Krupa: Franzen, back from injury, fires up

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nine months after a body check caused another concussion and forced him from the game he plainly still loves, Johan Franzen is back.

He is also happy. His presence and energy are, once again, welcomed by his teammates.

A new coach, Jeff Blashill, who is clearly one element of Franzen's upbeat sensibility, says his scoring and defense are a welcome ingredient, in what the organization hopes is a successful rookie season for a young coach who replaces one of the best in the game.

Despite Franzen's series of concussions and concerns across sports about the cumulative effect on the brain of repeated, violent contact, he said he had no fear of hits.

He confessed to only the nervousness that comes naturally after not playing a game in so long.

If the Red Wings are to play into the conference finals for the first time since 2009 with their roster additions of Mike Green and Brad Richards, it figures that Franzen's contribution is vital.

"I want Johan Franzen to be Johan Franzen," Blashill said.

"I think he's been a really good player in this league for a long time. He's a very accountable defensive player who obviously has a lot of ability to score goals."

Prized in hockey since the Red Wings put the uniform on Gordie Howe, big players with good hands and a scorer's instincts accelerate the heart rates of general managers, thrill fans and encourage teammates in the belief they can win.

Such is the promise of Franzen in 2015, as it has been throughout his career in Detroit.

But streaky to the point that hot lasts several games and cold for sometimes considerably longer, Franzen has not always delivered on his promise.

A massive offensive force in the run to the 2008 Stanley Cup, when he broke Howe's 59-year-old record for goals in a playoff series, scoring nine, Franzen also endures scoreless streaks that feel something like the hockey equivalent of biblical plagues.

And now, he has not played 50 games in a season or scored 20 goals since 2012.

But his reason for enthusiasm is he feels healthy enough to play, now, and if he stays healthy he believes he can still be a considerable factor.

As he removed his practice gear, seven hours before the game against the Penguins, the guy who is often the grouchiest bear in the room displayed the joy of a player returning to his sport, albeit in his shy, quiet way.

"Yeah, it's a good feeling," he said. "I really missed it and it's going to be fun, and hopefully, hopefully my head can handle it and I'll hope for a good year.

"I've been training all summer for this moment, pretty much. It's like the first time I get to see where I am at, get some real bumps and some real hits out there."

He vowed he would not tentative.

"I'm not worried about that, at all. I'm not going to be afraid to be hit, or throw any hits. It's the last thing I think about, out there."

In the first two periods, as the game continued, he seemed not at all bashful.

Starting it, on a line with Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening, his hands were on display, setting up one of the Wings' early scoring opportunities, and stealing the puck to erase what looked like a breakaway opportunity and turning into another one – on his first two shifts.

He looked quick, agile and assertive, and he assisted on the Wings second goal, by Dylan Larkin. Franzen's game was all skates and hands.

Mike Babcock occasionally described Franzen as enigmatic, and sometimes made it a point to say he was at a loss for how to get more out of him.

Some fans associate him with the departure of free agent Marian Hossa after the 2009 season. But that assertion carries a malodorous whiff of unfairness. Hossa, hunting for Stanley Cups, signed with the Blackhawks, who have three in his six seasons.

That said, Franzen's coincidental contract extension at 11 years, through 2019-20 and at $43.5 million, was both expensive and too lengthy, compared to the sort of production expected and not received, especially in the last three seasons of injuries.

Franzen also suffers from the big men's contradiction, when — as is the case with Joe Thornton and some others — scoring skill outduels the aggression one assumes from size.

Regardless, Franzen says he wants to play, despite enduring once again the scary, dysfunctional twilight zone of brain injury.

"He's looked great," Sheahan said. "He's fast. "He seems like he's got more energy, and he's joking around.

"He's happy in the locker room. So, I think he's obviously in the right place."

Franzen thinks so. And minor ankle surgery to clear some debris in the offseason helped, too.

"I feel good. I was a little worried coming into camp, having had surgery at the end of last year on my ankle. But it felt really good.

"I'm having fun."

He acknowledged he is as excited about playing as he has been in some time.

"Yeah," he said. "Hopefully, I'll have a healthy kind of season.

"But it starts tonight, and after that I'll go from there."