Archive for Detroit Red Wings

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

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Mar
02

Crafty Holland Plays It Safe, Smart Just Before Trade Deadline

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The 36-year-old defenseman arrived in Detroit, a moving piece in one of those NHL trade deadline deals, toting his equipment bag and maybe a bottle of Geritol. It was a chance for another “kick at the can,” as the hockey people like to say about the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The aging blueliner, booed out of his previous city, had already won two Cups by the time he was traded to the Red Wings in March of 1997. He gained those rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in consecutive years (1991-92).

Larry Murphy was already on his fourth team and was 11 years into his NHL career when he helped lead the Penguins to glory, but that was five years ago and he had added a fifth team to his travelogue when the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs swung a deadline trade.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf fans funneled their frustration with the team’s proclivity to spin its wheels on Murphy.

They booed whenever he touched the puck. They jeered him at every turn. If there ever was a player who needed to be moved, it was Murphy from the Maple Leafs in 1997.

The trade is listed on Hockey-Reference.com as Murphy to the Red Wings on March 18, 1997 for “future considerations.”

Murphy was an offensive defenseman who rocked the NHL as a rookie, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. He was 19 years old when the season began.

Sixteen years and two Stanley Cups later, Murphy was still known as a good puck-moving defenseman, except that the fans in Toronto used him as a figurative pinata. It is still a mystery as to why the Maple Leaf faithful turned on him so.

Regardless, Murphy jetted into Detroit on March 18, 1997 and there was one mission and one mission only: to win the Stanley Cup for a third time.

I asked Murphy about the treatment he got in Toronto. We chatted as we watched the Red Wings play Anaheim the night Steve Yzerman’s jersey went up into the rafters. It was January 2, 2007.

The brutality he went through in Toronto didn’t seem to have bothered Murphy all that much.

“Fans are fans,” he told me. “They pay their money.”

So it didn’t get to you?

“I thought it was kind of funny, actually,” Murphy said.

Murphy switched his Toronto blue for Detroit red and the results were palpable.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup the next two springs. Murphy was again on a team that won two straight Cups, the only player in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

The Larry Murphy trade is among the best the Red Wings ever made at the deadline. And they’ve made a lot of them.

Two years after Murphy, the Red Wings made a big splash at the deadline, acquiring forward Wendel Clark, goalie Bill Ranford and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Chelios in a whirlwind of trades.

But despite the pomp, the Red Wings were blasted out of the playoffs in the second round in 1999 by their arch nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes deadline deals make all the difference in the world; sometimes they don’t do a lick for your Stanley Cup chances.

In 2002, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, by that time a five-year veteran of the art of the deal, landed veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr at the deadline. It wasn’t looked at as much more than a move for depth. Slegr wasn’t expected to contribute too much.

Slegr didn’t play in a single playoff game for the Red Wings that spring, except for one: Game 5 of the Cup Finals.

In Game 4, fellow defenseman Jiri Fischer got suspended for a game after taking some liberties in Carolina.

Slegr, who was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season, got the call for Game 5. The Red Wings led the series, 3-1.

Slegr played 17 minutes that night at Joe Louis Arena as the Red Wings won their third Cup in six seasons.

You never know.

Holland, who inexplicably has never won an Executive of the Year Award, gathered his scouts and coaches at the Joe on Sunday and Monday. It’s a routine that gets played out every year on the eve of the trade deadline.

The list of potential acquisitions gets bandied about. Holland listens to input, takes notes, asks some questions. His money people are in the room, too, because it’s a salary cap world now and the contracts have to fit, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Holland was under no real urgency to do a deal. His team is playing well and while you can never have too much depth, the Red Wings didn’t have to go crazy and mortgage the future. If something made sense, Holland said he would do it. But it was felt that a move wasn’t a prerequisite for this spring’s playoff run.

There would be no 1999-like splash.

On Sunday, Holland got on the phone with former assistant Jim Nill, now the GM in Dallas. Two good friends talked trade.

