Dylan Larkin: The Red Wings’ best player, by default (for now)

May 4, 2016

Just seven months ago, the question was, should Dylan Larkin be included in the Red Wings’ opening night roster, or should he be sent to Grand Rapids for some more seasoning?

Today, we ask, when can he take over as being the team’s most elite player?

Let’s hope ASAP is among the choices.

It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.

It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.

Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.

Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.

It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.

Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).

When the Red Wings move into shiny new Little Caesars Arena (I know, I know) in October of 2017, it would be nice to have a centerpiece on the roster. It would be even better to have a team capable of making a deep playoff run, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Because of a myriad of reasons, Larkin is now being asked, at least indirectly and not yet publicly, to be the Red Wings’ best player every night. He has no choice, because there’s no one else capable.

It’s so, so reminiscent of no. 19.

Stevie Yzerman, at age 19, was entering his second season with the Red Wings, and it wasn’t much longer after that, that Yzerman was anointed as being the team’s best player. At first it was by default, but then it became a no-brainer.

Right now, Larkin is the Red Wings’ best player, by default. Soon there won’t be anything defaulting about it.

This will be Larkin’s team, and the fortunes of it will turn as he turns. That’s not opinion.

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 17: Dylan Larkin #71of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin’s first half was better than his second, but both halves were better than just about everyone else’s.

 

The task now for GM Ken Holland and his scouting staff—both amateur and pro—is to surround Larkin with the supporting cast the kid needs to lessen his burden.

The Red Wings’ core should be reduced to Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Abdelkader, Zetterberg (for now), Anthony Mantha, goalie Petr Mrazek and defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.

Everyone else should be quite touchable, in trades and in cuts, if need be.

That’s a small core, granted, but I don’t see any other way to go about returning the Red Wings to their glory days.

In the meanwhile, Holland should try trades, an occasional low-profile free agent signing when money allows (no more big contracts for awhile) and continue to go to the draft well, which has served the team fairly decently in recent years.

It’s time now to stop waiting on the likes of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan et al to break through as top end players. Trade ’em all, if you can.

Keep the aforementioned core and work from there.

As for Larkin, this plan clearly broadens the young man’s shoulders by proxy, but all Stanley Cup-worthy teams have superstars. The Red Wings are not going to claw their way to the chalice with second tier forwards and grinders and a mediocre blue line corps. The league’s playoffs may sometimes be quirky and unpredictable, but they’re not set up to allow a superstar-less team to win it all.

Again, that’s not opinion.

It can’t all be Larkin, of course. The defensemen badly need a marquee guy as well. Niklas Kronwall has frayed so much that his nickname ought to be The Shadow. His minus-21 is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 5.43. Mike Green is OK but hardly elite.

Trading for or developing a true no. 1 defenseman is a necessary part of the rebuild. And yes, I used the r-word. Sue me.

Holland and his fellow front office suits won’t use the r-word, unless that r-word is “reboot” or “reload.”

It’s a rebuild because in a true reboot or reload, you’re keeping a majority of the roster and doing some tweaks, perhaps to replace stars who’ve left via free agency or who have retired.

In a reboot/reload, you have money to burn to go get another elite player.

This is a rebuild because the Red Wings only have a handful of players worth keeping. The others could be trade chips, if packaged the right way. So they still have some value, especially if packaged with prospects.

Whether Holland and company see the roster this way is the question that many Red Wings fans fear doesn’t have the answer that they would prefer.

But what simply can’t be up for debate is the notion that Dylan Larkin, already, before his 20th birthday, is the Red Wings’ best player.

For now, it’s by default.

But it won’t be that way for much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Wings: Hockeytown needs to brace itself

If the Red Wings were a prize fighter, they’d be Muhammad Ali—in 1980, after his bout with Larry Holmes.

Ali, 38 years old and with nothing left in the tank, was beaten badly by a reluctant Holmes, who didn’t even really want to fight The Greatest to begin with. Holmes knew that Ali was finished. But Ali insisted that he take on the fight, and Holmes used him as a punching bag for 11 rounds, before Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, threw in the towel.

The Red Wings are that boxer who everyone wants to retire, but who doesn’t know when to quit. You know the one—the guy who’s a shell of his past but he just can’t resist lacing on the gloves and giving it another shot.

On Thursday night, the 25th straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs ended the way the previous three of the last four did—with the Red Wings blasted out in the first round, having shown up to a gunfight with a penknife.

The forwards couldn’t score, the defensemen were a step slow and, in cruel irony, the one guy on whom you really couldn’t blame anything—goalie Petr Mrazek—channeled Chris Osgood ’94 and made a puck handling blunder late in the decisive Game 5 that cost the Red Wings with less than two minutes to play in the third period.

