Finally, inadequate JLA gets its send-off

Published September 28, 2016

If Joe Louis Arena was ever state-of-the-art, that state lasted about a week.

The parking situation was reprehensible. The stairs leading up to the entrances were punitive and heart attack-inducing. An enterprising individual could have made a mint by selling oxygen tanks near the doors.

The suites should have been equipped with plenty of facial tissue because of the bloody noses they caused due to their distance from the ice surface.

The building was plopped on the banks of the Detroit River and there was nothing to do after the game but trudge to the inefficient parking structure and wait 45 minutes to get out. There wasn’t a bar or  a restaurant within reasonable walking distance.

There wasn’t nuance to speak of once you stepped inside. The concourses were narrow and the floors were sticky.

Yet this was the hockey barn that saw the Red Wings finally break their Stanley Cup drought in 1997—17 years and some change after opening in December, 1979.

It didn’t help the Joe that it was following Olympia Stadium, an Original Six building that had personality, history, escalators and a balcony. Olympia was built in the 1920s and it showed. JLA was built in the 1970s and by opening night, it seemed like its time had passed.

By contrast, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988, is still a benchmark by which today’s sports arenas are measured. From its mezzanine-level suites to its massive and more than adequate parking lot—plus its expansive and attractive concourses—the Palace kicks JLA’s rear end.

But whenever there are championships won, the arena gets a bump for being associated with those teams and those years, fondly.

It didn’t start that way for JLA, however.

The Red Wings were not a good hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun when they moved into the Joe on December 27, 1979. In fact, they may have been one of the NHL’s worst.

Contrary to what some believe in their revisionist history, Joe Louis Arena isn’t the House that Mike Ilitch built. Ilitch didn’t purchase the team until 1982; the Norris family can be blamed for JLA’s inadequacies.

First, the Red Wings moved into their new arena in mid-season, which in of itself is odd; usually you want to christen a new building at the start of a season. But again—the Red Wings in 1979 were hardly a model franchise.

There was only one playoff appearance since 1966; the decade of the 1970s was filled with coaching changes, awful hockey, horrible drafting and mind-boggling trades.

The Red Wings weren’t given the derisive moniker of the Dead Things for nothing.

But Olympia Stadium was indeed old and the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest. Despite their warts, the Red Wings did need a new arena; it was time.

They could have done so much better than Joe Louis Arena, however.

Image result for joe louis arena

The sight lines were good—I’ll grant you that. But the seats were too far away from the ice. It would have been a terrific nod to the old arena and just plain good sense to mimic Olympia’s balcony, which made sitting upstairs dramatic. I remember looking onto the ice from the balcony at the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw and feeling like the players could hear me call them by name with little effort.

Yet the Red Wings captured four Cups while calling JLA home, winning two of those championships in front of their own crowd. So for that, I think Red Wings fans have more reverence for the Joe than it deserves.

But after this season all that will be moot.

This is JLA’s swan song—a season-long farewell to the monstrosity on the River. A year from this October, they’ll drop the puck at Little Caesars (I know, I know) Arena to usher in a new era of live sports attendance in the Motor City.

LCA won’t just be a hockey arena; there’ll be pubs and restaurants and shopping and things to do—a new extension of Woodward’s mid-town hustle and bustle that has been drawing folks to the city by the droves in recent years.

LCA will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Detroit. It will blow Ford Field and Comerica Park out of the water—and yes, the Palace—when all is said and done.

There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on Joe Louis Arena. The reliving of the building’s most memorable moments will go on from now until the final game is played next spring. There were the two Cups won on its ice, and the playoff heartbreak that occurred on it as well. There were the concerts with its bad acoustics and the GOP Convention in 1980.

They had Gordie Howe’s viewing there in June.

Soon JLA itself will have a viewing.

Will you be shedding any tears?

 

Glendening extension doesn’t add up for blue line challenged Red Wings

Darren McCarty wasn’t the most elegant of hockey players.

He was the bull in the proverbial china shop. He was brawn over beauty.

McCarty didn’t skate his wing, he patrolled it. He punched first and asked questions later. On many a night, he was judge, jury and executioner. He especially liked to be the latter.

But for one shining moment in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, McCarty was a virtuoso.

McCarty was one-fourth of the Red Wings’ heralded Grind Line, and if you’re wondering how a hockey line could be chopped up into quarters, that’s because the Grind Line was actually populated by McCarty, Joey Kocur, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, who took turns filling up the three spots at various times.