When the cell phones closed, Holland had acquired 36-year-old forward Erik Cole for some lower level prospects. Cole can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future in Detroit beyond this season is uncertain to say the least.

On Monday, Holland fulfilled coach Mike Babcock’s wish for a right-handed shooting defenseman with some offense, getting Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky is 38 and he, too, is unrestricted come July 1.

These were old school Holland moves but with a new school team: bring in veteran guys who might be considered “rentals.” Only this time, the core of the Red Wings is more young than old, a reversal from the Cup-winning years.

But the price for Cole and Zidlicky was hardly steep, and in today’s NHL, these moves might be good enough to catapult the Red Wings.

The NHL post-season is a two-month roller coaster ride. It’s hockey’s version of March Madness, in that the eventual champion could be one of half a dozen (or more) teams. It’s not the NBA, where only a select few teams have a legitimate shot at the championship. You never see any six or seven seeds make it very far in pro basketball’s playoffs.

Whether you call it parity or just plain unpredictable, the NHL’s post-season is a crap shoot, like baseball and football’s.

For that reason, why unload a bunch of high-level prospects and front line players for someone who likely won’t improve your team’s Cup chances all that much?

This was Ken Holland at his best—accurately gauging his team’s current state and making smart, prudent moves without giving up the farm, literally.

Will Cole and Zidlicky do for the Red Wings, in their own way, what Larry Murphy did for them in 1997?

No one knows for sure, but again Holland has seemed to have improved his team without weakening its core.

One of these days, those who determine such things will name Holland the NHL’s Executive of the Year. It might be like when Paul Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for a movie that wasn’t his best work. But one day the voters are going to get smart.

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Dec
31

The Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno, 2014

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You know those annoying end-of-the-year letters you get from family members around the holidays?

The ones that tell about little Johnny’s new teeth and sister Sarah’s new puppy and the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon? And how mom has taken up embroidery and dad ran a half marathon?

Or, something like that.

Well, this is your annual annoying blog post from yours truly.

The one that reviews the year through the lens of my writing, and which serves to remind everyone that the words that appear on this site don’t always ring true. As if you didn’t already know that.

But sometimes I get it right, or at least semi-right!

So what follows, as usual, is a look back at words of false prophecy and (occasionally) wisdom.

January

On the Tigers’ acquisition of closer Joe Nathan:

Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.

He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.

Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.

If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.

Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).

He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.

Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.

It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.

As they say about goalies who let in a soft one, I might want to have that one back.

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On U-M football coach Brady Hoke firing offensive coordinator Al Borges:

Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.

He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.

The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.

So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.

“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.

The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.

Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.

Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.

“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.

Hoke smiled.

But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.

And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.

If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.

It pretty much was as simple as that.

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March

On the passing of Lions owner William Clay Ford:

Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.

Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.

Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.

The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.

Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.

Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.

Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.

Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.

Too bad Ford didn’t live to see another playoff appearance, but at least things look to be trending in the right direction, especially with the coaching.

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On the Tigers starting a rookie at third base in 2014:

Nick Castellanos might want to read up a bit on Mays. Hell, maybe the blabbermouths with cell phones who call into sports talk radio should read, too.

Can you imagine if Castellanos, the rookie ordained to play third base for the Tigers starting this year and for many years beyond, starts his 2014 season in a Mays-like 1-for-26 funk?

Why, it could be enough for folks to call for (gulp) Don Kelly!

Or, to move Miguel Cabrera back to third base and stick someone like Jordan Lennerton at first base. Or Victor Martinez, and have DH-by-committee.

The Chicken Little people would be out in full force, should Castellanos stumble out of the gate as badly as Mays did some 63 years ago.

On March 31, Castellanos finally makes the transition from prospect to big leaguer, when he slips the creamy white jersey with the Old English D over his 6’4″ frame and gets after it as a full-fledged player — not one of these September call-ups. On March 31, Castellanos is no longer the third baseman of the future. He is no longer a player waiting for a position to open up in Detroit.

