Maloney’s career as Red Wing brief but legendary

Published Dec. 2, 2018

Before Bob Probert tantalized the city of Detroit while he terrorized the NHL, skating the circuit with the heavyweight championship wrapped around his waist on a nightly basis, there was Dan Maloney.

Before Probert teamed with Joey Kocur to provide a 1-2 punch (literally) that was unrivaled in the league, there was Maloney’s pairing with Dennis Polonich in Detroit.

Probie and Joey played for the Red Wings when hockey became chic again in the Motor City. They arrived when the team was on the cusp of rising from being known as the Dead Things, and they were there when playoff hockey returned with a vengeance—theirs and the team’s.

Maloney and Polo played in the Dead Things Era, but their place in franchise history ought not be forgotten.

Sadly, it appears that at least Maloney’s half has been wiped—judging by the local papers in town.

Maloney: he won his battles even when Red Wings lost theirs

Dan Maloney is dead. Perhaps you heard. Chances are that if you did, it was from scouring the Internet. It certainly wasn’t because the Detroit Snooze and Free Dreck told you about it—though they have finally, days later, given his demise some belated ink.

Shame on them.

Maloney was 68 when it came across the wire on Nov. 20 that the tough guy had passed. Cause of death wasn’t disclosed.

So yeah, this column comes some 12 days after Maloney passed. I would have written about it earlier had I known. I’m looking at you, Detroit papers.

But enough wasting space on the systematic lowering of journalistic standards around here. This is about Maloney.

Maloney was widely regarded in his prime—which came right smack during his time as a Red Wings forward (1975-78)—as being among the top two or three fighters in the entire NHL. 

He had the typical face of an NHL enforcer: nose out of joint, eyes seemingly forever partially closed, plus a wry smirk at the rest of the league.

The fact that Maloney played on some pretty bad Red Wings teams, and that he was here for less than three years, shouldn’t take away from his presence with the franchise.

Two big trades 

First, was that Maloney was part of two pretty big trades involving the Red Wings.

The first occurred in the summer of 1975, when the mega-talented pipsqueak, Marcel Dionne, became disenchanted with the Red Wings organ-eye-ZAY-shun and wanted out, refusing to re-sign with the team.

Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, made Dionne an offer he couldn’t refuse, and so Marcel headed to the City of Angels.

But there was the matter of compensation for the Red Wings. The NHL was years away from pure, unadulterated free agency in those days.

When the announcement came of who the Red Wings were getting for the dynamo Dionne, who had scored 139 goals in his four seasons in Detroit, I think even I, as a 12-year-old, gagged.

Maloney was coming over from the Kings, along with aging defenseman Terry Harper. Straight up, for Marcel Freaking Dionne. The Red Wings got rooked.

Harper was 35 and had been a pretty valuable, albeit unheralded, piece of some Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens teams in his heyday. But this wasn’t his heyday. Although, Harper did play in all 80 games for the Kings in 1974-75. Still, yippee.

Then there was Dan Maloney.

Image result for dan maloney red wings

While reasonably knowledgeable Red Wings fans had likely heard of Harper, it was only league geeks who knew who Maloney was. 

Maloney made his league debut as a 20-year-old with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1970. He was traded to the Kings in 1972. 

His anonymity wasn’t among those in the league—especially those who had been pummeled by his right hand. Folks in the know, knew that Danny Maloney was a tough customer, who shouldn’t be trifled with.

In 1974-75, Maloney proved that he could put the puck in the net in addition to putting his opponents flat on their back on the ice.

He played all 80 games and scored 27 goals, adding 39 assists to go along with 165 penalty minutes. He would have been considered an emerging power forward, had that term been used in league circles back then.

But still, Maloney and Harper for Marcel Dionne wasn’t fair. But the Red Wings took their medicine and soldiered on.

Adding insult to injury was that Harper, like Dionne, wanted no part of the Red Wings. He fought the league, eventually capitulating and arriving in Detroit, kicking and screaming.

The second big trade involving Maloney and the Red Wings came late in the 1977-78 season, which was ironically a campaign where the team briefly rose from the ashes and became relevant again.

GM Ted Lindsay, despite his mantra of “Aggressive Hockey is Back in Town,” traded Maloney to Toronto for winger Errol Thompson, who was all hands and no fists.

The trade was a pretty big deal at the time. The Red Wings were charging toward their first playoff berth in eight years, and so were the Maple Leafs. The Wings wanted more scoring punch, and the Leafs just wanted more punch, period. They got it in Maloney.

Thompson was as advertised, tallying 77 goals in three full seasons with the Red Wings.

And Maloney?

True to form, he didn’t score as much for Toronto, but he gave the Maple Leafs a physical presence that had been missing from the lineup, for four-plus seasons before retiring at age 32.

It was a relatively young age to hang up his fists, but Maloney wanted to get into coaching, which wasn’t the usual post-playing path of pugilists. 