The fans are the corner men, wanting their team to throw in the towel and get out, while there’s still some dignity left.

This isn’t what the Red Wings have been all about. Their playoff appearances used to strike fear in opponents. Now all they do is elicit sympathy.

Kind of like Larry Holmes’ for Muhammad Ali.

The glory days of Red Wings hockey are over, for now, and the players who remain from the 2008 Cup team are finished, for all intents and purposes.

The so-called next wave of Red Wings after Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have proven to be either overvalued or have underperformed, or both. Regardless, there’s not a Z or a Pavs among the group of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, et al.

Former coach Mike Babcock openly asked the question shortly after the Red Wings were eliminated by Tampa Bay in 2015. He wondered where the next Datsyuk was coming from.

A few weeks later, Babs absconded to Toronto, where expectations are low and where the roster is being built, not held together with baling wire.

There’s a gem in young Dylan Larkin, and there may be another in big Anthony Mantha, who looks like a basketball swingman on skates.

But the defense, which misses Nick Lidstrom oh, so badly, is nowhere near Cup-worthy.

The goalie situation looks to be in flux, yet again. Or, at the very least, the Red Wings have a decision to make.

The coach just finished his rookie season and suffice it to say that he suffered through growing pains as well.

I’ve been critical of GM Kenny Holland in recent weeks. It hasn’t been subtle.

Just before the trading deadline, I beseeched Holland—who’s finishing his 20th season as Red Wings general manager—to make a bold move of some sort. Shuffle the deck. Literally, a trade for trade’s sake.

Didn’t happen, not that I expected that it would.

Then, as the season wound down and making the playoffs was again in peril, I again took Holland to task, bemoaning his lack of boldness and wondering if the Red Wings front office had turned from stable to stale.

Nothing that happened in the team’s five-game playoff “run” turned me into a liar.

I’m not boasting—I’m being factual.

So what to do?

The team will be moving into a new arena in 2017. The last time the Red Wings did that, in 1979, they were a horribly-run hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun.

But Joe Louis Arena was just that—an arena. The Red Wings’ new stomping grounds will be much more than a hockey barn. It’s designed to be a year-round attraction, filled with shops, restaurants and other amenities.

Make no mistake, though. The Red Wings will still be the crown jewel of the new campus. So the last thing team officials want is for the crown jewel to be an atrocity soiling the campus’ lapel.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings’ move into their new digs might coincide with the team being in the midst of a rebuild that could mean no spring hockey for a year or two.

The new arena could open in October of 2017 but host no playoff games until April, 2020.

If that thought doesn’t send chills down the spines of the team’s brass, then nothing will.

Despite the fans’ frustration and their calls for a return to Detroit of Stevie Yzerman, I don’t see Mike Ilitch pulling the plug on Ken Holland. Although, it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world if that happened.

Ilitch has his Stanley Cups. What he doesn’t have, is his World Series ring. And you can’t tell me that it’s a coincidence that the Tigers seem to garner more of the owner’s attention than the Red Wings, when that’s the case.

Holland represents stability to the owner. He’s that old shoe—or skate. For now.

But with the new arena opening a year from October, losing the extra income from having no playoff dates isn’t going to go over well in the owner’s suite.

Kenny Holland and his lieutenants—notably chief of the pro scouts, Mark Howe—have painted the franchise into a corner, so to speak. They’re crippled by some bad salaries and Datsyuk’s uncertain future. They know their needs but may not be able to address them right away.

 

It’s the worst place to be if you’re a pro sports franchise—in the middle of the pack.

Ilitch likely won’t fire Holland and he won’t make a play for Yzerman to leave the year-round sunshine of Florida.

But what does it say when two of Holland’s disciples—Yzerman and Dallas GM Jim Nill—have lapped their mentor in a relatively short length of time?

 

The Red Wings need bold, new ideas and fresh faces, and not just on the ice. They need prime time scorers and a stud defenseman. They need to flush the toilet.

The problem isn’t necessarily what the Red Wings need. It’s, how do they go about getting it, if there isn’t a change in upper management’s button downed, loyal-to-a-fault style?

The fans are being asked to believe in a GM who hasn’t exactly had the Midas touch in recent years.

Frankly, the Red Wings need to strip things to a core of Larkin, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Danny DeKeyser and/or Brendan Smith, Justin Abdelkader (your next captain) and Mrazek, and work from there.

I’m recalling what Babcock said at his opening presser in Toronto last summer, speaking to Maple Leafs fans through the media.

“There’s going to be pain.”

 

Is the Hockeytown fan base prepared for some pain?

Because it’s coming, one way or another.

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven: Red Wings who were the last to wear retired numbers

They are hanging from the rafters at the Joe Louis Arena, and some of them go back almost 25 years. I wonder if they’re ever dusted.

