PITTSBURGH - A year ago, Darren Helm helped the Detroit Red Wings win a Stanley Cup but then was sent back to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League for another year of development.
But after the Winnipeg native's play in this year's post-season, it's hard to see Helm going anywhere near the AHL again any time soon.
"I hope I don't have to go back, but you never know what's going to happen, who they're going to pick up next summer," the 22-year-old said Tuesday as the Red Wings prepared for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.
"Hopefully I can stick around for a long time, but a lot can happen in this game."
The speedy Helm has taken over as the team's third-line centre and has scored some timely goals, killed penalties, won 53.3 per cent of his faceoffs and thrown his body around on the forecheck.
Coach Mike Babcock said Helm would likely have stayed with the NHL club this season if the Wings were not pressed tight to the salary cap, so that players on the bubble could only be called up if another was injured.
Defenceman Jonathan Ericsson and forward Ville Leino were in a similar spot this season.
"He made our team in training camp, but with the salary cap we just thought this was better for him," said Babcock. "And I never could have thought that he'd be this good.
"There's no way. We brought him up in the regular season. We played him in the three-hole on purpose. He was good, but not like this."
Helm got into the lineup partly due to injuries, particularly to checking centre Kris Draper. And he took on a bigger roll when Pavel Datsyuk was injured two games into the Western Conference final against Chicago.
His performance includes a spectacular breakaway goal in Game 7 of the West semifinal against Anaheim and the series-winning goal in overtime in Game 5 against the Blackhawks. He also drew a standing ovation at Joe Louis Arena for a penalty kill against Chicago in which he ragged the puck in two stretches for about a minute.
"With Pavel injured, what happens is you move someone else up who normally finishes checks for you," Babcock added. "Now you become a different-looking hockey club.
"So Helmer has done a real good job to provide puck pressure, physicality, and give us a good faceoff presence in the three-hole. He's been good on the penalty kill. So all in all, he's been excellent."
At five-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Helm is an unlikely candidate to lead the team in hits, but he has used his speed and kamikaze style to bang the Pittsburgh defencemen at every opportunity.
For a player who grew up as a goal-scorer, it's been a new experience.
"You just have to adapt to the situations you're in," Helm said. "Obviously, I'm not one of the top players on this team who is going to be scoring every night, so with the role I'm in, they need me to play physical and I'm happy to do it.
"It's not the first time I've been in this role, but it's definitely the longest. I enjoy it a lot."
He was somewhat of a long shot to make the NHL, but now he appears to be candidate to become a new Draper, a super-checker and faceoff man who can also contribute on attack.
Helm was drafted 132nd overall in 2005 by the Red Wings from the Medicine Hat Tigers. Two years later, he helped Medicine Hat to a Western Hockey League championship, although they were beaten at the Memorial Cup tournament by the host Vancouver Giants.
Then it was off to Grand Rapids, where he has spent most of the past two seasons.
In 23 games during call-ups to Detroit over the past two seasons, Helm has no goals and one assist in 23 NHL regular-season games. But he went into Game 6 with six goals in 39 NHL playoff games.
And he has a shot at winning the Stanley Cup in each of his first two pro seasons.
Last summer, he even got to bring the Cup back to his hometown of St. Andrews, Man., near Winnipeg, to share the experience with family and friends.
"It's unbelievable for me," he said. "I'd have never thought I'd be in this position five years back.
"I never really considered myself a top player who would have an opportunity like this. But the way things have happened in the last three or four years is great. I'm enjoying every moment of it."
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