A power forward before there were power forwards

But Maloney was more than a fighter, really. He scored 192 NHL goals, number one. Number two, there’s more to physical presence and intimidation than merely duking it out. Maloney was fierce in the corners, won many a puck battle and created a wide berth on the ice. He was someone that you had to account for when you were on the ice—even if it was for your own physical well-being.

As for his time as a Red Wing, Danny Maloney was so well-respected in the dressing room that he wore the A as an alternate captain and occasionally the C when needed. Like Probert, Maloney could bring fans at the old Olympia to their feet. Many a time he was cheered uproariously as he skated to the penalty box, blood often dripping from his face, which looked like a Picasso.

When the Cup-contending Philadelphia Flyers, aka the Broad Street Bullies, came to town in Maloney’s time as a Red Wing, those games were always bloodbaths. And Danny was usually awash with said blood—and not necessarily his own.

Maloney’s career as a fighter was in the spotlight in the 1975-76 season, when he pummeled Brian Glennie of the Maple Leafs in Toronto, a classic beat down that led to criminal charges. 

But like I said, Dan Maloney was more than a fighter, no matter how feared he was in that regard. It wasn’t his fault that he was essentially traded to Detroit for Marcel Dionne. The Red Wings didn’t win with Marcel, either. May as well have some fun while losing, eh?

Maloney was a complete power forward, really. He represented the Red Wings in the 1976 All-Star Game, in a season in which he replicated his Kings performance from the year before: 27 goals, 39 assists.

For whatever reason, the Detroit papers failed to report Maloney’s death when it occurred. But that snub should have no ill bearing on no. 7’s legacy as a Red Wing.

Make no mistake. We lost a big, albeit brief, part of Red Wings history on Nov. 20.

Advertisements

Red Wings should name Larkin captain sooner rather than later

Published Nov. 3, 2018

Stevie Yzerman wasn’t ready to be team captain.

Yzerman was all of 21 years old in September 1986 when Red Wings coach Jacques Demers, new on the job and taking over a moribund team (40 points the year before), named Yzerman his captain, succeeding the veteran Danny Gare.

Yzerman wasn’t ready. How could he be?

He had only three NHL seasons under his belt. He was shy, quiet and reserved. His body was still filling out and his overall game. He had just turned legal to drink a few months before the 1986 training camp.

Team captain? Not ready.

But Demers was desperate to find a spark. The Red Wings were awful and many were surprised that Jacques left a pretty promising situation in St. Louis to come to Detroit.

So Demers gave Yzerman the “C” and hoped for the best.

You can call Jacques Demers crazy like a fox today. 

Better to be lucky than good

They sewed the C on Yzerman’s sweater and there it stayed for 19 seasons. He became widely regarded as one of the best team captains—in any major professional sport. Ever.

But Demers himself would tell you that he had no way of portending the happy union between Yzerman and team captaincy. The roster that Jacques assumed in 1986 was so bereft of high octane NHL talent, and the crowds at Joe Louis Arena were so inconsistent, that there really wasn’t much to lose.

I remember driving to the Joe on several occasions during the 1985-86 season, on a whim after work, and walking up to the box office to purchase a lower bowl ticket for that evening’s game. Not too many other fans were seated around me. The Red Wings would go down to defeat, of course, and I would drive home, with no traffic impeding me on the way out of the parking garage. It was a polite outing.

Demers arrived and the Red Wings started making the playoffs again–ascending to the conference finals in Jacques’ first two seasons.

Yzerman led the way, on and off the ice—still with that quiet, reserved persona. Demers lucked into a great decision.

The case for Dylan Larkin

Image result for dylan larkin

There’s scuttlebutt that 22-year-old Dylan Larkin is earmarked for captaincy of today’s Red Wings, now that Henrik Zetterberg’s bad back necessitated that Z hang up his skates.

The situation is eerily similar to Yzerman’s back in 1986.

The team isn’t going anywhere—not this season, at least. 

The roster has some veterans but they represent the glory days of yesteryear: Niklas Kronwall, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm to name a few. Each of those players could wear the C. They’d be safe choices.

Demers had some veterans to choose from in 1986, as well. But they didn’t have the cache with the Red Wings franchise and they weren’t stewards of the future.

Despite the current, modest three-game winning streak, the Red Wings seem to have a vacuum in leadership. They’re poised for a new captain. After Zetterberg retired, the team decided to go with a bunch of alternate captains rather than give any player the C.

Larkin probably is about as ready to assume the captaincy as Yzerman was in 1986. Which is to say, he isn’t, by traditional metrics. He’s too young. His game is still a work in progress, though it’s progressing quite nicely.

But who’s the best player on the team? It’s Larkin, and it’s not close. And I see a certain je ne sais quoi in his body language on the ice. It is captain-like.

Dylan Larkin is about as close to being the face of the franchise as you can get right now. If you see that as an indictment, so be it. But it’s true.

The C is a big deal in Detroit

The C in Detroit is hallowed.

Alex Delvecchio’s tenure wasn’t filled with Stanley Cups, but that doesn’t mean that Fats wasn’t one of the best league captains during his 10-plus years.