No doubt they will relocate, as will the Red Wings themselves, when the new arena complex opens in time for the 2017-18 season.

They’re the seven officially retired uniform numbers in team lore: 1,5,7,9,10,12 and 19.

I don’t have to tell you to whom those cherished numbers belonged.

Gordie Howe’s no. 9 was retired during the 1971-72 season, but in those days the Red Wings didn’t hoist numbers to the rafters, for whatever reason. Never did no. 9 hang at the Olympia, believe it or not.

The first two numbers to be officially retired with a ceremony at JLA were in November 1991, when the Red Wings put nos. 7 and 10 to bed for good, honoring Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio, respectively.

The most recent sweater to be retired was Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5.

But I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the players who wore the retired numbers before they were put into moth balls.

Who was the last Red Wing to wear Terry Sawchuk’s no. 1? Or Sid Abel’s no. 12?

You don’t have to do the digging; I already did—and so what follows is a look back at the seven Red Wings who became answers to a great trivia question.

No. 1: Glen Hanlon (last worn in 1990-91)

Sawchuk played in the days when goalies pretty much wore no. 1 or no. 30. Period. Tony Esposito’s 35 and Ken Dryden’s 29 were exceptions. I remember Gilles Meloche wore no. 27. But the goalies were 1 or 30, as a rule, leaving 2-29 for skaters. Players didn’t start wearing goofy numbers until the late-1970s. Now, hockey players wear uniform numbers befitting a football roster.

Hanlon was a 29 year-old goalie when the Red Wings acquired him in July 1986. He had established himself in Vancouver and was coming off two seasons with the Rangers when the Red Wings got him for defenseman Jim Leavins.

As a Red Wing, Hanlon played five seasons and was huge in the 1987 playoffs, posting two shutouts, a 1.67 GAA and a save percentage of .943. He was a redheaded man of sharp wit and self-effacing humor. In 1988, after the Flyers poured 10 goals past him one night at the Joe, Hanlon joked, “OK, who put the soccer net behind me?”

The Red Wings didn’t retire no. 1 until 1995, but Hanlon was the last to wear it, in 1991.

No. 5: Rick Green (1990-91)

Before Lidstrom, there was Rick Green.

Green, a defenseman, was the first overall pick in 1976 by the Washington Capitals.

After six seasons in Washington, Green was part of a huge trade with Montreal that shipped Green and Ryan Walter to the Canadiens for Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, Craig Laughlin and Rod Langway.

The Red Wings acquired Green, by then 34 years old, from Montreal, who still had his rights after Green played a year in Italy.

Green played 65 games for the Red Wings in 1990-91. Lidstrom debuted in October 1991.

No. 7: Tom Bissett (1990-91)

Who?

Bissett, a center, was drafted by the Red Wings in the 11th round of the 1986 draft out of Michigan Tech.

He went back to college and didn’t turn pro until 1988-89, when he played for Detroit’s top minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings.

Bissett had a cup of coffee with the Red Wings in 1990-91, suiting up for five games and slipping sweater no. 7 over his head, making him the last Red Wing to wear the number before its retirement.

Bissett is in the Michigan Tech Huskies Hall of Fame.

No. 9: Roy Conacher (1946-47)

In the interest of transparency, this is an educated guess. Hockey-Reference doesn’t list jersey numbers on its website for the 1946-47 season, when Howe debuted. What is known is that Howe wore no. 17 initially, and he switched to no. 9 in his second season. Using unscientific deduction and web research, I believe that Conacher, a left wing, was the last to wear no. 9 before Howe donned it for the next 24 seasons.

Conacher played in 60 games for the Red Wings in 1946-47 at the age of 30. He popped in 30 goals, which ended up being a career high for him. Detroit traded Conacher to New York in October 1947, but he refused to report to the Rangers. Ten days later, the Red Wings traded him again—to Chicago. Conacher reported to the Black Hawks (pictured).

No. 10: Jimmy Carson (1990-91)

Carson is interesting because not only was he the last Red Wing to wear no. 10 before it was retired, he then switched to no. 12, and thus became one of the last Red Wings to wear that number before it, too, was retired.

Carson was a local kid (Southfield) who badly wanted to play for the Red Wings. But even though Detroit had the no. 1 overall pick in 1986, the Red Wings selected Joe Murphy instead of the local boy Carson, who was drafted by Los Angeles.

Carson openly campaigned for a trade to Detroit whenever rumors of a deal popped up.

Carson was involved in a trade, all right—perhaps the most shocking in NHL history.

Carson was part of the package that the Edmonton Oilers got for Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1988.

