Confidence the Key for Naslund

Originally published on in 1999

By Lucas Aykroyd

Could Markus Naslund be a fan of the Doors? So far this season, “Break On Through to the Other Side” has been his theme song.

Heading into Tuesday’s battle at Nashville between the Predators and Naslund’s Vancouver Canucks, the 25-year-old Swedish right winger ranked in the top 25 in NHL scoring with a team-leading 39 points (23-16-39), and had already eclipsed his point total of last season (14-20-34). Naslund had four goals in his last six games and ranked fifth among NHL goal scorers with 23.

But things haven’t always gone so smoothly for Naslund since arriving in North America. Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round (16th pick overall) of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, he was frequently labeled a huge disappointment in his first five NHL seasons.

Many scouts expected Naslund to dominate at the same level as Peter Forsberg. But while Ornskoldsvik, Sweden’s other favorite son captured the Calder Memorial Trophy as best rookie in 1994-95 and won a Stanley Cup with Colorado, Naslund bounced up and down between the NHL and Pittsburgh’s IHL affiliate in Cleveland. And when he came to the Canucks in a 20 March 1996 trade that sent tough guy Alex Stojanov to the Penguins, he continued to play inconsistent hockey, his brief scoring streaks offset by his tendency to overhandle the puck and stay on the perimeter.

So why is Naslund rocking the hockey world this year?

“I think the main thing is probably my confidence,” Naslund told EuroReport after Vancouver’s morning skate on 16 January. “I’m playing the way I knew I could but had never been able to display before. Relaxing helps. I’ve been trying to think positive and not dwell on mistakes.”

In the past, Naslund had a reputation for getting down on himself when he couldn’t get his offensive game in gear. But over the summer, he spent extra time working by himself to overcome mental obstacles. His goal was to stay “upbeat all the time,” and it looks like his strategy is working. He had to fight through disappointment in October after sitting out two games at coach Mike Keenan’s discretion, but he hasn’t looked back since.

Another element in Naslund’s success has been the opportunity to play with Canucks captain Mark Messier. With 1,041 assists in 1,397 games, Messier is among hockey’s greatest playmakers ever, and Naslund has been converting his feeds on a regular basis. But Naslund might not have gotten on the top line were it not for an injury to Russian winger Alexander Mogilny, whose sprained knee ligament kept him out of the lineup from November 21 to January 2. Now that Mogilny is back, coach Mike Keenan has the option of either returning Naslund to second-line duty or playing Mogilny on the same line with him. Monday night in Dallas, Naslund skated on newcomer Dave Gagner’s line with rookie Bill Muckalt on the right side. The trio clicked for six points, including Naslund’s 23rd goal — a new personal high.

Most importantly, Vancouver won the game 5-3. Could it be the start of a balanced two-line offensive attack in Vancouver? “It might be a bigger help for the team if Alex and I were separated because it’s easier to focus on one line if you put all the scorers on one line, and maybe to shut them down,” Naslund noted.

Either way, Vancouver figures to give opponents problems with their offensive firepower. Against Detroit last Saturday, Keenan elected to play both his top European guns with Messier. Although they didn’t score in the 2-2 draw, they were Vancouver’s most dangerous offensive line overall, cycling the puck down low and completing swift passes in Detroit’s end.

Although Naslund’s only contribution to the scoring summary was a double minor for accidentally high-sticking Steve Yzerman at 13:34 of the second period, it was clear the 5-11, 195-pound (181 cm, 89 kg) Swede is currently the Canuck most likely to remind Vancouver fans of Florida-bound Pavel Bure with his dynamic, aggressive play. He leads the team in shots (155) and power-play goals (9) and is tied with three others for tops with two game-winning goals.

In recognition of Naslund’s exploits, he’s been named to the World All-Star Team for the 1999 All-Star Game in Tampa, Florida this Sunday. While Naslund appreciates the honor, he hasn’t spent too much time worrying about the game, which will pit North Americans against Europeans for the second straight year. “I’m sure it’ll be a little more intense than the regular All-Star games, because you’re fighting a little bit for your country. There’ll probably be some kidding around, but not as much as with the old format.”

International hockey inspired Naslund as he was growing up. “I liked Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and two Swedish players, Häkan Loob and Mats Naslund,” he said. And one of Naslund’s career highlights came at the 1993 World Junior Championships, where he led the tournament with a record 13 goals on a line with Forsberg and Niklas Sundström.

While Naslund does keep up old acquaintances by skating with fellow Swedes such as Sundström, Forsberg, and Detroit’s Anders Eriksson in the summer, he wasn’t able to follow this year’s world junior tournament closely. Still, he acknowledged the difficulty of a tournament in which a one-game knockout playoff format is used. Losses to Canada and Slovakia dashed the Swedish juniors’ medal hopes in Winnipeg this year, but Naslund said: “I think they had a pretty decent tournament even if they finished fourth.”

Looking ahead, Naslund told EuroReport that team discipline is what the Vancouver Canucks need if they’re going to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1998-99. “We have to play a smarter game and not take too many penalties. We need to get the whole team going at the same time and play as a team.”

If Markus Naslund’s individual performance can spark his teammates to greater efforts, the doors to success may open yet for the 1998-99 Canucks. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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