Yzerman restored honor to the C after about a dozen years of the role being tarnished by bad teams and a revolving door approach.

Nick Lidstrom was Nick Lidstrom. Enough said.

Zetterberg was a fine captain, leading the team as it descended back to the pack and eventually below it. It wasn’t easy for Z to see the team denigrate on his watch.

Hockey fans know that being captain of the Red Wings isn’t like being the captain of just any other NHL team. With all due respect to the Arizona Coyotes.

If Larkin indeed is handed the C, it won’t be a small deal.

Dylan Larkin probably isn’t ready to be the captain of an NHL team. But yet, the timing is right for him to assume the role with the Red Wings.

Expectations for the team are low. The sports media in Detroit isn’t exactly the hardest-hitting in North America, so Larkin wouldn’t be walking into a pressure cooker after games. And again, he’s the best player on the team.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought that it was Abdelkader who would follow Zetterberg as captain. But Abby signed his big contract a few years ago and his game went down the tubes. My opinion.

Kronwall is on his way out. Helm, who will turn 32 in January, would be a not-bad choice. But the Red Wings don’t need “not bad.” They need a captain that could keep the C for years to come.

They need Dylan Larkin. Give him the role and let him grow into it.

It’s funny, really, that the same organization that gave a 21-year-old the C in 1986, has been reluctant to do the same with Larkin with the team in similar straits. The option to hand out a bunch of As instead of one C is only delaying what should be the inevitable.

Naming Larkin team captain now won’t make the Red Wings contenders this season. It’s not about that. 

But the team does need direction amidst the current rebuild. Why not have a young captain to go along with the young, wet-behind-the-ears players that are supposed to be the future?

Why not have Larkin lead the Manthas, Rasmussens and Cholowskis?

Give Larkin the C and be done with it. The sooner you let the kid start to grow into the role, the better off the organization will be—on and off the ice.

He’s probably not ready. But he’s as ready as he’ll ever be, and for today’s Red Wings, that’s good enough.

Zetterberg was an elite captain, long after his team wasn’t

Published Sept. 15, 2018

It was March 23, 1974.

I was a 10-year-old attending my second-ever Red Wings game at the old red barn, Olympia Stadium. I don’t remember much about the evening except for two things.

One, was the buzz in the arena before the game. Right winger Mickey Redmond had scored a hat trick in his previous game, bringing him to 49 goals for the season. So naturally, the fans wondered if they would witness no. 50—making it two straight years that Redmond reached that milestone.

Two, was the celebrated goal itself.

The New York Rangers were in town. Redmond—I can’t remember which period it was—raced down his wing, a defenseman between he and goalie Ed Giacomin. Everyone in the building knew that Mickey was going to unleash his howitzer of a shot.

Sure enough, just as he hit the top of the face-off circle, Redmond cocked his weapon. The crowd built into a crescendo of sound.

BAM!!

The slapper beat Giacomin cleanly, and the stadium erupted.

Redmond was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, part of a January 1971 trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Habs. He was 23 years old at the time of the deal. Mickey was considered one of the Canadiens’ new generation of stars, but in order to get the veteran Mahovlich, Canadiens GM Sam Pollock included Redmond in a package that included Billy Collins and Guy Charron.

Redmond started pouring in goals almost as soon as donning the Winged Wheel. He netted 42, 52 and 51 in his first three full seasons in the Motor City.

Then his back popped.

With Redmond, it was ‘What could have been’

Mickey suited up for only 29 games in 1974-75 and 37 the following campaign. The back pain was nerve-related, and it caused numbness down his leg. If you think skating on ice is hard enough, try it when you can’t feel one of your legs.

Because of the leg numbness, Redmond couldn’t drive forward with his shot with nearly the same gusto as he could prior to the injury. Think of a pitcher who can’t feel the leg that he uses to push off the mound.

By January 1976, Redmond was done. Finished. At age 28.

In September 1979, Mickey thought he would give it another shot. He was 31, but felt he owed it to himself to try one last time. The numbness was gone. The back felt better. Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay approved Redmond to skate with mostly minor leaguers in Glens Falls, New York while the NHL training camps were going on.

Redmond lasted two days. The back pain returned. He told Lindsay he was going home.

Fortunately for Redmond, he was able to find another career.

There’s no telling how big of a star Mickey Redmond could have been as a Red Wing. He was handsome, possessed a whale of a shot and was entering into his prime when his back gave out. Sure, he played on bad teams in Detroit, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from filling the nets with pucks.

Z: his back died a slow death

Henrik Zetterberg’s back popped. Actually, it’s been a slow death. It’s not like he bent down to lace his skates and felt something amiss.

Where Mickey Redmond was finished at age 28, Zetterberg lasted a decade longer than that, pretty much. He announced his retirement the other day, his 38th birthday less than a month away.

The amazing thing about Zetterberg’s career ending is that it comes on the heels of four straight seasons of being durable. He had played all 82 games for the past three years, and 77 the year before that. But the last few years, especially, were excruciating. The back condition, which was diagnosed last week as being degenerative, forced Zetterberg out of practicing from January on, in 2018.