Jimmy finally got his wish on November 2, 1989, when the Red Wings acquired Carson in a big trade that sent Petr Klima—and Joe Murphy—to Edmonton.

No. 12: Mike Sillinger (1993-94)

Sillinger was a number whore.

He only played parts of four seasons as a Red Wing, yet he managed to wear five different numbers in Detroit.

The last was 12, in 1993-94, before it was retired to honor Sid Abel.

Sillinger was the Red Wings’ first round pick in the 1989 draft, and he went on to have a decent, though well-traveled,  NHL career: 19 years, 240 goals, while playing for—count ’em—12 NHL teams.

All told, Sillinger wore 10 different uniform numbers in the NHL.

No. 19: Randy Ladouceur (1982-83)

Steve Yzerman, as many Red Wings fans know, chose to wear no. 19 because his favorite player was Brian Trottier, Hall of Fame center for the New York Islanders.

Everywhere Yzerman played, he wore no. 19.

So when Stevie arrived in Detroit in 1983, he managed to convince Ladouceur, a defenseman who preceded Yzerman to the NHL by one year, to switch from 19 to 29.

Ladouceur played for the Red Wings from 1982-1987. Detroit traded him to Hartford in January 1987 for Dave Barr.

Ladouceur played 14 years in the NHL before becoming a longtime assistant coach in the league.

 

So there they are—the Ignominious Seven.

Don’t you feel smarter now? Now you’re ready to win some money with some bar bets.

Holland’s loyalty, conservative style holding Red Wings back

They used to be judged in May. Their season didn’t truly begin until the Tigers were a month into theirs.

It’s not that way with the Red Wings anymore.

It’s no longer about spring hockey—that special time of year when the players (and the fans) hunkered down and prepped themselves for a six-week battle of attrition that often culminated in hoisting a silver chalice in the first week of June.

Now, it’s more about the annual frantic race in February and March for the eighth and final playoff spot.

You know, to keep that damn streak alive.

It’s 24 years and counting, the number of consecutive years that the Red Wings have qualified for the post-season.

The streak used to be a source of pride, but I wonder if it’s now becoming an albatross that’s hanging (figuratively) around the necks of everyone in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun, as they say it in hockey.

Brendan Shanahan, one of those whose very name and face symbolizes Red Wings championship hockey, talked to me six years ago about how playoff hockey consumed him.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

Ah, the days of the long playoff runs!

The halcyon days of Red Wings hockey are getting further and further in the rear view mirror. The team hasn’t advanced past the second round in seven years.

But no one who’s involved with the Red Wings wants to have the playoff streak end on their watch.

Here’s what it’s been about with the Red Wings in what is becoming a disturbing trend.

Play 82 games. Get 100 points. Play like mad in the last five weeks of the season to make the playoffs. Get drummed out in the first round.

Rinse. Repeat.

The Red Wings, 2015-16 version, are not bad enough to consider a rebuild, yet aren’t good enough to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup. Frankly, that description could fit them for the past five years.

They have to work like hell to score more than two goals on any given night, largely because the power play lacks the first word. They have three elite forwards—two of them are ancient and one of them is a stinking teenager—and a bunch of decent but not great supporting players.

They don’t have an elite defenseman. The one who used to be elite is old and his body is breaking down.

They have a decent starting goalie but even he is just getting past an ill-timed slump at the moment.

So what to do?

GM Ken Holland is a terrific guy. I’ve talked to him several times and if there’s one thing you can say about Holland, it’s that he doesn’t duck the press—which is more than you can say about a lot of executives in other sports who’ve passed through town.

But Holland’s legacy as GM, which does indeed include three Cups, could be legitimately argued as being artificially propped up by two things.

In the pre-salary cap years, Holland didn’t have to make trades and be a shrewd drafter in the high rounds. He needed to just whip out his owner’s wallet and wave a check in a free agent’s face.

Then there’d be a press conference in July announcing the latest star acquisition.

After the hard cap was installed in 2005, the scouts have saved Holland’s bacon.

Hakkan Andersson, the Red Wings’ Chief European Scout—who ought to be in the Hall of Fame someday—doesn’t get nearly enough credit for finding so many diamonds in the rough.

Money and scouting have propped up Holland’s GM legacy in Detroit.

It certainly hasn’t been the big, bold, blockbuster trade, because Ken Holland hasn’t made one in his life.

Never.

He’s never traded a star for a star. No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type courage.

To be fair, this isn’t unique to Holland.

The days of the blockbuster NHL trade have vaporized.

I’ll never forget when the Bruins and the Rangers—two longtime, bitter NHL rivals—engineered a huge trade in November 1975 that shook the league to its core.

Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to Boston. Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais to New York.

For perspective, this was like if the Yankees traded Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson to Boston for Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk.

It was that big.