You know what? The kid will be fine.

Sure, it’s a hunch, but it says here that a flame out isn’t on the horizon. There may be some cringe-inducing moments. Maybe he’ll throw wild to first base, costing the team a game in the late innings. Some nasty right-hander will eat him alive with some sliders from Hell. There may be days at a time where it looks like the bright lights of the big leagues are blinding him with their glare.

Castellanos was no Mike Schmidt and he needs to improve his range, but he wasn’t the Tigers’ Achilles heel, either.

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On the retirement of Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5 jersey:

If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.

The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him  ”a Genius in Spikes.”

Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”

Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and  angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.

Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.

As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?

We still miss Lidstrom but the transition has been less painful than was anticipated.

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April

On the hotness of Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist heading into the playoffs:

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

Nyquist continues to show that he can be a consistent 30+ goal scorer in the NHL.

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May

On the Tigers’ fast start in 2014, and what it meant to the AL Central race:

It may not matter, because the AL Central pretty much shapes up like this: there are the Tigers and four pretenders.

This race may be over before Memorial Day, folks.

The Tigers are distancing themselves from the division pack as if the other teams all had Limburger and onion sandwiches for lunch.

This isn’t a pennant race, it’s an anointing. The only way the Tigers don’t win this division is if they stop showing up—and even then they might squeak it out by a game or two.

This was supposed to be the Kansas City Royals‘ year. The Royals won 86 games last year and their young talent and all that pitching was to mesh and bring post-season baseball back to KC for the first time in 29 years.

But the Royals can’t hit, they never could hit, and the trendy folks who picked the Royals to be serious threats to the Tigers either ignored the lack of offense or tried to see through it.

The Royals’ so-called young studs—Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer—can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag. It takes them a week to launch a home run, and two weeks to score 20 runs.

The AL Central is child’s play now. The division will be clinched by the All-Star break, at the latest.

I took a lot of grief for this piece on Bless You Boys, as well I should have!

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On the Pistons’ hiring of Stan Van Gundy to be coach and president of basketball operations:

Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.

This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.

This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”

Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.

He can coach, big time.

This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.

I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.

This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.

It may not be Matt Millen, but it’s not good—yet. Maybe the cashiering of Josh Smith will be the turning point of the season.

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June

On the prospects of injured Andy Dirks (back) returning to the Tigers in 2014:

Backs are funny things, and I don’t mean ha-ha.

Remember the sight of Rick Mahorn lying on his stomach, rather than sitting on the bench, when he wasn’t in games as a Pistons Bad Boy? The unusual posture was best for Mahorn’s trick back.

Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks is, reportedly, about to begin a rehab assignment that is designed to put him closer to rejoining the Tigers, perhaps sometime around the All-Star Break. The rehab is the culmination of his recovery from lower back surgery that he underwent in March.

Dirks’ bat and glove are already being penciled into the Tigers lineup with zeal by fans who are begging for a left-handed hitting alternative in left field, despite the unexpected success of righty-swinging J.D. Martinez.

It is assumed by the Tigers faithful that, once cleared after his rehab assignment, Andy Dirks will step into the lineup and start producing like nothing ever happened to him.

Good luck with that.

But don’t be too disappointed if, for the rest of the season, Dirks has to take occasional days off to rest his still-tender back. And don’t be surprised if we don’t see a true facsimile of the Dirks of old until 2015.

Dirks never dd come back, and his career seems to be hanging in the balance.

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July

On why the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh shouldn’t be considered a leader:

There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.

Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?

You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.

The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.

They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.

So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.

He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.

He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.

But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.

Yet new coach Jim Caldwell designated Suh one of the team captains this season. It continues to be a crown that rests uneasily on his huge head.

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September

On why Brady Hoke’s lack of winning might be a good set-up for his successor:

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Somewhere, it turned out, was San Francisco.