A captain who doesn’t practice? That was more than accepted by his teammates, who play for an organization that’s been renowned for respected captains.

Alex Delvecchio wore the C for 11 years (1962-73) and even in the shadows of Gordie Howe, “Fats” was the undisputed leader of the team.

Stevie Yzerman took over the C at age 21 and didn’t take it off until almost 20 years later. Few captains in the history of professional sports commanded the room like Yzerman.

Nick Lidstrom had a tough act to follow but he did it with quiet and grace for seven years. The Perfect Human, they called him. How do you not respect that?

Then there was Zetterberg—“Hank” to his charges in the dressing room.

By the time the C was sewn onto Hank’s sweater, the Red Wings had become a shadow of their former selves. Eventually, so did Hank.

Oh, he put up respectable numbers last season (11 G, 45 A) and he played every game, but Zetterberg was a step slower, his shot a little weaker and his dominance was quite diluted. He no longer was one of the best Swedes in the NHL, as he had been in the first half of his 15-year career in the league.

But no one on the Red Wings roster worked harder, no one gutted it out with more determination and no one felt the sting of missing the playoffs after 24 years more than Hank.

He vowed it would never happen on his watch as captain—the Red Wings missing the post-season. In a way, that attitude, which was prevalent throughout the organization, was more of a hindrance than a help to the long term future of the franchise. But I see where Zetterberg was coming from. To the rest of us, it wouldn’t seem to be a shameful thing to finally miss the playoffs, but not to a warrior like Hank.

Image result for zetterberg

Classy leadership in style of Stevie, Lidstrom

Every night after a game, as Lidstrom and Yzerman did before him with class and calm, Zetterberg stood before the hordes of media and answered all their “So what happened out there?” questions. Never did I see him snap, never did I see him complain or whine, especially when there was a lot to complain and whine about.

It’s been said that the Red Wings officially lost their collective mojo when Lidstrom retired in 2013—that they never recovered from that. I’m not sure. While they haven’t come close to replacing Nick—certainly not a criminal offense—the rest of the roster got old and decrepit around the same time. And the long foreseen but only recently instituted rebuild didn’t help matters by its tardiness.

Even the loss of Pavel Datsyuk a few years ago didn’t truly end an era of Red Wings hockey. It ended with the retirement of Zetterberg.

Hank wasn’t the last connection to the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup in 2008—that honor goes to defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who will be likely following Hank into the sunset after this season. But by hanging up his skates, Zetterberg has officially closed the door on an era of the fast and furious, “firewagon” brand of hockey in Detroit, which is what they used to call Mickey Redmond’s Canadiens style back in the day.

I remember on the night that the Red Wings retired Yzerman’s number 19—Jan. 2, 2007—I was sitting in a private suite, helping out Fox Sports Detroit on that evening’s broadcast. Ted Lindsay sat next to me. As we watched the action on the ice below, Teddy said simply, “It’s a young man’s game today.”

NHL players have been frequently known to skate deep into their 30s and even into their 40s. But it truly is a young man’s game, as every professional sport is. Only the premier, elite players are kept on NHL rosters at advanced ages.

Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t been an elite player in quite some time. His numbers gradually faded with each passing year. But he was an elite teammate and an elite captain.

“One of the greatest warriors I’ve ever been around,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said of Hank last spring.

“One of the greatest Red Wings to ever play for this organization,” GM Kenny Holland said on Thursday.

At least Zetterberg can retire knowing that he had nothing left to give. At his age, and having played so many games in recent years, there really shouldn’t be any “What could have been” feelings coursing through his body.

He wasn’t Mickey Redmond. He was what Mickey could have been.

Nice career, Hank. How Swede it was.

Time is now for D prospect Cholowski

Published July 1, 2018

The Red Wings have been an NHL franchise for over 90 years and it says something that only one of the retired numbers in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena belongs to a defenseman.

And not just any defenseman—Nicklas Lidstrom was arguably the best to ever play the position. Certainly among the most fundamentally sound. What else can you say about a guy who played 20 seasons on the blue line in the NHL without ever throwing a body check? Lidstrom became a Hall of Famer by knowing how to be in the right place at the right time—aided greatly by a stick that ruined countless passes and evaporated a zillion scoring chances.

Lidstrom was 21 years of age when he hit the ice for the first time wearing the Winged Wheel. When he finally peeled off the sweater in 2012 at age 42, he took with him the heart of the Red Wings’ defense, which hasn’t come close to being replaced since.

For all the kudos that GM Kenny Holland and his lieutenants are receiving—and rightly so by all accounts—for what appears to be a fine amateur draft last month, it’s a player who was selected in the first round two summers ago who stands to gain the most from the selections made in 2018.

No excuses now for Cholowski

Dennis Cholowski is 20 years old, and only in professional sports can that be considered long in the tooth, when it comes to that P-word, potential.