At the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, I beseeched Holland to do something bold.

Literally a trade for trade’s sake.

I argued that it was time to take the Red Wings’ snow globe and give it a good shake and see what happens.

I didn’t argue for the dealing of 19 year-old Dylan Larkin, or of goalie Petr Mrazek.

I may be stupid but I’m not a fool.

But in order to get off this treadmill that has become Red Wings hockey in recent years, I suggested a top-six forward be traded for another top-six forward.

But that’s not Ken Holland’s style.

The problem with the Red Wings—and it’s not just Holland—is that they tend to be loyal to a fault.

Holland and company can easily fall in love with players and they become Red Wings for life. Then they all get front office jobs when they retire. Even the fourth line guys.

Remember the odd bromance Holland had with Dan Cleary?

The Red Wings are not going to hell in a hand basket, but they’re in a rut.

The good news is that the drafting in the upper rounds has been getting better, and the Grand Rapids Griffins are still a good source of NHL-caliber players.

Anthony Mantha, the Red Wings’ top pick of 2013, is set to make his NHL debut Tuesday in Philadelphia.

He must have drastically improved, because last May, senior VP Jimmy Devellano blistered Mantha in a scathing interview with the Hockey News.

“Very disappointing,” is how Jimmy D characterized Mantha’s play last season.

There’s a fine line—and one letter—separating stable and stale.

When the Red Wings were strong Cup contenders, the Red Wings’ front office was stable. Everyone had been together for 20-plus years.

Now, I fear the execs are becoming stale. Funny how losing in the playoffs every year can change things.

Two of Holland’s proteges, Jim Nill (Dallas) and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay), have lapped their mentor. Both the Stars and the Lightning are better teams than the Red Wings.

That’s not soothing to a fan base that’s starting to get a little antsy in Detroit.

Let’s face it: it’s not about May anymore. It’s about making the playoffs, period.

Three years ago, the Red Wings had the mighty Chicago Blackhawks by the throats, with a 3-1 series lead in the second round. But Chicago won three straight, including Game 7 in overtime.

Last April, the Red Wings won a “big” Game 5 in Tampa to take a 3-2 series lead, but again couldn’t close the deal.

In both of those playoff disappointments, the lack of goal scoring was the culprit.

It’s time now for guys like Gus Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Justin Abdelkader—to name three—to be the best player in a seven-game series. It can’t always be Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

And it can’t be the teenager, Larkin. Not yet.

If you’d prefer to see Mrazek steal a series, fine, but the young Czech goalie tossed two shutouts at the high-scoring Lightning last spring and the Red Wings still lost.

So it’s not all about Holland and his conservative, loyal style.

And I won’t get into the litany of questionable free agent signings, because Holland isn’t alone in the NHL in that regard.

Holland is what he is. He’s not a gambler. He’s not bold. And it’s not that his approach to building the Red Wings back into a Cup contender is necessarily a bad one.

Ken Holland

Holland’s conservative, loyal style might not be what Red Wings need now.

But it could be accelerated if he’d get out of his comfort zone and call some other GMs this summer, looking to trade a high profile player for another high profile player.

When Mike Babcock was in Detroit, folks wondered whether the players were tired of his voice. And Babcock was blamed for why certain desirable free agents weren’t coming to Detroit anymore.

If a coach’s voice can get tired, why can’t a GM’s?

Harry Sinden, the great GM of the Boston Bruins for almost 30 years, was cut from a different cloth.

Sinden’s teams went to Stanley Cup Finals in each of the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Yes, they lost almost every time, but Sinden built Cup-worthy teams in various ways.

But he also wasn’t afraid to make a big trade.

Sinden was half of the architect of the big, aforementioned Park/Ratelle/Esposito/Vadnais trade.

Sinden was from a different era, however—when NHL teams weren’t afraid to trade stars. Of course, there wasn’t a salary cap back then, either.

I don’t come to bury Ken Holland. But I’m not here to praise him, either.

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that’s missing from the Red Wings, and it comes from the top.

The Red Wings are not a team in disarray. This isn’t Darkness with Harkness, Part II.

But it feels like things are turning from stable to stale upstairs.

Of course, winning a damn playoff series can change everyone’s perspective.

So do it, already.

 

Red Wings’ lack of boldness again on display at trade deadline

There’s never been a lot of riverboat gambler in Ken Holland.

Holland, the Red Wings’ GM since 1997, has done a lot of things in his 19 years on the job, but making the bold, daring, blockbuster move hasn’t really been one of them.

Holland’s M.O., in the pre-salary cap years, was to open Mike Ilitch’s checkbook every July 1 and hold a press conference a few days later, showing off the newest star to slip on a Red Wings sweater.

