It’s a small sample size, sure, but that won’t stop Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill from being optimistic about the early returns on 21-year-old Swedish defenseman Gustav Lindstrom.
The 38th-overall pick in 2017, Lindstrom kicked off his North American career this season with a 45-game stint with the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins. He was recalled to Detroit last Wednesday, getting 12:07 of ice time in his NHL debut the next night, a 4-3 shootout win in Buffalo against the Sabres.
The Red Wings return to Buffalo Tuesday with Lindstrom trending in an upward direction through three games. He was forced into playing just over 20 minutes during Friday night’s 2-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, after Madison Bowey suffered an eye injury and left the game. Lindstrom performed admirably in the enhanced role, though he did get tagged with a minus-1 on the game-winning goal by the Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski during a delayed penalty, (from ‘Red Wings’ Madison Bowey relieved that stick to the eye didn’t cause serious injury,’ Detroit News, 02/10/2020).
Slow Your Roll
Blashill told reports prior to Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Boston Bruins that he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but Lindstrom’s performance over his first two games confirmed what many already knew: the kid can play.
“First off, I’d say it’s two games,” Blashill said. “I’m always cautiously optimistic to not get too excited one way or the other. I would say that I’m not necessarily surprised, given the reports I was given.”
What’s most noticeable about Lindstrom’s game, Blashill said, is that he possesses all the key attributes that are associated with finding longevity in the league.
“What Gus does well, if he’s playing his best, is he defends, he’s super competitive, and he moves the puck. If you do those three things, you’re going to play a long time in the National Hockey League. He’s also smart, so those four things, I should say,” Blashill said.
There’s also the fact that, at other times, he hasn’t been noticeable at all. That’s a good sign for a shutdown defenseman, especially one just getting his feet wet in the NHL. Red Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier attributed that to Lindstrom’s composure with the puck:
“I think his poise is very good. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Bernier said after Sunday’s game. “If he doesn’t have a pass, he just picks it up. He doesn’t try to do too much, keeps it simple, and to be honest, I haven’t really noticed that he’s missed a one-on-one battle there, so he’s a strong kid, too.”
Lindstrom’s usage on the penalty kill has also steadily risen over his first three games. He played 0:04 on Thursday, 1:21 Friday, and 2:04 during in Sunday’s win over the Bruins.
Blashill said that he intends for Lindstrom to expand that role, and while it’s still too early to tell where he’ll fall in the pecking order of Detroit’s future D-core, it’s clear that his coach has him earmarked as one of the team’s best young penalty killers.
“He’s a penalty killer, that’s what he’s going to be good at,” Blashill said. “There’s probably a few areas he’s got to get better at with our system, not that ours is way different than Grand Rapids, but there’s probably some nuances he’s got to get comfortable with, just what happens a little quicker. But he is really, really smart. The game of hockey is super chaotic, and you need guys that can make good decisions, and he makes good decisions.”
The North American Way
International leagues typically use larger rinks with more room to roll, whereas this side of the Atlantic likes it tight — which means lot of chip-outs, dump-ins, and good ol’ fashioned crashing and bashing. The transition to the North American style hasn’t been a point of concern for Lindstrom. Before this season began, he told reporters, “I like the smaller rinks. I think it fits me well.”
Lindstrom can do both. He’s used to the wider space from his time in Europe, which benefits a defenseman looking to rip a tape-to-tape breakout pass out of the defending zone, or freewheel with a full head of steam through the neutral zone. But what’s impressed Blashill is his ability to recognize “what the opponent is giving,” and flip the puck off high glass successfully with an elite forechecker in his face.
“I think the thing with the NHL that’s different than international hockey is that the forecheck is extremely aggressive and extremely hard. When you run out of space, you have to use the window,” Blashill said. “If there’s tape-to-tape passes to be made, let’s make them all night long. When you run out of room, especially the teams, which is a majority of the NHL, that comes down the walls really, really hard, then you’re forced to make hard plays. When you make hard plays, make them hard, and make sure they end up by the far blue.”
Not a whole lot is going right for the Red Wings right now, which can make any small victory — seriously, any small victory — feel like a first-round playoff win. Lindstrom’s arrival fits that description.
His brief NHL career has been impressive, and there is ample reason to be excited about an eventual full-time promotion. Fans have been hurt enough this season already, though, so it’s probably best to temper expectations. Growth also means mistakes, and the Wings’ shiny new toy will make them. But hey, at least they haven’t broken it yet.
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Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit sportswriter covering every major local professional sports team for The Detroit News and host of the Locked On Red Wings podcast.