Cholowski, a defenseman who was the Red Wings’ first round selection (20th overall) in the 2016 amateur draft, just finished participating in his third developmental camp—and that’s what makes a 20-year-old kid a grizzled veteran of sorts.

It’s probably too harsh—and too early—to say that Cholowski, a 6’2″, 200-pound sculpture, has to you-know-what or get off the pot, but if anyone has a moment that needs to be seized, it’s he.

Anyone who knows even a thimble full about hockey knows that the Red Wings suffer on defense from a deadly combination of lack of skill and depth. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lidstrom, at age 48, could probably dust off his skates and make the team out of training camp this September.

The June 2018 draft saw a couple of high-flying forwards fall to the Red Wings in the first round: Filip Zadina (6th overall) and Joe Veleno (30th overall). Despite being in desperate need of help on the blue line, Holland et al couldn’t resist snatching up Zadina and Veleno—neither of whom they expected to be available when their two first round turns came.

The Red Wings did draft a defenseman with their second, second-round pick: Jared McIsaac (36th overall). But no matter. This is Cholowski’s moment.

There simply is no better time for someone of Cholowski’s ilk—whether you’re talking size, age, puck-moving skill or hockey IQ—to do anything but make it impossible for Red Wings brass to not include him on the opening night roster in October.

There’s a gaping hole on the D-corps in Detroit, and if Cholowski doesn’t fill it, shame on him.

Yes, that’s a lot to say about someone who’s not legally allowed to have a beer after a game, but that’s what pro sports has turned into. A 20-year-old who was drafted two years ago is on the clock.

Red Wings D: old, lacking skill

The Red Wings, on the first official day of free agency today (July 1), signed 33-year-old D Mike Green to a two-year deal to remain in Detroit. That’s fine, and it didn’t break the bank, and Green is the best offensive threat the Red Wings have on the blue line, but he’s not the future. And, Green is coming off neck surgery.

Beyond Green, the Red Wings on the D have veteran Niklas Kronwall, who’s being held together with baling wire, and a slew of mediocre, uninspiring alternatives who are mistake prone and couldn’t make an electrifying breakout pass even if you put them on the ice without any defenders.

The situation is tailor made for Cholowski.

Image result for dennis cholowski 2018

“(Cholowski’s) strengths are his skating and his puck-moving ability,” says director of player development Shawn Horcoff, who played 15 seasons in the NHL.  “Like any other young D, he is going to have to defend well enough for the coach to have confidence in putting him out there. That’s the hardest part at the NHL level — unless you are some superstar offensive player, which there are not many of, you have to be able to defend the game’s best players. In our division there’s lots of them, so that’s going to be his biggest test.”

Cholowski got off to a rough start after being drafted by the Red Wings. His early play for the St. Cloud State Huskies (college) in 2016-17 left much to be desired. But he turned it around last season, as a stalwart on D for two teams (Prince George and Portland) in the major junior’s Western Hockey League, registering 14 goals and 52 assists in 69 games, after tallying just one goal and 11 assists for the Huskies in 2016-17.

“He wants to make the team,” Horcoff says. “He wants to knock a guy out of the box. His weight is up, his strength is up. It’s still early in the summer and there is lots of work to be done, but he looks good as of now.”

‘Next in line’

After the Red Wings went heavy on offense in last month’s draft, no one had to tell Cholowski that there’s no better time than now to grab an NHL job for keeps.

“When I saw [the way the draft unfolded], I was: Get on my horse and get going. Because, you know, I think I’m next in line,” Cholowski told the Detroit News.

The funny thing is, Cholowski, though he didn’t know it, has been next in line since he was 14 years old, when Lidstrom retired. Because though the Red Wings have tried mightily, both in the draft and in free agency, they have failed in remaking a blue line corps that dissipated a couple seasons after winning the 2008 Stanley Cup.

That Kronwall, 37, is even going to be on the Red Wings’ roster this fall is an indictment. That Green, at 33, is the team’s best offensive defenseman is another.

The Red Wings haven’t had a young D-man as eagerly anticipated to make his NHL debut as Cholowski, since…well, maybe when Lidstrom debuted in 1991. After Nick, the Red Wings relied heavily on deadline trades and free agent signings to cobble together a top flight blue line corps. They certainly didn’t do it via the draft.

I’m not saying that we will someday see Dennis Cholowski’s number hoisted to the rafters, but the kid has an opportunity like few before him to become entrenched on the Red Wings’ D at such a young age.

This is it, young man. Meet the bull’s horns.

Caps-Golden Knights Cup Final one for the, ahem, books

Published May 26, 2018

OK. Let me see if I have this straight.

The Stanley Cup Finals are pitting the Washington Capitals, who are in their 43rd season and who have never won the Cup and who took 24 years to make their first Finals appearance, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who weren’t even in the NHL a year ago?

Explain this to me, please.

This is either a great story or a tragedy. Or a farce. I’m not sure which.

One thing’s for certain. This is the ultimate case of “if you make the playoffs, anything can happen,” which NHL teams have been telling themselves for years, whether they believe it or not.