Since the cap took effect in 2005, Holland has been the architect of a few signings, but mostly the work has consisted of deadline deals in which the Red Wings give up a prospect and get a veteran in return.

No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type stunners. No multi-team deals involving six players.

Holland has never traded a star for a star. It’s not his style.

This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997.

It’s also not just a Ken Holland thing. Big trades in the NHL—those involving high profile players swapping jerseys—have gone the way of drive-in movie theaters and personal accountability.

But if there was ever a year in which Holland should have explored an outside-the-box way of thinking, it was this year.

But alas, as expected, the NHL trade deadline came and went yesterday with no activity from the bowels of Joe Louis Arena—not even a stinking minor deal.

The easiest thing to do, of course, is stand pat when you’re up against the cap, which the Red Wings mostly were. They shed a little more than $2 million by trading defenseman Jakub Kindl to Florida on Saturday, but that’s not a lot of dough if you want to do something significant to the roster.

Unless you consider something bold.

Last year, the Red Wings went up against the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, and everyone wondered how a rookie goalie would do against such an explosive lineup.

Petr Mrazek tossed two shutouts in the Lightning series, and the reason the Red Wings lost it in seven games had little to do with goaltending and their suspect defense.

De-TROY-it couldn’t put the puck in the net—plain and simple.

The Lightning didn’t score very much, either, but they managed just enough offense to escape.

The Red Wings this season, once again, are offensively challenged. They’re again prone to scoring droughts. A 19 year-old rookie is their leading goal scorer.

It doesn’t get easier to score in the playoffs, you know.

It’s not the Red Wings’ style, but if ever there was a time to consider trading a top-six forward for a top-six forward, it was this year.

ken-holland

As expected, Holland was quiet on trade deadline day.

It’s going on eight years since the last Stanley Cup was hoisted in Detroit. With our other teams, eight years is like a blink of an eye. But with the Red Wings, who have a different standard, eight years is cause for restlessness.

I can hear some of you now.

Why make a trade for the sake of making a trade?

Hey, why not?

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take the snow globe, shake it up, and see what happens.

Look, when I say top-six forward, I’m really only talking about a few guys.

The Red Wings wouldn’t be expected to trade Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk or Justin Abdelkader. Brad Richards, while valuable, is too old to garner much of a return. And The Kid, Dylan Larkin, is as untouchable as they come.

So I’m looking at you, Gustav Nyquist. And you, Tomas Tatar. And you, Riley Sheahan. I might even cast a glance at Darren Helm.

Yes, I know that’s more than six forwards. But with the Red Wings, top-six is a misnomer, because coach Jeff Blashill juggles lines frequently.

One of the reasons he juggles is because the Red Wings are always sniffing for goals.

It would have been out of character for Holland, but it would have been nice to see a trade designed to do nothing other than shake things up.

What have you got to lose?

If you catch lightning in a bottle and you bring over a guy from another organ-eye-ZAY-shun who gets hot wearing the Winged Wheel and keeps it going in the playoffs, wouldn’t you take that?

Yes, that means giving up an everyday player but that’s why they call it bold and risky.

Again, not the Red Wings’ style.

The concerns on the blue line—the lack of a true stud being one of them—is something to be addressed this summer.

But in the playoffs, you shouldn’t worry about keeping the puck out of your own net as much as pumping them past the other team’s goalie.

The Red Wings have trouble scoring on too many nights, and the playoffs aren’t the time or the place to get relief in that area.

The Red Wings played it safe on deadline day. They’ll tell you that nothing came across Ken Holland’s desk that made sense. They’ll say that they didn’t want to disrupt their core guys.

Sigh.

It would have been fun to see the snow globe given a good shake.

Sometimes you have to be bold.

But the Red Wings haven’t done that in over 20 years, so why would they start now?

Where are hockey’s riverboat gamblers?

Bingo, Bango! Redmond owes Motor City stardom to Harkness

They’re going to honor Nick Lidstrom tonight at Joe Louis Arena, a nod to Nick’s being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame earlier this year.

A fine reason for celebration, and well-deserved, of course.

And up in the broadcast booth, one of the many who can be called the pride of Kirkland Lake, Ontario will help describe the moment.

Mickey Redmond will chime in as they fete Nick, and then proceed to call the game with Ken Daniels, complete with the requisite number of “Holy smokes” and maybe a “bingo bango” or two. But Mickey owes his three decades-long broadcast success and celebrity in Detroit to an unlikely source.

There are three words that make the old-time Red Wings fan shudder. Even the glory of four Stanley Cups won in the past 19 years can’t completely wash away the words’ stench, because of the bad memories they elicit.

Darkness with Harkness.

That trio of words represent the decade of the 1970s, when the Red Wings went off the rails because of one man’s incompetence and another man’s stubbornness.

