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Big Season for "The Mule"?

I had a fun little thought the other day while at work. Johan Franzen could be MVP material this season. Possible? Very much so. Bold prediction? You bet.

Think about two things when considering the idea of a Johan Franzen MVP season. First, Franzen's point production has increased every season since he came to the Red Wings and his playing time has gone up as a result. Second, now that Marian Hossa is out of the picture in Hockeytown, there is room for a new top scorer. Sure, you could suggest that Datsyuk or Zetterberg could fill that void but given their selflessness with the puck and ability to make great passes, Franzen is a likely candidate to benefit from them and could become the premier scorer on the team.

Franzen's numbers went up as a result of the maturation of four of his skills. First, and probably most importantly, his shot has gone from a dime-a-dozen wrister to a world-class, net-seeking missile. Along with the increased accuracy and power of his shot is the frequency with which he takes them. If you got it, why not use it? The second skill that Franzen has developed is his positioning on the ice. He has exhibited a great ability in anticipating shots on net and positioning himself at the goalmouth with too little time for defenders to do anything about his presence. That's not to say that he's a "garbage goal" scorer but rather a player that reads plays as they're unfolding and is one step ahead of the defender.

The third skill he's developed is the use of physical size to ward off defenders and establish his positioning with his big frame-hence the nickname "The Mule". The strength of his skating has allowed him to handle the puck efficiently with one or two defenders draped around him and still crash the net. The fourth skill he's improved is his stick-handling and deflections. He's gone from making one too many moves at the wrong time to making the perfect move at the perfect time to create scoring chances. Along with establishing his body in front of the goalie, he's got the hands to deflect shots and is second on the team only to Tomas Holmstrom in that ability.

All four of these skills have made him a truly dynamic player and a potential threat to end Alex Ovechkin's Hart Trophy three-peat bid, in my opinion. He has the hands to make defenders look foolish but still possesses the strength to out muscle defenders en route to the net. He's gone from a power forward with limited minutes to a true playmaking sniper trapped in the body of an enforcer. The broad range of skills Franzen has developed has made him a unique player in the league with very few players of the same hybrid.

However, there are a few obstacles that Franzen will need to overcome to achieve that MVP season. First, is the game plan the Wings will have to adopt this season compared to the 2008-2009 season. That campaign was seemingly focused on offense-whether by intention or by chance-and if, and often when, the defense faltered, the offense was able to pick up the pieces with the incredible scoring depth. With the departures of Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler and the 80+ goals they accounted for, Detroit will likely center the game plan on defense rather than hoping to outscore the opposition. Franzen will be called upon to focus some of his effort on defense and a revamped Central Division that has become offense oriented could make that demanding on not only him but his supporting forwards.

The second obstacle that Franzen will have to overcome is emerging depth at goalie starting to break through in the Central Division. It remains to be seen if Chris Mason, Steve Mason, and Pekka Rinne can follow up on their break through seasons of '08-'09 but if so, the scoring could be tough for Franzen and his fellow Wings during intra-division games. Cristobal Huet had a good season as a backup to Nikolai Khabibulin but showed flashes of brilliance at times in net and could prove to be yet another tough obstacle in Franzen's path. It's a good thing he has developed those four skills so well, huh?

It'd be hard to ignore Pavel Datsyuk's last season, especially since he was a Hart Finalist himself, and the potential for him to be a candidate for it again but I think the spot is Franzen's for the taking. Pavel has a career 2:1 assist to goal ratio and is known for being an excellent passer. If Franzen is paired with him (or Zetterberg for that matter) his numbers could be in the stratosphere this season with the support from those players. Like his nickname suggests, he can carry the workload as long as he is fed the puck often enough.

Johan Franzen has come a long way (in a short time) from the pesky rookie that got under the opposition's skin to the elite scorer that he has become over the past two seasons and playoffs. Four seasons hardly makes a career for a player but the progression of Franzen's abilities has been nothing short of incredible. Maybe he won't win an MVP trophy this year (or any for that matter) but I believe that given departures of other scorers on the Red Wings and the skills that he possesses, there's a chance we could see Johan holding the Hart Trophy next June.