McCarty wowed the Joe Louis Arena crowd on the night of June 7, 1997.

It was Game 4 of the Cup Finals, with the Red Wings going for the sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Red Wings led, 1-0 in the second period, when McCarty took a pass from Tomas Sandstrom at center ice.

McCarty was known for his stickhandling ability the same way Donald Trump is known for his couth.

Yet McCarty suddenly turned into a maestro with the puck, turning Flyers defenseman Janne Niinimaa completely inside out with a left to right move, slipping the disc between Niinimaa’s legs, leaving McCarty 1-on-1 with goalie Ron Hextall.

McCarty didn’t stop with the Niinimaa move; he lured Hextall out of the crease with a deke to the left before dragging the puck to his right. The result was an open net, into which McCarty neatly deposited the puck to give the Red Wings a 2-0 lead.

The goal turned out to be the Cup-clincher, as the Red Wings held on for a 2-1 win and their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

A year later, Grind Linemate Draper scored another iconic Red Wings goal in the Cup Finals.

It was Game 2 against the Washington Capitals—Detroit won Game 1—and the Red Wings twice fell behind by two goals in the third period at JLA.

But the Red Wings managed to get the game into overtime.

With about 15 minutes gone in overtime, the Red Wings were dangerous deep in the Capitals zone. Draper, his legs fresh, jumped onto the ice while Brendan Shanahan and Marty Lapointe, their legs not fresh, wreaked havoc. The puck went into the corner and so did Shanny and Lapointe.

Draper floated into the slot area, and Lapointe found him with a perfect pass that Draper redirected past Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig.

Game over. Red Wings led the series, 2-0 on their way to yet another sweep to the Cup.

In Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, Kocur, who had been basically playing in a beer league earlier in the season, scored a goal in Philadelphia that got the Red Wings started.

Maltby, the other Grind Liner, scored 14 goals in the ’97-98 season and was no stranger to chipping in with some offense when needed.

Calling the Grind Line a so-called fourth line is really a disservice. They weren’t the Production Line, but nor were they a black hole on offense.

I’m flipping the “on” switch to the way back machine for you in light of the Red Wings’ odd summer of defection, free agency and contract extensions that in some cases are puzzling.

One such head scratcher was the extension of Luke Glendening to a four-year, $7.2 million contract, announced in mid-July.

I may be late to the party on this but it’s never too late to talk about what the Grind Line meant to the Red Wings of yesteryear, and how that can’t be replicated with today’s group of plugging forwards.

Besides, with training camp about a month away and the off-season rapidly draining, it’s time to take inventory of what the Red Wings did to improve themselves from last year’s team that sneaked into the playoffs in the season’s final hours, only to once again be ousted in the first round.

In the case of Glendening, one has to wonder, indeed.

Glendening had all of 21 points for Red Wings last season, and that marked a career high.

With the original Grind Line, you got not only toughness and tenacity, you got some offense as well.

McCarty could pop in 15 goals a season. Maltby did it a couple of times. Draper scored 10 or more goals in a season six times, including 24 in 2003-04. Kocur didn’t score a ton but the quality of his goals reverberated way more than the quantity. That, plus I never saw Joey Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Ever.

Glendening is a nice hockey player. He brings you some defense, some face off ability and a nose that is hard. He’ll kill some penalties.

He won’t give you any offense.

That’s not his game, of course, but the Red Wings are starved for goal scoring. They’re not going to penalty kill their way to winning hockey games.

The late-1990s Grind Line could intimidate. The Grind Line could frustrate.

But, more importantly, the Grind Line could score the occasional goal—and sometimes more than occasionally.

Red Wings GM Kenny Holland seems intent on locking up players that don’t need to be locked up, especially when there are players in Grand Rapids—ironically, that’s Glendening’s hometown—who could probably do the same thing that Glendening does for a much cheaper price.

The Red Wings, once again, showed their “we’re loyal to a fault” ways by inking Glendening, 27, through the 2020-21 season.

Why?

Here’s Holland.

“There are things a player brings to a team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists, and that’s what Luke is,” Holland mused after the Glendening extension was announced.

“He’s a really good defensive player, has the ability to play 16-18 minutes against other team’s best players. He’s fearless. He’s a tremendous penalty killer. He brings intangibles.”

Fine. But two things make this a flawed argument for the extension.

