The ascension of the Wings' Darren Helm
The Wings’ quick-footed forward knocked over all-star defenseman Keith Yandle behind the Coyotes’ net, snatched the loose puck, and fired a pass across the crease for an easy goal by Patrick Eaves.
The goal pulled the Wings even, and served as one of the pivotal moments in their four-game sweep in the Western Conference quarterfinals series.
“He’s awesome,” Eaves said when asked about Helm. “That’s the first word that comes to mind. He’s a really good friend of mine. Obviously as a player, he’s a very special player with the ability to change games. We have a good chemistry, and he makes it fun for me to come to the rink every day and play. That’s all you can ask of a linemate.”
The expectations for Helm and the others on the Wings’ third and fourth forward lines, is to consistently turn in solid two-way performances. It’s what impresses Wings coach Mike Babcock the most about Helm.
“Helm is an elite player, probably not a fourth line player,” Babcock said. “I don’t know if we have a fourth line, we just play our guys. Helmer, Eaves and (Kris) Draper do things right and they do them right shift after shift after shift. So when the game’s not going your way they do things right and get them back on balance.”
Not the biggest guy on the Wings’ roster, the 5-foot-11 Helm, pound for pound is probably one of the toughest. Never one to back down from a hit, Helm has a great center of gravity that he uses to his advantage.
“The other thing they do is hunt down the other team’s D,” Babcock said. “All you have to do is go back on D with Helmer on your back, and anybody who has gone back for pucks doesn’t like doing that very often.
“He plays so fast and he’s heavy. He’s big in the fact that he’s a thick guy, who makes you pay. So I think he’s a good player for us and has gotten better and better as time has gone on. We’re a much better forechecking team with him and (Justin) Abdelkader than we have been in the past.”
In his fourth Stanley Cup playoffs, Helm has certainly cut his teeth at the NHL level during the most stressful time of the year. That’s because he barely had joined the team late in the 2007-08 season before he was thrust into the playoffs, where he helped the Wings win a Stanley Cup, scoring two goals with two assists.
Helm experienced the same sequence of events in the following year, dressing in 16 regular-season games and 23 playoff games. After playing a significant role in the team’s consecutive runs to the Stanley Cup finals, Helm secured a permanent roster spot in 2009-10.
The 24-year-old forward said all his playoff experience – 57 games in total – has been invaluable to his development.
“I got a little bit more experience; I understand more and more what to expect, as you go through,” he said. “I think I’ve just been able to prepare myself now. I have a better understanding of what to expect, so I know how to prepare myself accordingly, and more of the mental parts, the media, the games themselves, not letting the pressure get to me too much. Being able to focus a little bit better.”
In four playoffs games this month, Helm is two points shy from tying his career-best five points in the 2009 playoffs. The Wings’ forward had four goals and one assist in 23 games that spring; this postseason he already has a goal and two assists in the four-game series sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Linemate Kris Draper said that Helm’s success this season has come from his speed and agility – and also his ability to harness those abilities.
“Obviously he’s using his speed,” Draper said. “He had some big, big checks that led to goals, and that’s something where he gets going so fast. He has a great center of gravity, he’s so strong on his skates, and he had some big hits that were big turning points in the Phoenix series, and we’re going to continue to need it from him, for sure.”
When asked where Helm’s ability to play at such a high pace comes from, Eaves said he’s been trying to figure it out for two years now.
“I’m wondering the same thing,” Eaves said. “I’m trying to find out where he gets it, because I want to pick some up. He’s got it, seems like every day. I’m out there chasing him around every practice, and I think he’s making me a better player every day, and I think that’s great.”
But teammate Niklas Kronwall thinks the credit for Helm’s tenacity should go to Draper, who has long been known as the Wings’ physical fitness guru.
“I don’t know what it is, but he’s been hanging out a lot with Drapes,” Kronwall said. “It seems like over the last few years, I think he’s learned a lot from Drapes. He really plays like it’s the last shift every night, and we’re happy to have him on our team.”
Helm said that Draper, his locker stall neighbor, has been a tremendous influence in his early career development, especially on how to control his speed during games.
“Making sure that I’m using my speed effectively and not just flying around, you know, being fast just for the sake of being fast,” Helm said. “It’s great to have him around. Obviously there are tons of other players in this locker room who have a lot of experience, a lot of talent, a lot of knowledge, and they’ve all spoke up and said little things to me here or there. I’ve tried to take what I can from them, and use them in my game, and hopefully it’s made me a little bit of a better player, and hopefully I can continue to take in what they tell me.”
No matter who is responsible for Helm’s energy levels on the ice, all the Wings are reaping the benefits, especially on the penalty kill. He leads all forwards in PK ice-time spending 2:38 of his average 12:49 time on the ice during shorthanded situations.
Kronwall, who leads the team in penalty-kill time at 4:03 per game, said that Helm’s speed is essential to the Wings’ shorthanded needs.
“He’s got so much jump in those legs,” Kronwall said. “Definitely helps with his speed. He’s a smart player, in the right positions, and when he wins the puck, he can also take off. I know that playing on the power play, when you play against a guy like that, and you know he’s going to take off, and he’s always going to be a threat. ”
Helm said that his mission on the ice – be it shorthanded or full-strength – is to cause problems for the opposition with his speed and strength.
“Make it hard on the defense, making sure pucks are getting deep in their zone, finishing my checks, and letting them know that I’m coming every time,” he said. “That’s a big part of successful teams: having a few guys, more than a few guys, that are finishing their checks and playing physical. I think everybody on this team’s doing a good job finishing checks, but I definitely want it to be known that I’m coming and I’m going to finish my check.”
Against Phoenix, Helm had 11 hits and three takeaways. Combine those statistics with finishing off Pavel Datsyuk’s highlight-reel stick work for a game-changing goal in Game 2 and nine shots throughout the series, and Helm is inching closer to Draper’s expectations.
“I think offensively he can keep getting better,” Draper said. “With his speed, he’s going to keep getting chances, and obviously he had a good year this year, and if he keeps continuing to get better, keep working on the offensive side of the game, but not sacrifice what he has to do defensively … he’s going to continue creating chances and they’re going to start going in for him a little bit more.”