But the Wings coach says time and Cleary’s own realization his NHL career was on life support morphed the former junior scoring machine into an impact player of the defensive kind for Detroit.
“When you’re the coach you always think it was something magic you did, but what the reality is, it was the time in his life when he was mature enough and ready for something good to happen and maybe frustrated enough with what he had let get away,” Babcock said.
Cleary was a junior star, a 50-goal scorer with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls in 1995-96 and a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks a year later.
Few scoring trophy winners in junior can carry that momentum immediately into the NHL, but eight years into his professional career, Cleary was showing no signs of becoming the offensive threat many predicted he would be.
Traded by Chicago, released after four seasons in Edmonton, one unremarkable season in Phoenix, Cleary made the Wings roster as a walk-on to start the 2005-06 season and he was re-signed to a two-year contract last summer.
This has been the breakout season for the 28-year-old from Carbonear, N.L.
He’s put up the best numbers of his career with 20 goals and 20 assists in 71 games, but it’s his play on the other side of the puck that has helped him find his niche with the Wings.
“All the hockey pundits throughout Canada and the U.S. pegged me as a sure-fire NHLer and an offensive one at that,” Cleary said. “It’s funny how things work out, but I believe for me, if I didn’t work on the defensive side of my game I don’t know if I’d be here.
“I think my offence is coming through my defence. It’s weird. I just try and be good away from the puck and in the right position defensively. Turnovers and creating offence from that has helped me, and playing with good players.”
Cleary spoke through stitched lips Thursday prior to Game 4 of Detroit’s Western Conference quarter-final series against the Calgary Flames. The sewing was courtesy of a high stick from Flames forward Wayne Primeau in Game 3 on Tuesday.
Detroit lost that game but Cleary generated a memorable play when he decked Flames strongman Dion Phaneuf into the corner, recovered the puck behind the goal-line and set up Kris Draper for a temporary go-ahead goal, all on the same play.
Cleary had two assists that night and was among the leaders on the Wings in hits in the series.
“He’s got offensive skill, but he’s also 210 pounds and he can really finish checks and really hang onto the puck and can play on our power play,” Babcock said. “He’s just a good usable player.
“It’s a man’s league. You get these kids, there are few guys who can make an impact like Phaneuf can as a kid. Most guys it takes them eight years to have an impact and it took (Cleary) a long time, but he’s a real good player.”
Cleary says his on-ice transformation was the result of his off-ice maturation and he credits his wife Jelena, whom he married three years ago, with helping him get his priorities straight.
“She’s changed my life,” he said.
“He tells me getting married was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Babcock said. “It got things straightened out and got things organized and gave some purpose to him.”
Cleary joined Draper and Kirk Maltby on Detroit’s checking line with about 10 games remaining in the regular season.
“I relish it really,” Cleary said. “It’s a defensive-minded line and when an offence presents itself, we try to go. We realize what our job is. I’m just trying to fit into the line as best I can really.”
Cleary’s performance this series had made it tough for Babcock to limit his minutes.
“We’re playing him less minutes now because we want him to be this physical guy,” Babcock said. “It’s hard when you play him 20 minutes when you want him to be physical every shift.”
Cleary counts himself lucky that he caught on with a stable franchise like Detroit with a core of longtime players who accept newcomers and give them a chance to help the team.
“I came to Detroit willing to make it work,” he said. “It’s really turned out to be quite a blessing.”