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On why new Lions coach Jim Caldwell might succeed where so many predecessors failed:

It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.

The Lions coach seems to have his act together.

There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.

Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.

Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced  coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.

That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.

The Lions played more disciplined football, overall, than under Jim Schwartz. They didn’t jump offsides and they rarely committed stupid personal fouls at inopportune moments. Now, about those hard-to-control feet…

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December

On U-M’s chances of landing Jim Harbaugh as its new football coach:

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

I saved my worst for last, right?

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So there it is. If you hung in there and are still reading, my hats off to you. And I hope you resolve to keep reading in 2015, warts and all.

Happy New Year!

Gustav Nyquist kept the puck on his stick for 28 seconds, which in hockey is an eternity. It’s the world’s fastest team sport—a game predicated on moving the puck quickly and in tic-tac-toe fashion.

Yet here was Nyquist, the puck seemingly glued to his stick, literally skating circles around the Ottawa Senators and his own teammates on Saturday night in overtime, in the Senators’ zone.

Nyquist made three revolutions around the perimeter of the Ottawa zone, hogging the puck. He was a one-man, ice rink version of the Harlem Globetrotters. All that was missing was “Sweet Georgia Brown” blaring from the arena sound system.

It was overtime, so there was more ice with which to work, since the NHL plays 4-on-4 for the extra session in the regular season. And Nyquist used the extra ice to glide around with the puck as if he was a man playing among boys.

I have never seen one player keep the puck for as long as Nyquist kept it on Saturday night. Not even a video game player keeps it for nearly 30 seconds.

The solo puck possession was impressive enough in its length, but Nyquist finished the display by rifling a shot past Senators goalie Craig Anderson from the top of the right circle. Game over. Red Wings win, 3-2.

Just call him Gustav “Curly Neal” Nyquist.

Nyquist’s overtime goal was much needed, as it meant that the Red Wings would avoid the shootout, which is like Superman avoiding Kryptonite.

It’s also no secret that the Red Wings’ offense comes and goes without warning. First they’re popping four and five goals into the net per night, then it takes them a week to score that many.

The NHL isn’t sprinkled with the liberal amount of snipers that used to grace the ice as recently as 10 years ago. Like baseball, which is going through an offensive malaise, the NHL hasn’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard with any consistency for a number of years.

Pure goal scorers don’t grow on trees. This is true. Gone are the Brett Hulls of the world—at least for now.

The Red Wings have raised some eyebrows this season among the so-called experts, as they are sitting in the elite tier of the Eastern Conference and have been almost since the season began in October. The pre-season prognosticators didn’t give the Winged Wheelers much love.

Unlike the Stanley Cup-winning years of 1997 and beyond, today’s Red Wings have to scratch and claw to put every puck they can past enemy goalies. That’s why you see fits of scoring closely followed by bouts of sparseness, and vice-versa.

The Red Wings’ goal-scoring chart, if you spread the games played from left to right, would look like an EKG.

There may not be a true sniper available within the league, but the Buffalo Sabres have made it known that RW Chris Stewart could be had in a trade.

The Red Wings should place a phone call.

Stewart is trade bait because he is a pending, unrestricted free agent next summer and it’s doubtful that the small market Sabres want any part of a long-term, expensive deal with the 27-year-old. He is in the final year of a contract that pays him $4.15 million this season.

Stewart has only scored 20+ goals twice in his career (and hasn’t done so since the 2010-11 season), but he’s certainly a 15-20 goal guy who shoots right and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. He’s a Justin Abdelkader type but with maybe a little more skill.

Stewart isn’t having a great year so far (just five goals and a minus-14) but he likely would perk up if traded to a team that has a chance to actually do something, which the Sabres are not, despite their recent stretch of solid play.

So far there have been no indications that the Red Wings are in on Stewart, but they should be.