One, see above. The Red Wings need goal scoring, not what “a player brings to team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists.” The Red Wings are in desperate need of goals and assists.

Two, the Red Wings’ success in keeping the puck out of their own net—which runs neck-and-neck with goal scoring among the team’s most pressing needs—is far more attached to the quality of their defensemen than it is to that of their puck hounding forwards.

You could have four lines of Luke Glendenings, all Selke Trophy candidates, and it won’t mean a hill of beans if the guys on the blue line can’t play.

And the Red Wings, as of right now, plan to go to Traverse City next month with essentially the same defense corps as what played most of last season. Except—bonus!—everyone is a year older.

Doesn’t that make you warm and fuzzy inside?

There could be some infusion of youth on the blue line, however.

Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko are two defensemen—age 23 and 24 respectively—who might see more ice with the Red Wings in 2016-17. But with the extension of Danny DeKeyser, the over-reliance on ancient Niklas Kronwall, the odd loyalty to 32 year-old Jonathan Ericsson and with soon-to-be 31 year-old Mike Green just one year removed from signing a big free agent deal in Detroit, where will Ouellet and Marchenko find that time?

Don’t forget Brendan Smith, who figures to be in the mix as well. Kyle Quincey wasn’t offered a contract and is still out there, unsigned.

The days of keeping third and fourth line guys together for years have passed. Except in Detroit, where management loves to unnecessarily reward the “intangible” guys like Glendening, Drew Miller, et al.

The Red Wings seem to bid against themselves a lot. If we all woke up one morning and found out that Luke Glendening had signed with Montreal, for example, would we lose sleep the subsequent night?

But Holland loves to make sure that guys like Glendening will never, ever play for another NHL team for as long as they lace up skates.

I’m not anti-Luke Glendening. I don’t come to bury him.

But you don’t need to lock guys like that, up. You let them walk if they don’t fit into your budget, and you go find younger, cheaper alternatives.

The Red Wings’ problems go way, way deeper than Luke Glendening and players of his ilk.

Holland paid too little attention to the Red Wings’ blue line this off season. However, he can save some face if Ouellet and/or Marchenko become prime contributors this season. But at whose expense?

The Red Wings have too much money sunk into their goalies, they got rooked financially in the Pavel Datsyuk debacle, they’re paying for too many bad contracts and all the while, too many players are stewing in their own juices in Grand Rapids.

But Luke Glendening will be a Red Wing for the next four years.

Glendening himself said it best.

“If you’d have told me two or three years ago that I’d be sitting here talking about a four-year extension, I probably would have laughed.”

But this is no laughing matter if you’re a Red Wings fan.

Whether he’s in or he’s out, Ozzie’s HOF credentials will forever be debated

Published June 27, 2016

One of the best clutch performers in Red Wings history had a very inauspicious start to his playoff career—one in which he would eventually dominate.

Die-hard Red Wings fans can still recall, some 22 years later, the video images of Chris Osgood, 21 years old, weeping softly in front of his locker. It was late-April, 1994.

The Red Wings had goalie problems in those days. They were an annual playoff team but too often the post-season dreams died due to shaky goaltending.

In a move born of desperation, GM Bryan Murray traded a goalie for a goalie—which in of itself smacks of desperation by both teams—when he dealt fan non-favorite Tim Cheveldae to Winnipeg for MSU grad Bob Essensa on March 8, 1994.

The gambit didn’t work.

The Red Wings were in a first-round match with the third-year San Jose Sharks. The best-of-seven series had an odd format—though agreed to by the Red Wings. The teams would play a 2-3-2 format, as opposed to the traditional 2-2-1-1-1.

This meant the three middle games would be played out west, to save on travel. The Red Wings OK’d the change because, frankly, they didn’t think it would much matter, since the Sharks finished with 18 points fewer than Detroit in the regular season.

But it mattered, quite a bit.

One of the reasons was the play of Essensa in net.

Osgood was a rookie and played in 41 games in 1993-94, but Murray and coach Scotty Bowman felt that the veteran Essensa would be a better choice to start in the playoffs.

The Sharks won Game 1 in Detroit, 5-4, and already the 2-3-2 format was looking dicey.

Bowman switched to the rookie Osgood in Game 2, and Ozzie pitched a 4-0 shutout. Still, the Red Wings faced the prospect of three straight games in a hostile arena.

Osgood started Game 3 and Detroit won, 3-2. It looked like the series would be under control, after all.

