Final pick Ericsson worth wait
Wings find hidden gem in converted blue-liner
While many of the team draft tables around him were already empty, Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill had a name ready when it came time for the last pick of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
That final selection, commonly called Mr. Irrelevant, has turned out to be anything but irrelevant.
Defenceman Jonathan Ericsson, now the first name mentioned when it comes to the Wings’ top prospects, is one of the team’s most intriguing storylines heading into training this week in Traverse City, Mich.
“It was kind of strange that year because there were so many empty tables or teams packing up before the end of the draft,” Nill said. “We were kind of sitting there on our own. “We thought he was a project with some potential, worth taking a gamble on.”
Ericsson has already become a historical footnote by becoming one of the few final picks in a draft to even play an NHL game.
He played eight games last season, scoring a goal, but the Red Wings already view him as a top four defenceman.
They showed that’s not just lip service by signing him to a new threeyear contract this year that averages US$900,000 per season even if Ericsson plays with Grand Rapids.
“I’d never think I’d be in the NHL or close when I started playing defence,” said the 24-year-old Ericsson, who made the switch to defence only six years ago.
“I’m very surprised I’ve come this far (so quickly).”
In a tale that never seems to grow old in Detroit but must be becoming tiresome elsewhere in the league, Ericsson was the discovery of the Wings' European scouting director Hakan Andersson.
Andersson was actually there to see another future Wings draft pick (2003) Andreas Sundin when he noticed the six-foot-five Ericsson playing defence. He was so impressed he suggested Ericsson make the switch to defence permanent.
“That was the first game I ever played on defence because we had a lot of defencemen that were sick,” Ericsson said. “It was kind of a strange story.
“Hakan said he might like me as a forward too, but I told him I’ll stick with defence.”
When the draft rolled around that June, Ericsson was busy teaching kids at a youth hockey camp that day. He didn’t know what had transpired until friends called him.
“He (Andersson) told me I was going to get drafted by Detroit, he just wasn’t sure when,” Ericsson said. “He told me he knew no one else had seen me, so they were able to take me with the last pick.
“I was just so happy to be drafted I didn’t think about any number. No one in my town (Karlskrona) had ever been drafted before.”
Since arriving in North America two seasons ago, Ericsson has packed 15 pounds of muscle on to his now 220-pound frame and has become an AHL all-star.
He shoots the puck over 160 kilometres per hour and has shown a taste for the more physical aspects of the North American game.
“That was a good test for me,” said Ericsson of his stint with Detroit last February when the Wings were decimated with injuries.
“It was good for my confidence. I know I can play here.”
The Wings know he can play in the NHL as well. Wings coach Mike Babcock is already a huge fan of Erics- son’s game.
However, Ericsson’s ability to be sent to the minors without going through waivers hangs like a millstone around his neck.
With Detroit stacked on defence, Ericsson will likely start the season in Grand Rapids relieving some salary cap pressure on the Wings.
“It’s a tough situation,” Ericsson said.
“There are a lot of defencemen fighting for the spots. I’m trying to do my best in camp and see how far that goes.
“We’ve had long talks with (GM) Ken (Holland) about the situation and everything is really good.
“If I’m not really there as (top) six defenceman, he sends me down. I’d rather play a lot down there than play a small amount of minutes up here.”
However, Ericsson counts himself an optimist.
He expects to be in Detroit for the season opener Oct. 9.
After all, having gotten this far, the final step to Detroit no longer seems so improbable.
“I’ve always been the I’m not going to give up no matter what happens type,” Ericsson said. “I’m pretty strong in my mind about what I want to accomplish.
“Of course I was dreaming about it. I knew my chances were small, but I was going to do everything I could to take that small chance.”