We will either have a Cup champion whose franchise needed 44 years to get it done, or one that needed…one.

Not your father’s expansion team

It used to be where an expansion team in the NHL was better suited for the Ice Follies. They belonged in a rink skating with Mickey Mouse instead of with the Canadiens.

But thanks to the league’s overly generous expansion drafting rules and roster procurement, the Golden Knights are four wins away from stealing the chalice that it has taken established teams decades to hoist.

How do you think the Toronto Maple Leafs (last Cup: 1967) feel about all this?

The Capitals (debut 1974) are in the Finals for just the second time in franchise history. The last time was 20 years ago, when the Red Wings blasted them out in four straight. For over 30 years, the Capitals have mostly been known as the NHL’s great underachievers. So many good regular season teams, so many springtime disappointments.

How long has this been going on? Well, when the Red Wings hired Bryan Murray away from the Capitals to be their coach in 1990, the first question he was hit with by the media was, “How come you couldn’t win in the playoffs in Washington?”

It got to be that you could expect two things in May: flowers, and a Capitals choke job.

This is a franchise that up until last week, aside from the 1998 run, hadn’t really won a big game in its life. Alexander Ovechkin looked to be one of those NHL greats whose fingers would never play for a chance to wear a ring.

And when the Caps found themselves down, 3-2, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals this year, it looked like par for the course—an appropriate metaphor because the Capitals often found themselves swinging golf clubs instead of hockey sticks earlier than expected.

But lo and behold, the Caps shutout the Lightning in both Games 6 and 7, and here they are, finally getting a genuine “kick at the can,” as the hockey people say.

In 1974, when the Capitals burst onto the scene—and when I say “burst,” I mean the same way a water balloon does—the NHL gave no quarter to expansion teams. The league took the franchise fee and supplied the newbies with the dregs of the league, talent-wise. Established teams could protect far more of their core players than were allowed the 2017 NHL teams.

The result? The Capitals went 8-67-5 and their expansion Bobbsey twins, the Kansas City Scouts, were 15-54-11. They were the biggest ice-related disasters since the Titanic.

A Fleury of activity in goal

In 2017, the league’s convoluted rules that governed how existing teams could protect the players in their organization gave the Golden Knights way more to work with than previous expansion teams in NHL history.

In goal, for example, the Knights were able to procure Marc-Andre Fleury, a grizzled, multiple Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So what does the 33-year-old Fleury do in 2017-18? He simply has one of the best seasons in his 13-year career, and is 12-3 in the playoffs, with an astronomical save percentage of .947.

Related image

At 33, Fleury is playing some of the best hockey in his 13-year NHL career.

In 1974, the Capitals and Scouts goalies might have been suitable for beer leagues. But in Fleury, the Golden Knights got instant credibility between the pipes.

The leading scorer for the Golden Knights in the regular season was Jon Marchessault (27-48-75), who scored 30 goals last year for the Florida Panthers. Yet Marchessault was available in the expansion draft. Go figure. In the playoffs, Marchessault is again leading the way, with 8-10-18.

Something tells me that a player of Marchessault’s caliber wouldn’t have been remotely available in the 1974 expansion draft.

The Golden Knights have been the best thing to hit Las Vegas since the slot machine. Their fans are rowdy and beside themselves. Their home arena should be renamed The House, because they hardly ever lose in T-Mobile Arena—just 10 times in the regular season and only once in the playoffs.

The coach is former Red Wing Gerard Gallant, who daily is making the Panthers look silly for giving him the ziggy a year ago November. Are the Panthers still in the league?

Even though the Golden Knights are hardly the Little Engine That Could, thanks to the NHL’s benevolence, they were hardly anyone’s pre-season pick for the Cup. Yet they won the Pacific Division by eight points. And they’ve been tearing through the playoffs (12-3) like Godzilla through Tokyo.

Before the season, the, ahem, Vegas bookmakers listed the Golden Knights as a 250-to-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup. Someone, somewhere, plunked some money down on that bet last October. Don’t you just despise that person, without even knowing who it is?

Will the Capitals spoil the party?

Are the optics good or bad?

This is all well and good. Well, it’s well—but is it good?

Is it good that a neophyte should enter the NHL and act like it invented the league?

What does it mean for the next expansion team, which appears to be based in Seattle? The league meets on June 20 to decide if the Emerald City should get a team to begin play in 2020. Will the NHL over correct and be more stringent in how the 32nd league team is able to cobble together a roster?

But that’s two years from now. The 2018 Finals start on Monday, and my sense is that the overall NHL fan base is totally down with an expansion team making it to the big stage. It’s the fringe hockey fans and the non-fans who are looking at the NHL cross-eyed, gauging by comments I’ve seen online.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, what kind of a craps game are you running, the naysayers are asking.

I understand that it can look a little specious, this 97-game hot streak the Golden Knights are on. If the NHL was a casino, the Golden Knights would have been escorted out sometime in January. But I don’t think it’s an indictment on the league in general. The NHL is not foreign to teams bobbing up and down, sometimes year to year. In other words, let’s see how Gallant’s boys fare next year.

