Weiss is out of mulligans with Red Wings

The word “bust” has two distinct meanings in the world of professional sports.

It could represent the highest of honors—a bronze sculpture of the head of a football player enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, for example. If a championship ring is the ultimate goal, a bronze bust with your likeness in the HOF certainly is not far behind.

Bust also has an ugly, embarrassing meaning.

A bust could also be a draft choice or a free agent signee who fell far below expectations and thus etched a much smaller career than what was planned.

Stephen Weiss never played pro football, so which meaning of “bust” does that leave him?

It may be too early to saddle the Red Wings’ Weiss with that albatross of a word, but it’s getting there.

Weiss, the center signed by Detroit in the summer of 2013 to the tune of five years and $24.5 million, has done little to justify the Red Wings’ investment.

An injury-plagued 2013-14 season robbed Weiss and the Red Wings of what was expected to be a productive year from a no. 2 center.

An injury should never brand someone a bust. I’ve always argued that. So you give Weiss a mulligan for last season, in which he played in just 26 games and had a measly two goals and two assists.

But in 2014-15, Weiss suited up for twice as many games (52) yet chipped in just nine goals and 16 assists. He was a minus-2, if you believe in that stat.

In March, Weiss was benched briefly by coach Mike Babcock for some silly turnovers. Babcock doesn’t suffer foolish play easily. Just ask Brendan Smith.

But when the playoffs started last week in Tampa, Weiss was in the lineup.

You’d like to say that Weiss was in because of his age (32) and playoff experience—except that Weiss played most of his career in Florida for the Panthers, and thus he only had seven NHL playoff games on his 14-year resume heading into the post-season.

But he still is 32 and has played in the league for a long time, and in the playoffs you can never have too much experience, albeit almost entirely gathered in the regular season.

Two games into this first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Stephen Weiss may as well not have been in the lineup, after all.

Weiss hasn’t made one iota of impact. His stat line has basically consisted of his name and TOI (time on ice) followed by a gaggle of zeroes.

This time, there is no injury (that we know of) to blame.

Whether Weiss will be in the lineup for the pivotal Game 3 in Detroit on Tuesday is anyone’s guess—maybe even including Babcock, who surely must be at least mulling over a change when it comes to Weiss.

Weiss started strong last November when he came back from his hernia surgery, popping in a couple of goals in his first game. But soon he went back to being invisible and pretty much useless.

The benching in March wasn’t entirely unexpected, though a tad surprising.

The playoffs in the NHL has always been a time for everything and everyone to reset.

The regular season is like an Etch-a-Sketch. The playoffs are what happens after that Etch-a-Sketch gets shaken and cleared.

It’s a clean slate for everyone, and for every team. Seeding matters little, unlike in the NBA, where only a handful of teams truly have a shot at the championship.

Weiss, like every player on the roster, got to hit the reset button last week.

But you can’t do it anymore, not two games into the first round. There is no time for mulligans.

But the beauty of playoff hockey is that Stephen Weiss could still be an impact player for the Red Wings. He could still score some timely goals and make some of those signature passes that were his hallmark in Florida.

He’d better do it soon. If he even gets another chance.

Lightning-Red Wings playoff matchup inevitable for Stevie Y

Steve Yzerman didn’t celebrate a lot of birthdays at home with family when he played for the Red Wings.

More likely, Yzerman was in a hotel room or at the rink for a morning skate. Or he was in a plane, jetting his way to the West Coast. And if he was in Detroit proper, he was likely at Joe Louis Arena, lacing up his skates for a game that evening.

Yzerman, the iconic Red Wings captain of days gone by, was born on May 9. For too many NHL players, a birthday in May would almost assure the man of the hour a cake with candles and the wife and kids.

But for Yzerman, May was still hockey time. His Red Wings were usually still in the mix, still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And birthdays were way down on the priority list.

It was Yzerman’s teammate and winner of three Cups in Detroit, Brendan Shanahan, who explained to me the mindset of a player pursuing the Cup.

We sat in an office inside the Trenton Ice Arena, in April 2010. Shanny was in town for a promotional hockey game between the alumni of two high schools.

I asked him what spring hockey, post-season hockey, was like for a player.

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

But the ultimate payoff made it all worth it. Shanahan experienced it thrice, in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”

Yzerman won three Cups with Shanny. And Stevie Y was a member of the Red Wings’ front office for a fourth Cup, in 2008.

Yzerman is closing in on 50 years old now, proof that time truly does not stop for any man.

Chances are, on May 9 this year, when no. 50 hits, Yzerman won’t be at home with wife Lisa and his three daughters.

Chances are, Yzerman’s current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, of which he’s the general manager, will still be rolling along in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That will have meant that the Lightning would have disposed of Yzerman’s old team in the Eastern Conference’s first round, which is expected to happen.