But Osgood faltered in Game 4, a 4-3 Sharks victory. So Bowman switched back to his veteran Essensa for Game 5. Perhaps the Hall of Fame coach panicked a little.

Essensa was awful in Game 5, giving up four goals on just 19 shots. He was pulled in favor of Osgood, who allowed both shots he faced to elude him. The Red Wings lost, 6-4.

Bowman returned to Osgood in Game 6, and the Red Wings won, 7-1.

That set up a Game 7 that no one expected the Red Wings to have to play against the upstart Sharks.

With less than seven minutes to play in the third period of a tie game, Osgood left his net to play the puck. The results were disastrous.

There are iconic, gut-wrenching plays in Detroit sports history that will never be stomached by the fans.

Isiah Thomas’ pass that Larry Bird stole in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

David Ortiz’ grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.

The non-pass interference call that went against the Lions in Dallas in the 2014-15 playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary that beat the Lions last December.

Osgood played the puck but his pass along the boards was snatched up by Jamie Baker, who promptly snapped the puck into the open net before Osgood could recover.

The goal proved to be the series winner for the Sharks. The Red Wings were booed off the Joe Louis Arena ice during and after the post-series handshake.

Afterward, in a deathly quiet Red Wings locker room, the rookie Osgood faced the music. Speaking to the media, the 21 year-old openly wept at his blunder. The weight of the entire universe had fallen on him, and he collapsed under it.

Like I said, no true Red Wings fan will forget the haunting images of Chris Osgood as we saw him in perhaps the worst moment of his hockey life.

But that was then.

Chris Osgood ended up being one of the best big-game performers in Red Wings history. Maybe in all of hockey history.

That’s not opinion.

Osgood won two Stanley Cups as a starter—10 years apart (1998 and 2008)—and a third as a backup (1997). He posted 15 playoff shutouts and had a save percentage in the post-season of .916 to go along with his 2.16 GAA.

In the two Cup wins as a starter, Osgood could easily have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for MVP of the playoffs. That he didn’t is no indictment on his performance in either year.

Osgood hoists the 2008 Cup—the year he bailed the team out in the 1st round and beyond

In 2008, as a 35 year-old, Osgood posted a 1.55 GAA and a .930 save percentage in the playoffs, with three shutouts. Ridiculous numbers.

In ’08, coach Mike Babcock started the playoffs with Dominik Hasek in net. But after splitting the first four games in the first round with Nashville—and with Hasek as shaky as a bobblehead—Babcock made the bold decision to switch to Osgood for Game 5.

Babcock’s reasoning was simple.

“The puck has been going into the net too much,” he said, explaining the switch—and the demotion of a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Osgood made almost 17,000 saves in his NHL career, but his rescue of the Red Wings in the 2008 playoffs might have been his biggest. It was clutch goaltending at its best. His first game was a Game 5 overtime win against the Predators and Ozzie didn’t stop until he hoisted the Cup in Pittsburgh.

Today, they’re discussing the Hall of Fame credentials of one Chris Osgood, who is eligible for the third time. The Class of 2016 will be announced today at around 3:30 p.m.

I knew this debate would come.

I knew we would engage in a spirited discussion over whether the Alberta native Osgood should be enshrined. But now that we are in the third year of Osgood’s eligibility, the debate is growing in passion, because he was never considered a first ballot guy, anyway. As the years tick by, there will be more clamoring for his induction by the pro-Osgood folks. And the opponents in that debate will only dig their heels in.

Osgood’s body of work, if you just look at the hard numbers, would warrant a good argument to vote Ozzie into the Hall.

401 victories, including 50 shutouts. A career GAA of 2.49. A career save percentage of .905.

Now, 2.49 and .905 aren’t eye-popping numbers these days, when scoring is at a premium in the NHL. But for a goalie whose NHL career started in 1993, they aren’t numbers to sneeze at.

And there’s all that clutch play in the playoffs for which Osgood was famous—after that horrific start in 1994.

The trouble with an Osgood HOF candidacy is that he played on such powerful teams. In a way, that works against him.

He was never considered irreplaceable, and that’s another strike against him.

His win total, his critics would tell you, was propped up by having a roster filled with Hall of Famers playing in front of him.

Fine.

But I keep coming back to his playoff performances. If I needed a playoff game to be won, there are only three goalies that played in Detroit who I would ask for.