In the summer of 1970, the Red Wings, showing some progressive thinking, went outside the box and hired a 47 year-old college coach, Ned Harkness, to take over for Sid Abel, who was going to focus his duties on being general manager, which Sid had been for the 1960s, coaching for most of the decade as well except for a brief stint by Bill Gadsby (whose tenure ended in controversy in 1969).

Harkness was wildly successful at Cornell University, but his college ways were like oil and water with the veteran NHL players on the Red Wings.

By early-January, the players revolted. Everything from the length of Garry Unger’s hair to how the team dressed on the road was monitored by Harkness, and the players hated it.

Abel was aghast. Harkness had been foistered on him by owner Bruce Norris, who was acting on the advice of another newbie—front office man Jim Bishop, whose primary experience had been in lacrosse.

Abel knew that Harkness had to go. The players knew it. The rest of the NHL knew it.

The low point came on January 2, 1971, when the Red Wings, in protest, laid down against the Toronto Maple Leafs to the tune of a 13-0 embarrassment on “Hockey Night in Canada.”

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Harkness, at his introductory press conference in the spring of 1970.

 

The Leafs scored seven times in the third period, and five times in the final ten minutes.

Abel went to Norris with Harkness’ walking papers. But Norris, siding with Bishop’s judgment, overruled Abel.

Abel, baffled, resigned in protest, temporarily ending ties with the organization after about 30 years as a player, coach and GM. Sid would return later in the decade in the broadcast booth.

With Abel gone, Norris promoted Harkness, with his 12-22-4 coaching record, to GM. Minor league coach and former Red Wing Doug Barkley was hired to be the new coach.

So what does this all have to do with Redmond?

Just a few days after being promoted to GM, Harkness made his first of many moves, trading scorer Frank Mahovlich to the Montreal Canadiens. Ironically, Abel had acquired The Big M from Toronto just three years earlier in one of the biggest blockbusters in league history. From Toronto, Abel got Mahovlich, 20 year-old Garry Unger and winger Pete Stemkowski. Going to the Leafs were Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.

That trade, in March of 1968, rocked the NHL.

The onRedmond Montreale that Harkness made on January 13, 1971 would reverberate as well—but not as planned.

For coming over to Detroit from Montreal was a 23 year-old right winger who had a knack of putting the biscuit in the basket—Mickey Redmond.

Harkness got Redmond, Bill Collins and Guy Charron from Montreal. All for Frank Mahovlich, who would help lead the Habs to the 1971 and 1973 Stanley Cups.

Redmond, of course, went on to score 50+ goals twice as a Red Wing and he became as much a part of the fabric of Detroit as General Motors.

So much of hockey history would have been rewritten if Bruce Norris had allowed Sib Abel to fire Ned Harkness.

The players would have been happy, and played like it. Abel likely wouldn’t have made the Mahovlich trade, nor would he have traded Unger, as Harkness did about a month later. And Abel probably wouldn’t have traded Bruce MacGregor, either—as Harkness did later in the season.

Abel probably would have taken over as coach for the remainder of the year and looked for a replacement in the summer of 1971.

The Red Wings probably wouldn’t have had such a miserable decade.

And Mickey Redmond would probably have never become a Red Wing, and thus would never have found his way behind the microphone in Detroit.

Bingo-bango!

Mercurial Red Wings-Avs rivalry was sports’ best—for six years

The roots of one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history can be traced to May, 1995.

The roots started to take hold in early-December, 1995. They were firmly in the ground come the following May.

The Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche will be playing in yet another one of those outdoor games on February 27, in Denver.

Sadly, the alumni game that will take place the day prior to the game is likely to have more juice than the real thing.

The Red Wings and the Avs were the Hatfields and the McCoys of the NHL. Heck, maybe in all of professional sports.

Their bitterness toward each other was fleeting and mercurial, however. But for about six years, nothing was a hotter ticket than a Red Wings-Avalanche game, whether it was played in Detroit or Denver.

You can have your Yankees-Red Sox. You can have your Lakers-Celtics. I’ll even give you Pistons-Celtics and Pistons-Bulls. Same with Flyers-Rangers or Canadiens-Maple Leafs.

You can have them all, but what the Red Wings and Avalanche did to each other from 1996-2002 trumps everything those teams did. For six years, it was must-see TV.

But that was a long time ago.

The Red Wings-Avs rivalry can’t truly be put up there with the greatest of all-time, because it didn’t last very long.

The Red Wings kept being good—winning another Stanley Cup in 2008—but the Avs had some playoff trouble in the years after capturing their last Cup, in 2001.

The teams met again in the post-season in 2008, but it wasn’t a competitive series whatsoever; the Red Wings swept the Avs by mostly lopsided scores.