It will mean another birthday put on hold, shoved to the background. Even one as significant as his 50th.

For many a May, Yzerman’s suit was a blood red sweater with the “C” on it, and skates. These days in May, Yzerman wears Armani and wing-tipped shoes. But the goal is the same.

It’s hard to believe, but Yzerman was named Tampa Bay’s GM nearly five years ago.

When he was rumored to be in the Lightning’s cross-hairs for the job—a time when Tampa Bay hockey left a lot to be desired—I wrote that even though the job and the franchise were beneath him, that Yzerman should take it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do when you want to do something in the worst way.

The Lightning qualified for that back in 2010. They were one of the NHL’s worst teams, and organizations. If you don’t believe me, just remember that the Lightning actually plucked Barry Melrose from the TV studio and put him back behind the bench, with disastrous results.

The Melrose debacle was still fresh on the minds of hockey people when the Lightning pursued Yzerman, who badly wanted to run his own team after serving his apprenticeship under Ken Holland, Jimmy Devellano, Jim Nill et al.

It wasn’t going to happen in Detroit, and Yzerman knew it. Everyone around hockey knew it.

The Minnesota Wild had made a run at Yzerman during the 2009-10 season, but Stevie Y turned them down, for whatever reason.

But when Tampa called, Yzerman was all ears.

The Lightning franchise was a mess, and it didn’t look like a very good GM job, but as I wrote, Yzerman was wise to accept it. That way, I surmised, Yzerman could learn the ropes with a franchise from which little was expected.

Ha!

Yzerman, using whatever deftness he learned from Holland and company, turned the Lighting around in one year.

Tampa Bay didn’t even qualify for the playoffs in 2010, but one year later, with Yzerman pushing the buttons and pulling the gears, the Lightning were in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And Yzerman, as a rookie GM, was named the NHL’s General Manager of the Year.

Yzerman was a rookie in 1983, as well—an 18-year-old dressing next to the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare in the Red Wings locker room.

Yzerman was as quiet as a mouse. After a game that season, I asked him some questions and even if the room had been deserted, I would have had a hard time hearing his answers.

Yzerman is still quiet, relatively so. And he quietly has built the Lightning into one of the NHL’s best teams.

He’ll look down from the press box during this upcoming first round, as his team likely skates circles around the Red Wings, and one can only imagine the emotions coursing through him.

This playoff series is the only time that Yzerman, a Red Wing forever, won’t be a fan of the Winged Wheel in the post-season. It will be the only time that he roots against the boys in the blood red sweaters.

Yzerman hired a coach, Jon Cooper, who is (again, quietly) doing a whale of a job behind the Lightning bench. Cooper is in his second season with the Lightning and in both of them, the team topped 100 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division.

For all of his early success as an NHL general manager, Yzerman is also a winner in Armani at the Olympics.

He put together the 2010 and 2014 Gold Medal winning teams, as Team Canada’s Executive Director. The British Columbia native is revered in his home country.

You figured that once the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, it was only a matter of time before Current GM Yzerman would go up against Former Player Yzerman in the playoffs.

The Lightning sign his checks, but the Red Wings logo will forever be branded on Yzerman’s huge, competitive heart.

But starting on Thursday, it’s all business. There won’t be time or room for sentimentality. There are 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup and its pursuit every spring is cutthroat and its competitors would just as soon knock their own mothers off the puck. And maybe give her an elbow when the referees are looking the other way.

Chances are, Yzerman’s Lightning will oust the Red Wings in a series that will be lucky to go six games.

Or, the Red Wings could pull off an upset. Yzerman knows what that feels like, too—from the losing end. As Red Wings team captain, it was up to Yzerman to explain away yet another playoff disappointment, when the sweat was still running down his body and his skates still on.

Those unexpected playoff ousters made the three Cups won as a player all the more sweet.

Starting Thursday, the Red Wings will lose at least one fan. But if the Red Wings somehow manage to upend the Lightning, you can bet that Stevie Y will be pulling for that Winged Wheel the rest of the way.

Even if it means peeking at the TV during his 50th birthday celebration.

1954-55 Red Wings: Coach Jimmy Skinner

THE JIMMY SKINNER FILE:

Born: January 12, 1917; Died: July 11, 2007

Position: Coach

NHL games coached: 247 (all with Red Wings)

1954-55 record: W: 42; L: 17; T: 11

CAREER: W: 123; L: 78: T: 46

Jimmy Skinner pretty much did it all for the Red Wings organization.

At various times, Jimmy was coach, scout, assistant GM, general manager, farm director, Director of Player Personnel and Director of Hockey Operations.

