with when I first came up, and he really helped me slow things down," Lashoff said. "He talked to me a lot, and he really settled me in as far as on and off the ice.
"I think a guy like him has learned from some pretty good leaders, himself."
Meanwhile, Kronwall was the third-leading scorer among defensemen, entering play Tuesday, with five goals and 17 assists. His minus-7 is something he works to improve. But one of Kronwall's attributes is that he often says he needs to play better before he is asked.
His role is key to the success of the Red Wings after the loss of Lidstrom, Brad Stuart and Brian Rafalski along the back end in the past two years, the lockout and all the injuries this season.
"I think at the end of the day, you're just trying to do what you can do," Kronwall said. "And I know I can be better than I have, and I think we all have a few more percentages of effort to give, in here."
The assumption of responsibility: Kronwall does not shirk from it, and it is a great strength that has become an important factor in the development of the Red Wings in a transitional year.
Asked if that process is rebuilding, Kronwall said, "I'm not sure what word you use. I'm trying to stay away from using a word. I just think that we've got a job to do."
Perhaps the frank realism is a result of early tragedy. Kronwall's father, Hans, died when he was 11. He credits his mother, Tove, with keeping the family on an even keel, even with Kronwall and his siblings active in sports.
"One of my half brothers was there and helped my mom out a lot with driving. Friends, their parents, and of course my mom is the one who has really been pulling the ship together, after what happened," he said. "She made sure that we could all still be in sports."
Born in a big city, Stockholm, Kronwall was raised in a small town, Viksjo.
Like many kids in Sweden, it was soccer in summer and hockey in winter.
But at age 14, while Kronwall continued playing soccer, his path swerved dramatically to hockey.
"Two friends of mine decided to change teams and go to a team, Djurgarden, that was a little better, practiced more, summer workouts and everything like that.
"I was by no means anything special. But I loved the game, and I learned a lot."
A coach, K.G. Stoppel, who had a dramatic impact on his development, moved coincidentally with Kronwall from the youth team through the pro team for Djurgarden.
Happy to be in Detroit
NHL scouts began to take notice. And when a kid who followed the careers of Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom heard that the Red Wings selected him in the first round in 2000, he was overjoyed.
"In my case, I wanted to come to an Original Six team, if I could chose," Kronwall said. "I just like the history and the culture of everything. And, of course, the Red Wings then had Nick and Holmer on the team, and Hank was drafted. I it was a great place.
"It was almost too good to be true when they called out your name late in the first round. I didn't expect to go that high, and obviously I was very pleased and very happy that it was the Red Wings that took a chance on me."
Wild at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7:30 tonight, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
Outlook: Minnesota is on a 7-3-0 run and has moved atop the Northwest Division. … The Wild have been excellent on the penalty kill (fifth, 85.9 percent). … Free agent acquisitions D Ryan Suter (23 points, 21 assists) and LW Zach Parise (22 points, 11 goals) have been productive.