Ah, “next year.” The official battle cry of so many teams in the league.

They say,”What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

You can probably include the Golden Knights in that. I doubt another expansion team will go on this kind of a run.

Wanna bet me?

Forty years later, Holland has chance to avenge wrongs of Terrible Ted

Published April 14, 2018

In 1978, the Red Wings had two picks in the first round of the NHL entry draft. It was the last time such an occurrence…occurred.

They have two picks in the first round this year. Right on time—once every 40 years.

The Red Wings’ GM at the time was Terrible Ted Lindsay. As a player, Teddy’s nickname was appropriate for his on-ice behavior, which was of nasty countenance. As a GM, the nickname was also appropriate.

The Red Wings in 1978, in Teddy’s first year in the front office, were coming off a rebirth of sorts. They doubled their win total from 16 to 32. Their points total went from 41 to 78. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They even won a series, though it was one of those best-of-three jobs that the league held in those days.

The mighty Montreal Canadiens blasted the Wings out in five games in the next round, but it was still a remarkable season. Teddy looked like he would be pretty good at this GM thing.

But the summer of 1978 showed that Teddy still had a lot to learn.

Rebirth aborted

It started with the draft.

The Red Wings had those two first round picks and coming off a season in which fan interest was the highest it had been in nearly a decade, the team looked to be on the precipice of good times after the dreary years of Darkness With Harkness—that old-time Red Wings fan’s moniker bestowed on embattled GM Ned Harkness.

Then Terrible Ted lived up to his nickname, the wrong way.

Lindsay drafted Willie Huber, a German-born defenseman, with the ninth overall pick. Three slots later, Lindsay grabbed Brent Peterson, a forward from Alberta. Both were 20 years old.

Within five years, both were traded, ending up as nothing more than fodder in multi-player deals.

Peterson never lived up to his hype as a high-scoring power forward type, scoring a whopping eight goals in his 91 games as a Red Wing. He was traded with a bunch of higher profile Red Wings to the Buffalo Sabres in 1981.

Huber was a little better but in the summer of 1983 he was part of a multi-player trade with the New York Rangers. Huber played in 372 games as a Red Wing but never was he a Norris Trophy candidate, which isn’t unreasonable to expect from a ninth overall pick.

The point is that Teddy had two first round picks and neither helped the franchise get over the next hump.

Image result for willie huber red wings

Willie Huber, selected ninth overall by the Red Wings in the 1978 draft, was one of two first round picks that year whose NHL career was underwhelming.

Lindsay capped off a bad off-season by signing 33-year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon from the L.A. Kings. The signing cost the Red Wings young Dale McCourt as compensation, and only a long court battle kept McCourt on the Red Wings. The Kings had to settle for Andre St. Laurent, an older and much less appealing player.

Teddy won the battle but he lost the war. Vachon was horrible with the Red Wings and was traded two years later.

Why all this bluster about the bad old days?

Forty years later, another golden opportunity

Kenny Holland, who just re-upped for another two years as Red Wings GM—not what I would have done if I was the Red Wings but that’s another story—has two first round draft picks at his disposal this summer.

The Red Wings, according to the mathematicians, have a less than nine percent chance of turning their fifth overall pick into the number one in the NHL’s lottery. The prize this year is generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has league observers drooling.

Assuming the Red Wings don’t get Dahlin, they will have two chances to slice even deeper into their rebuild in the first round.

Holland, his lieutenants and his scouts better get it right.

The Red Wings have, all told, 11 picks in this year’s draft, which is to Holland’s credit. I’ve been a critic, but I have to be fair. Eleven picks is 11 picks. The Red Wings can make the 2018 draft one that NHL experts and historians will look back on as the turning point in the team’s return to glory.

The entry draft in the NHL is much like that of the NFL. It’s sometimes nothing more than a glorified game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Yet countless time, energy, money and resources are put into this game. The experts will grade the Red Wings as soon as the last pick is made. They will apparently use a crystal ball that no one else possesses to tell us which teams had a good draft and which teams didn’t. As if.

But one thing isn’t debatable. The Red Wings have an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Any franchise that wants to undergo a self-facelift would fall all over itself to have two first round draft picks among 11 overall. A franchise could accelerate things greatly with such an opportunity.

It’s all there for the Red Wings and the newly-extended Ken Holland.

All they have to do is not blow it.

In Toronto, Babs continues his own hat trick: Win, Anger, Annoy

Published Jan. 13, 2018

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t even appeared in a Finals since ’67. For most of these past 50 years, the franchise hasn’t really been all that close to sipping champagne from the silver chalice that is Stanley.

The hockey old-timers in Toronto can recall, vividly, the slapstick ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s, which wasn’t much different than Darkness With Harkness in Detroit over the same time frame. The Leafs and the Red Wings were mostly league fodder in those years—it’s just that in Toronto, the Leafs were fodder with more panache.

