Detroit — Michael Rasmussen isn’t the biggest and strongest player on the ice anymore.
The Red Wings’ rookie was that guy in junior hockey, dominating in Tri-City last season.
But Rasmussen has found out in the NHL, he’s just another guy.
Which isn’t surprising for a 19-year-old who had to skip over the American League because he had junior hockey eligibility — meaning Rasmussen was either going to be kept by the Wings, or returned to juniors, where there was nothing left to prove.
The Wings obviously kept Rasmussen, and he’s done fine given the circumstances. in 61 games, Rasmussen has 18 points (eight goals — four on the power play — with 10 assists) with a minus-6 plus-minus rating.
But there are plenty of lessons remaining to learn, heading into next training camp.
“Now he has to learn how to leverage his body better, because everybody else is big (in the NHL),” coach Jeff Blashill said recently, discussing Rasmussen’s development. “In junior, not everyone else is big. So, now you have to learn how to leverage your body better, learn new tricks.”
What kind of tricks is Blashill talking about?
“A trick is sticking your butt out at the right time and knocking people off kilter,” Blashill said. “A trick is learning to grab the stick a little bit with one hand. (Or) learning how to to pass the puck on the cycle.
“You don’t learn those tricks if you don’t have to. By being here, he’s had to start to learn those tricks that he can, and then go into the summer and really work on.”
There was a point during this second half of the season the Wings could have returned Rasmussen to juniors and make him eligible for the playoffs.
But, again, what was there for Rasmussen to prove? At Tri-City last season, Rasmussen had 31 goals and 28 assists (59 points) in 47 games, playing mainly like a man among much smaller human beings.
Returning to the Western League a year older and somewhat physically stronger, Rasmussen barely would have been tested.
Also, there is no guarantee after the junior playoffs are over, that Grand Rapids would still be playing in the American League playoffs. Rasmussen would have been eligible, at that point, to participate in the AHL, so the Wings decided to keep Rasmussen in the NHL.
In the NHL, during games and practices, Rasmussen can see firsthand where his weaknesses are, what he needs to work on
“When you are dominant at the level you’re at, it’s impossible in most cases to recognize things you’ve got to get better at,” Blashill said. “Because, how do you know? You can’t know because you’re not being tested in those areas.”
Rasmussen would be eligible, obviously, to play in the AHL next season. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Wings place Rasmussen in Grand Rapids to consistently play 20 minutes per game and dominate against similarly experienced competition.
Much will depend on how much Rasmussen progresses over the summer, and how the Wings' roster evolves and shakes out heading into next season.
But there is that possibility, which for a 20-year-old, would be entirely on most players' career path.
Blashill maintains, and Rasmussen has proven, that the 6-foot-6 forward will be a force around the net.
Rasmussen has been an effective net-front presence, scoring most of his goals in the area, and providing a hard, effective screen.
Now, it’s a matter of Rasmussen getting stronger physically, working on his skating, and getting quicker.
“You have to earn how to make yourself a commodity at the level and the hockey team,” Blashill said. “In junior, he was depended on to basically carry the team from an offensive perspective.
“Here, he’s not necessarily going to be that. There might be guys who are more talented than him. So, now, he has to learn how to be a commodity in other areas if he’s not just producing (offensively).
“Physicality, (playing) great defense, all those things.”