April 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

'The Mule' Johan Franzen in need of a kick-start once again for Red Wings

Johan Franzen, who got a $43.5 million contract after scoring 25 goals in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs, has one assist this postseason. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — We keep asking, but “The Mule” won’t respond. His coach keeps pushing, but “The Mule” won’t budge. His teammates keep prodding, but Johan Franzen still hasn’t produced.

And what once was a given — years ago, Franzen was a playoff scoring beast — is now giving his team and its fan base a collective headache. Again.

What to do with the man they call “The Mule?” That’s the question that gets asked of his coach, Mike Babcock, as well as Franzen’s veteran teammates, on an almost daily basis now. And with the Red Wings facing elimination Saturday only a week after winning their playoff opener — trailing the Bruins, 3-1, in a best-of-seven series — it was asked again Friday.

“I don’t know if it’s what I do,” said Babcock, who spent some time skating and talking with Franzen before a light practice Friday at Joe Louis Arena. “It’s what he does. He’s got to get himself going, just like all of us. All of us are responsible for ourselves. I mean, obviously, we talk to him, try to put him in the best situation to be successful. But like every guy on the team, collectively as a group and individually, we have to have our best.”

At the moment, they’re getting far less than that from too many players.

Blame the inexperience for some, whether it’s in the faceoff circle or in front of the net. Blame injuries for others, whether it’s Pavel Datsyuk’s bum knee or Daniel Alfredsson’s aching back or whatever’s ailing Jimmy Howard. (Don't rule out the possibility of a concussion.)

But, Franzen’s latest fault line — no goals, one assist and 10 shots in 76-plus minutes this series — is the most confounding problem for everyone in this organization, both at the moment and moving forward.

Sweet history

Earlier in his career, Franzen was a playoff stalwart, with 41 points (25 goals) in 39 games in 2008 and 2009 as the Red Wings made back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Finals. He bettered Gordie Howe’s franchise record for goals in a playoff series with nine in a sweep of Colorado in 2008. He still shares the overall single-season postseason mark (13 goals) with Henrik Zetterberg. And the Red Wings, as everyone knows and many now lament, hitched their wagon to the big, stubborn Swede — instead of Marian Hossa — by signing him to an 11-year, $43.5 million contract.

But the last four years, Franzen’s scoring knack has gone missing at playoff time: Seven goals and four assists in 31 games, despite playing regularly on a top line with Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk or sometimes both. The 34-year-old forward has two goals his last 12 postseason games dating to last year’s overtime win in Game 2 of a first-round series with Anaheim.

And despite what he insisted on the eve of this postseason — “That’s not why I go out and play games, to score goals,” said Franzen, who has but one his last 22 games since March 7 — that’s exactly what he’s being paid to do.

“You just gotta stick with it: Keep shooting and keep working hard,” said Zetterberg, his captain and friend, when asked about Franzen’s slump. “That’s the message that we try to tell everyone that’s not scoring. And we all know if he gets one, there’s a good chance he gets one or two more.”

Franzen is a notoriously streaky scorer, that’s true. But he’s also an enigma when it comes to his effort, failing to assert himself physically on too many nights — at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds he should be a load to handle, shift after shift — and lately refusing to talk about his play in the media.

Franzen is well-liked by his teammates. When he lets his guard down — and often even when he doesn’t — he can be engaging and funny. And the criticism he’s taking — to be fair, I’ve written this column three years in a row — isn’t merely backlash for boycotting the media.

But his coach is right to call him out for his silence, on and off the ice.

“Sometimes he probably doesn’t handle you people as good as he should to help himself,” Babcock said about trying to motivate Franzen. “To me, if you just step right up and you just talk, it makes it easy. If you don’t think, things build and I think that puts more pressure on yourself. I don’t know why you’d do that.”

Quiet off ice, too

Babcock then offered up another of his analogies, this time comparing an NHL dressing room to the corporate board room.

“You see this every day in business: You have a meeting, nobody says anything, you walk out the door and you talk behind each other’s back,” he said. “If you just call each other out and have the hard meeting, then everyone would leave and we’d get on with progress. Have the hard interview, and get on with it and make it easier on yourself. He’s a man, he’s got to deal with that himself.”

And how well does he think Franzen is dealing with the criticism?

“I got no idea on that. You’d have to ask him,” Babcock said, before correcting himself. “But I can’t say that to you …”

Because Franzen hasn’t been around to ask lately. He declined multiple requests to talk again Friday before the Wings headed to the airport.

“So I don’t know what the answer is,” Babcock said.

I don’t, either, though when this postseason is over, perhaps as early tonight, the discussion about what to do with Franzen will return to the forefront.

General manager Ken Holland scoffed at the idea of using an amnesty buyout on Franzen last summer, and I don’t know how seriously he’ll consider it now on a contract that still has six years and $17.5 million remaining. Trade options are complicated by Franzen’s no-movement clause and the new CBA rules regarding salary-cap recaptures on front-loaded long-term deals.

So for now, the more pertinent question remains the same one we’ve been asking the last few years.

“We need more out of ‘The Mule,’ ” Babcock said. “It’s simple.”

If only it were that easy.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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