Mike Babcock sat at the rostrum in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and glared, steely-eyed, at the media and the television cameras. It wasn’t his scowl; it was his regular face. If Babcock was a food he’d be a prickly pear.

Babcock had just been introduced as the Man Who Was Going to Save the Toronto Maple Leafs—from themselves, really. The Leafs were a long-running league joke when Babcock left the sinking ship that was the Red Wings to hop aboard another that had already capsized in Toronto.

Babcock grabbed the money—who wouldn’t—but at least in Toronto, the Leafs organization knew they needed bailing out. President Brendan Shanahan, so smart it’s scary, was beginning his reclamation project and knew that in order to speed things up, he may as well hire the best coach in the business.

Babcock was brought into Toronto with pomp and circumstance rarely bestowed upon anyone involved with hockey, which is very niche and has always struggled to find folks who have acquired a taste for it. It’s the sushi of sports.

With his scowl, er, regular face, Babcock minced no words when speaking directly to the fans the day of his introduction.

“There’s going to be pain,” he said, and it wasn’t a warning. It was fact. “Make no bones about it. There’s going to be pain.”

Just like that, Babcock dashed the hopes of any Leafs fans who thought he was going to swoop in and bring their team to Cup contention in short order. Enjoy my hiring, he said, but now you just sit and wait. This is going to take time.

Well guess what?

Babcock is in Year Three and already the Leafs are becoming a force in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, drafting a franchise player like Auston Matthews in 2016 didn’t hurt. Neither did getting rid of yesteryear’s franchise player, Phil Kessel. Everyone who knew that a puck isn’t inflated knew that Kessel, long rumored to be a coach killer, wouldn’t last long under Babs. And, Kessel didn’t. He was traded to Pittsburgh not long after Babcock was hired.

There was indeed some pain in Toronto after Babs was hired, but it didn’t last long.

The Leafs went from 68 to 69 points in Babcock’s first season, but then leaped to 95 points last year after Matthews’ arrival and secured a playoff berth (first round loss to Washington).

This season, the Leafs are battling with the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, which is being turned into a runaway by first place Tampa Bay, aka Stevie Yzerman’s team.

So we have ex-Red Wings galore here: Shanny, Stevie and Babs. And they’re all passing their old team as if it was standing still.

But there is some enjoyment in all this for Red Wings fans, albeit in perhaps an eye-rolling way.

In Toronto, the fans are a little annoyed with Babcock. So are the players.

Sound familiar?

The fans think he falls in love with certain players and gives them too much ice time and not enough to the fans’ favorites. The players couldn’t wait for their union-mandated five-day vacation to arrive earlier this week. They could use a break from the coach’s scrutiny.

Babcock is, in many ways, the Scotty Bowman of his time.

Neither man will ever be held up as a cuddly teddy bear by their players. Neither will be accused of being a “players’ coach.” Neither will be missed by many players when they leave for their next project.

But they will win.

Image result for mike babcock

Babcock did it with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when few thought it was possible, getting to Game 7 of the 2003 Finals.

He did it with Detroit, and even though the Red Wings were set up to win when he arrived, how many times has that been the case but the team doesn’t actually win? A Cup was won in 2008 and almost again in 2009.

Now Babcock is taking on perhaps his most daunting challenge of them all in the NHL and he’s winning yet again. And he’s ticking people off again. Typical.

But Shanahan, who as I mentioned is as cerebral as any hockey man I’ve met, doesn’t care about the ticking people off part. He played for Bowman, don’t forget, and Shanny and Scotty had their moments.

It also didn’t hurt Shanny’s cause that in addition to hiring Babcock, he brought in Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello to add yet another brilliant hockey mind to the organization. Shanahan’s hiring of Lamoriello wasn’t merely payback for the latter drafting Shanny as Lamoriello’s first-ever draft pick in 1987 with the New Jersey Devils.

But back to Babcock.

It’s rather humorous, to me, that a fan base that contains many folks who weren’t even born the last time the Leafs won the Cup, are crabbing about Babcock’s style and doling out of ice time. The man is resurrecting the franchise and is the best thing to hit the ice in Toronto since George Armstrong and Johnny Bower, and they’re complaining?

Even the media in Toronto, which has been subjected to the Ice Follies for a long time in that town, are questioning Babcock’s methods —with Matthews, of all people.

As for the players griping, that’s to be expected and is par for the course.

And to nobody’s surprise who knows even a thimble full of info about the NHL, Babcock looked at the Leafs’ bye week begrudgingly.

“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” he told Sportsnet.ca. “You and I both know that’s not happening.

“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there. We need the points.”

Mike Babcock was smart enough to know when to leave the Red Wings, and even smarter to choose Toronto, money notwithstanding. If he brings a Stanley Cup to that city, all will be forgiven—from the fans to the media to the players.

It’s like what one of Scotty Bowman’s players said about him during the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.

“For 364 days a year, you can’t stand the guy. And on the 365th, you raise another Cup over your head.”

The hockey denizens in Toronto, bereft of any greatness for 51 years, ought to zip it and let the genius do his work.