PITTSBURGH – It hasn’t been easy for Kris Draper to sit in the seats while his Detroit Red Wings battle for the Stanley Cup, but the veteran forward has tried to make the best of it.
The 38-year-old centre has been injured or a healthy scratch for most of the post-season.
“I try to be a leader and to be as much of a positive influence as possible,” the Toronto native said Thursday. “Did I want to play? Absolutely.”
Draper was scheduled to return to the lineup Thursday night for Game 4 of the final against the Pittsburgh Penguins after missing the first three games of the series.
Draper has not missed many games in his long career, and to sit when he could have been playing was a tough blow for a four-time Cup champion who was once considered among the NHL’s best defensive forwards, penalty killers and faceoff men.
“Of course it burns,” said Draper. “But that was just me. I tried to help guys out – around the faceoff circle or saying little things I saw when I was talking to guys between periods.”
Most of his work was with a pair of 22-year-olds – Winnipeg native Darren Helm, who looks to be Draper’s successor in the checking centre’s position, and Justin Abdelkader, more of a skill player who is working his way to becoming an NHL regular.
Abdelkader scored a goal in each of the first two games of the final – also his first career NHL goals.
The young centres have a top-notch teacher.
Draper won the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward in 2003-04, the same year he scored 24 goals. He helped Canada win gold at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and was also on the Canadian team that failed to win a medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
He is also one of four Red Wings who were part of all four of the team’s most recent Stanley Cup wins in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, along with long-time linemate Kirk Maltby, winger Tomas Holmstrom and defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom.
Game 4 was to be his 197th career playoff game, passing Steve Yzerman for second place on the Red Wings’ all-time list behind Lidstrom’s 230.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play with great players and have great playoff runs,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the middle of that.
“This year has been a lot different. Usually at playoff time I’ve been relatively healthy and been able to be part of it from start to finish. But any time you can pass Stevie Y for anything in the Detroit record book it’s an accomplishment.”
On March 17, he also became only the fifth to play at least 1,000 games as a Red Wing, joining Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Yzerman and Lidstrom.
Draper is signed through the 2010-11 season but it remains to be seen if he will keep his spot in the lineup until he’s 40 as the Detroit organization keeps developing quality prospects to pressure the aging veterans.
He missed the start of the playoffs with what the team called an upper body injury, then returned for Game 7 of the second round against Anaheim and the first three games of the Western Conference final against Chicago. He’s also been sidelined with a suspected groin injury and as a healthy scratch.
With Abdelkader hot and with the Wings winning the opening two games of the final at home, coach Mike Babcock didn’t want to change his lineup, even though Draper lobbied hard to get back in.
“He knows that when it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Babcock. said. “So even when he came to talk to me and let me know he’s ready he did a real good job – might as well put as much heat on the coach as you can.
“I don’t blame him. That’s how you should do it. But he’s a real professional and he understands.”
Draper admitted that he “whispered a little” to Babcock, but didn’t press the issue too hard.
“All I wanted to do when I got injured again was to get back as quick as possible,” he said. “I wanted to talk with Babs.
“It’s where my mindset was. I respect everything that goes on in this locker-room. It’s not the time to be selfish.”