CHANGING LINES, CHANGING TIMES:
DRAPER IS AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
By Mike Reed
What started out as an experiment during the Red Wings' preseason has turned out to be one of this young season's pleasant surprises - one that has given Kris Draper the opportunity to showcase his skills with some of the NHL's elite players.
With the departures of Martin Lapointe, Doug Brown and Pat Verbeek from last year's roster, the Red Wings were down to only three natural right-wingers in their lineup: Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby and Mathieu Dandenault. In August, general manager Ken Holland made the situation less problematic by signing eight-time All-Star Brett Hull to add a punch to the right side. But for much of the past two years, Dandenault's primary role has been established behind the blue line; with Dandenault playing defense, head coach Scotty Bowman still had a spot open on the right-hand side of his four-line rotation.
Bowman paired two players together during the Wings' preseason, usually in the form of a center and a wing. Steve Yzerman and Brett Hull paired up, along with pairs including Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan, and Igor Larionov and Luc Robitaille. Bowman then rotated players to see who fit in where. In the end, it was Kris Draper who was asked to move from his normal center position to the right-hand side on a line with Fedorov and Shanahan.
"I've played center all of my life," said Draper. "I've played shifts as a right wing or left wing, but never anything over a period of time."
The move gave Draper a chance to gain some experience on a top-tier line. It also gave rookie center Pavel Datsyk, who had a marvelous training camp and preseason, a chance to stay at his normal position and learn the NHL game.
"To get an opportunity to play with guys like Fedorov and Shanny would be really good," said Draper, when asked about playing on the right side. "When I'd get the puck, I would look for those guys and give them the puck. Maybe I can utilize my speed and forechecking and create some turnovers for those guys. That's what I would want to do."
Draper stuck to his game plan on the line. His speed forced turnovers and his passing ability as a center allowed him to find Sergei in the middle of the ice to create offensive rushes.
"Moving Draper to the right side gives us some speed there," said Bowman at the time of the move. "It's going to help us."
And help it did. The Fedorov-Shanahan-Draper line jumped out of the gates at the beginning of the season. The line flew up and down the ice, scoring points nightly. Shanahan's fast start gave him the early league lead in points, with Fedorov not too far behind. During three straight games in October, the three hooked up for at least one goal, with two coming against Columbus on Oct. 16.
And Draper, whose previous career highs were 13 goals in 1997-98 and 17 assists last season, already had four goals and six assists through the season's first 18 games.
"To get to play with two players of this caliber - it's a thrill," said Draper. "I'm trying to do my job and get the puck to those guys. Good things happen when those guys get the puck."
Good things have also happened when Draper has touched the puck this season. In a 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Nov. 2, Draper scored both goals, his first two-goal game since March, to lead the Wings to victory.
What was different about this win was that it came against an Islanders team with former Wing Chris Osgood in net. Osgood, who was picked up by the Islanders in September's waiver draft, played with Detroit for eight years and racked up over 200 wins in a Red Wings uniform. He was also Draper's closest friend over the years.
The emotions ran high at Joe Louis Arena when Osgood returned for the first time. The crowd cheered when he was announced before the game. The Islanders took a quick 1-0 lead in the first and it looked as if Osgood would stump his old mates.
But his old buddy had other things in mind. As Draper and Osgood's wives sat next to each other in stands, laughing and carrying on conversation, Draper scored his first goal against Osgood. The Wings were shorthanded as he fired a slap shot from the left wing that handcuffed his good friend and trickled by him to tie the game 1-1. Then halfway through the second, Draper punched home a rebound off Osgood's pads for the eventual game-winner.
"It was a weird feeling, to be honest with you," said Draper after the game. "Scoring on him in practice for nine years, we'd joke around and stuff like that. Then you get an opportunity to do it in a game.
"It's bittersweet. You're scoring a goal, which is exciting for me, but you're scoring on your buddy."
Draper's new line continued to produce and to be on ice when Red Wings' goals were scored. Through the first 18 games of the season, the line was plus-39, with Draper being a plus-12. Compare that to the "600 Line" that features 600-goal-scorers Yzerman, Hull and Robitaille: those players were only a combined plus-7 through 18 games.
"I think my time on that line has helped my overall game," said Draper. "Confidence-wise, it was nice to put some points up and I think my confidence level is as high as it's ever been."
Coming off a three-game West Coast road trip in which the Red Wings won two of three but struggled to come up with quality scoring chances, Bowman decided to juggle his lines up. In a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 13, Draper's new line was disbanded. Instead, Yzerman centered Fedorov and Shanahan. Draper moved back to his familiar spot at center in between fellow "Grinders" McCarty and Maltby.
"At first [being with Shanahan and Federov] started as a project in training camp and I don't think anyone knew that it would last as long as it did," said Draper. "It was fun. We got off to a good start, and who knows? Maybe we'll be back together in the future.
"But it's also fun to play on a line with Mac and Malts," said Draper, referring to his Grind Line. "It's an effective line and a tough line to play against."
It could be even tougher for teams to handle the Grinders now, especially with Draper learning a few lessons while playing with Fedorov. "I think playing with Sergei as a right-winger, I could see how available he was all the time, and now with me being back at center, that's something that I want to do with Mac and Malts."
As for his stint with Fedorov and Shanahan, Draper has gained confidence in knowing that he can play on a top-level line and still produce.
"I want to be a trusted player who can go out in any situation, and I feel that's something that I've become. A lot of this game is confidence and I think having the opportunity to do what I did was the most fun I've had in hockey. To get out of the fourth-line center role and have an opportunity to play on a top line with Sergei and Shanny, and to have been effective, is something that has really excited me."