They would be, in this order, Terry Sawchuk, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek (his 2002 play was phenomenal).

Two of the above names are in the Hall of Fame, and they were no-brainers.

Osgood is no no-brainer, but I’m not sure that he’s a no, either.

The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.

That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.

I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.

There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.

Hogwash.

There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.

Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.

I’d vote yes.

 

Howe’s steel trap hockey mind played no favorites

June 11, 2016

When he entered the National Hockey League, all the teams traveled by train. A western swing meant games in Chicago and Detroit.

There were 120 players, total, in the entire league. The rinks were surrounded by wire cages, not plexiglass. Teams played each other 14 times per season. There weren’t rivalries, there were continuations.

You didn’t have to wait months to get retribution, if there was retribution to be gotten.

But sometimes, Gordie Howe bided his time.

“I found out the hard way that I should call him Mr. Howe.”

The speaker was Stan Mikita, a Hall of Famer and every bit as entwined with the Chicago Black Hawks (they split it into two words in Stan’s day) as Howe was with the Red Wings.

Mikita was a young player in the NHL. One of his teammates was the great Ted Lindsay, who knew Howe as well as anyone.

“I nicked him with my stick,” Mikita recalled. “Gordie took his glove off, and checked for blood. There were maybe a few drops on his face.”

Howe told Mikita that he’d pay for the blood, no matter how little.

Mikita, young and full of himself, derided Howe.

“Oh yeah, old man? You should be out of the league.”

Lindsay was within earshot of this on-ice exchange.

In between periods, Terrible Ted went up to Mikita.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Lindsay, who knew a thing or two about Howe’s retribution, said to Mikita about the “old man” remark.

“Ted wasn’t concerned about the blood,” Mikita said as he related the story in Chicago several years ago. “But he didn’t think that Gordie would take kindly to the ‘old man’ remark.”

As mentioned above, the NHL teams played each other 14 times in the 70-game schedule. And many Detroit-Chicago tilts went by after the “old man” remark with nary a glance in Mikita’s direction from Howe.

“I figured he forgot all about it,” Mikita said.

Then one night, during yet another Red Wings-Black Hawks match, Mikita made a pass and admired it a little bit.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the trainer’s table.

The Black Hawks’ backup goalie, “a French-Canadian,” Mikita said, told the Black Hawks center what happened to him.

“(Howe) took his glove off, gave you a punch, then  put his glove back on and skated away,” the goalie said. “20,000 people in the building and I was the only one who saw it!”

Gordie never forgot the “old man” remark, after all.

“From then on, I learned to call Gordie, ‘Mr. Howe,'” Mikita said.

Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.

“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”

Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.

He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.

Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.

This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.

It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.

He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.

Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.

Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.

He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.

Howe, within a few hellacious moments, virtually ended the tough guy career of New York’s Lou Fontinato in 1959.

There was a scrum behind the Rangers net. Howe was looking on. Fontinato had an idea.

Louie tried to cold cock Howe, but Gordie, again using his amazing quickness, caught Fontinato in his peripheral vision.

Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said that the sound of Howe’s fists pummeling Fontinato’s face was like “someone chopping wood.”

It didn’t take long. But when they peeled Fontinato from the ice, his face looked like a Picasso.

“I broke his nose a little bit,” Howe said in typical understatement.

Images of Fontinato’s deformed face made the wires across the league and Louie’s reputation as a tough guy was gone.

“I broke his nose a little bit.”

When the NHL was getting more strict on hits from behind, Howe posed a simple question that captured his larger-than-life persona.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Howe wondered, “how the hell am I gonna hit him from the front?”

Someone once asked Howe who had the hardest shot in the league.

“Dr. Finley,” Howe said without hesitation.

That would be John Finley, the Red Wings’ longtime team doctor.

I reminded Dr. Finley of Howe’s statement back in 2007, the night they retired Steve Yzerman’s no. 19.

The doc threw his head back and roared with laughter. He had forgotten about the quote.

Speaking of that night, I was doing some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral Red Wing dignitaries for in-game interviews between whistles.

One of them was Mr. Hockey.

At the appointed time, I sidled up to Gordie—Mr. Howe—and said that it was time to get into position for the interview. He didn’t respond right away. I figured he didn’t hear me.

I repeated the request.

“Ah, f*** off,” Gordie said.

He was smiling from ear to ear.

How can being told to f-off turn into such a pleasant memory?

When it comes from Gordie, er, Mr. Howe!

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.