Buffalo’s Stewart is on the trading block. The Red Wings ought to be interested. (Getty Images)

Stewart will be 28 when next season starts, which should be the start of the prime of his career. He’s already played on some good teams in Colorado and St. Louis, so he knows a little about winning. With the Red Wings, he should get a healthy dose of that culture of success for many years to come, should he sign with them long-term next summer.

Watching the Red Wings on a nightly basis, you get the feeling that the team is still one goal scorer away from being a serious Stanley Cup contender. Even with the return of the oft-injured Stephen Weiss, who has been effective, there’s still a missing je ne sais quoi.

The inconsistent offense is a reason why coach Mike Babcock feels it necessary to occasionally pair Henrik Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk to jump start things. If the coach had his druthers, he’d play those two veteran stars on different lines to spread the wealth.

Nyquist could be a 20-goal guy (at least) every year, for sure. He has 15 goals this season in 36 games, and he popped in 28 goals in 57 games last season.

But one more sniper-type guy—just one—and the Red Wings could make this a special season after all.

The defense doesn’t have the lapses it has had in the recent past. The younger guys back there are maturing. Goalie Jimmy Howard is enjoying a nice bounce back from a checkered 2013-14 season. There’s some toughness and grit up front, with forwards who often outwork their opponents. Their coach is still among the best in the league.

The Red Wings of 2014-15 can’t throw their sweaters with the famous logo on it, onto the ice every night and chalk up two points. Those days are long gone. This squad can’t be outworked or it will lose. But it has something going, and if they can add one more guy who can put the puck into the net, the sky’s the limit.

Easier said than done, I know. But isn’t that why GM Ken Holland makes the big bucks?

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I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.

Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.

No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.

I called SportsPhone.

We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.

Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.

Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”

SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.

Oh, how I miss those days.

There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.

SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.

The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.

Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.

The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.

The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.

So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?

Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.

Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.

I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.

It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.

The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.

I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.

You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.

I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.

One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.

This was when establishments had pay phones.

The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.

At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.

I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.

I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.

So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.

Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.

My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.

Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.

I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.

He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.

But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.

For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.

Pfft!

Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!

Oct
27

Zetterberg Playing Like a Young 34 After Being an Old 33

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The Red Wings captain of today was wearing a suit when he should have been wearing a uniform.

When the Red Wings honored defenseman Nick Lidstrom last winter by retiring his no. 5 jersey, the evening was jarred by the sight of two current Red Wings and former Lidstrom teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, wearing Armani instead of Reebok.

Both were battling injuries. Zetterberg’s was a back ailment, and watching him move around gingerly that night was less-than-inspiring.

The Red Wings captain, Lidstrom’s successor in that role, returned in time for the playoffs but he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Hockey players are the Frankenstein monsters of athletes. They are sewn together and zipped up. I think if you look closely, some of them have bolts coming out of their necks.

They’ll play on one leg and seeing out of one eye. Teeth are optional, as are all internal organs other than the heart.

But as tough as they are, hockey players aren’t immune to two things: groin injuries and bad backs. Those maladies are the hockey player’s Kryptonite.

Just ask the guy in the broadcast booth who has described Zetterberg’s on-ice wizardry ever since Hank broke into the league in 2002.

Mickey Redmond was 28 years old when his back popped. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Redmond’s hands never left him. His shot never vanished. But his back went out and that was pretty much it for him as a hockey player. His last NHL game played was in January, 1976.

More than three years later, at age 31, Redmond tried to give it another shot on the ice but only lasted a few days in training camp in 1979 before retiring for good. The bad back quickly re-flared.

So there was some understandable breath holding when Zetterberg’s back, which has given him problems off-and-on for several years now, ached him yet again last season. Zetterberg’s age (33 at the time) only added to the angst.

Seeing Z waddle around during the Lidstrom ceremony didn’t help the psyche of a fan base that was rooting for its team to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.

Fast forward to this season. The captain’s back is repaired and he’s, well, back.

Boy, is he ever back.