The alumni game on February 26 will be a trip down memory lane for those who were enthralled by the drama and subplots that seemingly every Red Wings-Avalanche contest provided.

In those days, everything would spill over to the playoffs, where the teams met five times in the seven seasons between 1996-2002, with the Red Wings capturing two series, the Avs three series. Three times the squads faced off in the Western Conference Finals, with the Red Wings winning two of those.

But again—a long time ago.

The NHL is trying, I would imagine, to get some TV eyeballs on the outdoor game on February 27 because of the Red Wings-Avalanche brand name.

But today, the teams aren’t even in the same conference anymore. Most Red Wings fans likely couldn’t name three players on the Avalanche roster, without the help of the Internet.

That’s why the alumni battle will be fun. But of course, it’s not the same as when the players genuinely hated each other.

Claude Lemieux, of course, wore the biggest black hat in Detroit.

Patrick Roy’s lid was pretty large as well.

Which gets us back to the root of the issue—pun intended.

The Quebec Nordiques were a pretty good hockey club in 1995, but they were in financial trouble.

Owner Marcel Aubut tried like mad to keep the team in Quebec City, but the red ink was too deep and the Province of Quebec rejected Aubut’s proposal for a bailout.

Aubut had no choice but to sell “Le Nordique” to COMSAT Entertainment Group, which owned the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. COMSAT moved the Nordiques to Denver and dubbed them the Avalanche, prior to the start of the 1995-96 season.

Denver was a prior NHL loser, having had the Colorado Rockies from 1976-1982 before the team moved to New Jersey and became the Devils.

But the Rockies were 13 years ago in 1995, and the NHL felt comfortable giving Denver another chance—especially since the team was highly competitive.

The move from Quebec City to Denver was announced in May, 1995. So there’s your first roots of the Red Wings-Avalanche rivalry.

In early-December, the Red Wings, with what would be tremendous irony, torched Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy in an 11-1 shellacking at the old Forum. Roy surrendered all but two of the 11 goals.

Roy had battled with coach Mario Tremblay, and when Tremblay left Roy in to suffer the humiliation of the 11-1 loss to the Red Wings, the Canadiens goalie had had enough. He demanded a trade, right then and there—behind the Montreal bench. Roy sought out Canadiens President Ronald Corey, seated near the team’s bench, and announced that he’d just played his last game as a Hab.

Roy was traded forthwith—to the Colorado Avalanche.

A rivalry’s roots started to take firmer hold.

The Avalanche, for one, moved to the Red Wings’ conference because of their geographical relocation to Denver.

As fate would have it, the Red Wings would set a new all-time record for most wins in a season (62), and in the conference finals, who were waiting for them but the Colorado Avalanche—with their new goalie, Patrick Roy.

Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face with a brutal, illegal hit in the Conference Finals, which the Avs won in six games.

Red Wings forward Dino Ciccarelli lamented the post-series handshake after Game 6.

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Claude Lemieux, leaving the scene of the crime in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

“I can’t believe I shook that [expletive]’s hand,” Ciccarelli seethed of Lemieux, who had been suspended for the clinching game because of the Draper hit, and who joined his teammates on the ice in an Avs t-shirt for the handshake.

The rivalry was now on!

Back and forth the two teams went for the next six years, slugging it out on the ice—twice the goalies got into it—with each team one-upping the other. But the head that wore the rivalry’s crown lied uneasily. Neither team really dominated, or went on any long winning streak against the other.

That was, of course, part of what made Red Wings-Avs so delicious. It was like MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” series.

But after 2002, the teams didn’t have very many memorable regular season contests, as they used to. And in that 2008 playoff series, the Avs were totally outclassed.

The Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, which means the two teams hardly play each other.

But for six years, we were treated to the best that pro sports rivalries can give.

There were heroes and villains, subplots and drama. Even a mental image of an Avs sweater would make a Red Wings fan seethe, and vice versa.

When the Red Wings ousted the Avs in Game 6 of the 1997 Conference Finals, it was like when the Pistons finally eliminated the Celtics in the 1988 Conference Finals after years of torment; that 1997 series victory almost meant more than winning the damn Cup—which the Red Wings hadn’t done for 42 years.

The rosters for this month’s alumni game were announced a few weeks ago and as you would expect, the names that dot them are a Who’s Who of vintage Red Wings-Avs storylines.

But there won’t be bloody battles. There won’t be black hats. There will only be the names of yesteryear on the backs of the sweaters.

There’ll be too much smiling on the ice, number one.

As for the real game on February 27 between the Red Wings and Avs of today, you can have it.

All this is, is a reminder that sometimes in sports, you can never go back.

But you have the memories, and those will have to suffice—and they will.