November 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

As scoring touch deserts him, Wings' Daniel Cleary relies on character

Detroit — In the dressing room after practice Friday morning, following Gustav Nyquist’s brilliant two-goal performance against the Hurricanes the night before, Daniel Cleary talked loudly about ordering new hockey sticks.

Desperate for some scoring, after a bitterly cold first quarter of the season, Cleary talked like a baseball hitter at the bat rack, looking for some lumber with some hits in it.

It has been quite a career for Cleary.

Selected 13th overall in the first round of the 1997 draft by the Blackhawks much was expected.

It took a while.

Nine seasons later, he arrived in Detroit largely as a role player who could be counted on for good defense.

After a while, his role expanded, and some of the offensive talent he displayed in juniors and the AHL reappeared.

Eventually, he posted three 20-goal seasons, including in the run to the 2008 Stanley Cup and a career-high 26 three seasons ago.

He scored nine goals in 23 playoff games in 2009, when the Wings lost in Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final to the Penguins.

Last season, he was a key contributor to the Red Wings’ stunning run in the first two rounds of the playoffs, with four goals and six assists in 14 games.

Numbers game

But, having arrived at the age of 34, the Wings’ brass was looking for a way to shoehorn Cleary under the salary cap and into the lineup, in the off-season.

It nearly did not work.

He says he brushed aside a tryout contract with the Flyers because he simply could not leave the Red Wings. Quite literally, Cleary has said, he could not bring himself to pack.

Now, the power has gone out, almost as it did in his early, now nearly forgotten years of struggle.

He has one goal and two assists in 24 games.

Chunks of the Wings’ fan base are discontented with his performance. And, especially with the Red Wings starting the season with a surplus of forwards and some more roster moves likely as the season progresses, the performance of Cleary, who turns 35 in 24 days, bears all the more scrutiny.

But the character the Newfoundlander has amassed throughout a career of both hard knocks and accomplishment has Daniel Cleary concentrating on Daniel Cleary, and how to get some goals out of those sticks.

“Yeah listen, you want to score and provide offense,” he said. “So, you’ve got to go and do it.”

He sounds a bit desperate when he is asked how he can remedy a completely underwhelming start of the season — an offensive drought that, he acknowledged, is unlike anything he has experienced.

“Oh God, you’ve got to be good defensively,” he said. “You’ve got to do the little things and we’ve always believed that you’re game will come out of it doing that.”

Right mind-set

As to whether his confidence is high or low, Cleary said, “It’s in the middle.”

And he repeated the answer, perhaps to assure himself it was so.

“You know, you’ve got to be positive and you’ve got to stay confident,” he said. “That’s the only way to get through it.”

Perhaps to spur confidence and get him ontrack, Mike Babcock is playing him on a line with Pavel Datsyuk.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” Babcock said, of playing with one of the most gifted offensive players in the NHL.

As for Cleary, his highly supportive coach said he is not providing “enough.”

“The bottom line, though, is confidence is a tough thing in the league and we’re hoping that playing with Pav might help him.”

Babcock said he spoke with both Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi Saturday morning before the game with the Senators. Both were slated to play with Datsyuk, but Bertuzzi was a late scratch.

Babcock said he does not talk to his struggling veterans every day.

“You can’t meet with them every day,” he said. “You can talk to them about their kids every day. You can see them at the coffee pot. You can’t talk to them about hockey every day.

“They’d quit hockey.”

It is highly unlikley Cleary has any quit in him. And there is no doubt that come playoff time, the Red Wings do not want to be skating with all young forwards, plus Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson.

To win in the playoffs, there must be a mix. Young troops will not carry the day.

But the Wings require an offensive contribution from Cleary, and it is not in evidence, yet.

Cleary looked effective Saturday, with at least four decent scoring chances fairly early against the Senators. But he failed to clickwith some shots not on target and others stopped.

It looked like a player snake-bitten.

He ended up playing only 11:27.

But Babcock said that was entirely owing to a penalty-filled game, in which Cleary had no responsibilities on the power play or the penalty kill.

Before the game, Cleary, a consumate “character player,” talked about his circumstances.

“I think it comes with the territory,” he said of both the disappointment and the pressure to produce.

“To be a professional, I think you have to be mentally strong.

“You have to do every other aspect of your game well. Then, that (offensive) side will happen, and that’s what I’ve always believed in.

“And, as a team, we believe in that as well.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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Detroit's Daniel Cleary, left, here with Stephen Weiss trying to get the puck past Ottawa's Milan Michalek in the first period, has a goal and two assists in 24 games. / David Guralnick / Detroit News