Zetterberg is 34 now but he is flitting around the ice like he’s 24. Usually he is the Red Wings’ best player on any given night. He skates freely, briskly and with purpose. Sometimes you swear there are two no. 40s on the ice at once.

All Zetterberg has been doing is scoring goals, assisting on others, playing defense on both ends of the ice and leading by example. You know, kind of like what Z’s predecessors at captain—Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom—did all their careers.

On October 15, Zetterberg said he played a stinker of a game against Boston at Joe Louis Arena. He was quick to call himself out. The Red Wings lost in a shootout that night to the Bruins.

Zetterberg then took out his anger on the poor Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a rare home-and-home series with an Original Six club the weekend of October 17 and 18, Zetterberg assisted on all four Red Wings goals on Friday night in a 4-1 victory. The next night, he scored the game’s only goal, in overtime. The following game, in Montreal, Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal in a 2-1 loss.

That goal in Montreal meant that Henrik Zetterberg had a hand in the Red Wings’ six most recent goals.

The schedule moved on and Zetterberg moved on with it, his back healthy and leaving him pain-free.

Two nights after Montreal, the big, bad Pittsburgh Penguins came to town and with less than three minutes remaining, the Red Wings trailed 3-1 and the arena was emptying.

Enter Zetterberg. Again.

He took a pass near the Penguins blue line and split the defense like a high-flying youngster. Before Pens goalie Thomas Greiss, making his first start of the season, knew what hit him, Zetterberg had fired a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder to make the score 3-2.

Exactly two minutes later, at 19:21, Zetterberg assisted on Niklas Kronwall’s tying goal.

In overtime, with less than a minute remaining, Zetterberg was hard on the forecheck behind the Penguins net and got his stick on an attempted clearing pass. The puck squirted out to Justin Abdelkader, who deposited it past Greiss to cap the amazing comeback, which gave the Red Wings two of the most unlikeliest points they will earn all season.

When the snow settled, the three points Zetterberg earned against the Penguins gave him a hand in nine of the last 10 Red Wings goals.

The streak started immediately after the captain indicted himself for his play against Boston.

Watching the man they call Hank or Z—because Henrik and Zetterberg take too long to say—play this season is like watching a youthful rookie skating on fresh legs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Zetterberg was one of those Grand Rapids Griffins called up last year.

Lately, coach Mike Babcock has paired Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk on the same line, now that Datsyuk is back in the lineup, healed from his shoulder injury.

To say that it’s pleasing to finally see Z and Pavs together again is an understatement. Last season, injuries kept the two off the ice far too often. Or when one was healthy, the other wasn’t.

Zetterberg turned 34 a few weeks ago. Last season he looked like an old 33, with his bad back. This year he looks like a young 34, mainly because his back doesn’t make him feel 54.

He captains a team that is younger and less experienced than any roster Yzerman or Lidstrom led, which makes Zetterberg’s savvy and skill on the ice all the more appreciated.

And heaven help the league the next time Z thinks he’s had a bad game.

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Aug
17

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

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It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.

A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.

As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.

Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.

You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.

Ilitch seemed unaware.

It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.

His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.

Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.

In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.

The announcement made little fanfare.

Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.

Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.

As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Devellano made good on his promise.

So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.

Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.

It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.

Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.

In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.

Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.

Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.

But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.

The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.

The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.

Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.

Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.

Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.

It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.

Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.

Fair enough.

But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.

The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.

Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.

It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.

Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.

Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

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So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?

Isn’t that what they do every year?

It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.

The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.

The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.

For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.

Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.

The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.

So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?

Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.

There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.

There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16  of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).

But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.

These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.

Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.

The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.

This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.

The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.

Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.

Springtime hockey in the Motor City.

The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.

This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.

Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.

The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.

The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.

Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.

So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.

But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.

And where is Dennis Rodman these days?

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They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.

Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.

Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.

The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.

Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?

But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.

Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.

The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.

The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.

So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.

Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.

“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.

But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.

Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.

After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.

Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.

Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.

But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.

That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.

Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.

“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”

I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.

So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.

No. 14 in red and white.

 

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