It was as coach that Skinner made his mark with the 1954-55 Red Wings.

A rookie head coach in the NHL, Skinner made his hiring by GM Jack Adams look like a genius move as the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup in 1955.

Skinner coached the Red Wings from 1954-55 to 37 games into the 1957-58 season, when he resigned due to health reasons. In his three full seasons, Skinner’s teams were a combined 49 games above .500.

While Ted Lindsay started the tradition of skating the Stanley Cup around the ice, it was Skinner who is widely credited with being the first to kiss the Cup following victory.

Skinner resigned during the ’57-58 season, but Jimmy was soon back in hockey, functioning in the Red Wings organization in a plethora of roles. He also won the Memorial Cup in 1962 as the manager of the Hamilton Red Wings.

After a 22-year hiatus, Skinner returned to the Red Wings at the NHL level when he replaced Ted Lindsay as GM in the summer of 1980. Skinner remained in that role until 1982, when new Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch tabbed Jimmy Devellano to be the team’s new general manager.

Skinner is a member of the Red Wings Hall of Fame (1977).

Thank you for reading this series throughout the hockey season. Go Red Wings!

1954-55 Red Wings: Ed Zeniuk

THE ED ZENIUK FILE:

Born: March 8, 1933; Died: April 14, 1996

Position: Defense

NHL games played: 2 (both with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 2 GP; G: 0; A: 0; PIM: 0

CAREER: GP: 2; G: 0; A: 0; PIM: 0

If there ever was a player who personified the term “footnote,” it was Ed Zeniuk.

Zeniuk was last on the 1954-55 Red Wings roster alphabetically, last in games played and the only two NHL games he played in, were played in the ’54-55 season.

That’s it for Ed Zeniuk.

Zeniuk, a native of Saskatchewan, filled in for two games when the Red Wings got caught in an injury pinch. He didn’t register a point or any penalty minutes.

Again, footnote.

Zeniuk played four seasons (1951-55) for the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in Edmonton, logging 188 games. Zeniuk’s pro career ended in 1956 with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League.

NEXT WEEK: Coach Jimmy Skinner.

Howard Will Be Playoff Starter, But For How Long?

The 43-year-old goalie, destined someday for Hall of Fame enshrinement, was losing his mojo at the worst possible time.

It was the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008. The Red Wings had carried a 2-0 series lead into Nashville and advancement into the conference semi-finals seemed assured.

But then Dominik Hasek imploded.

Hasek gave up two relatively soft goals in the third period of Game 3, nine seconds apart, turning a 3-2 Red Wings lead into a 4-3 deficit, just like that.

In Game 4, Hasek was again shaky, letting in two goals within 32 seconds in the first period, then when the Red Wings scored in the second period to make the score 2-1, Hasek let another puck slip by him just eleven seconds later. The Predators won and tied the series, 2-2.

The Red Wings left Nashville, surrendering their series lead and with the Predators brimming with confidence.

Confidence is what Hasek, despite his age and wealth of experience, lacked.

The Red Wings were suddenly in a tricky first-round series against an inferior opponent. It wasn’t the first time.

Six years earlier, the Vancouver Canucks stormed into Detroit and won the first two games of that first round series. Hasek was in goal for that one, too, and he didn’t play well.

Coach Scotty Bowman stuck with Hasek in that series, and the star-studded Red Wings rallied to win four straight over the Canucks. Six weeks later, the Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions—and Hasek was among the brightest of stars.

But Hasek was 37 in 2002 and he was 43 in 2008, with his confidence waning.

Coach Mike Babcock openly complained about the pucks going into the Detroit net as the Red Wings prepared for Game 5 of the Nashville series.

So Babcock, not one to bow to sentiment or to misplaced loyalty, made a change in net for Game 5.

Babcock summoned Chris Osgood, a two-time Cup winner, and inserted Ozzie between the pipes.

The change was not taken lightly. Switching goalies in the middle of a playoff series, especially with a team that had high hopes like the Red Wings in 2008, carried great risk.

Osgood was brilliant as the Red Wings won Game 5 in overtime. And Osgood was good the rest of the way, as Hasek never started another playoff game. The Red Wings won another Cup—10 years after Ozzie led the Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

It says here that Babcock’s decision to replace a future Hall of Fame goalie, in the middle of a first round playoff series, is among the most courageous coaching moves in Detroit sports history.

It also says here that Red Wings fans shouldn’t be surprised if Babcock pulls another 2008-like move this spring.

The playoffs are nigh. And the crooked eye is being turned on goalie Jimmy Howard. Again.

Howard suffered through an uneven (being kind) season last year. Some might say he was downright awful at times.

But the soon-to-be 31 year-old (March 26) Howard started this season as if on a mission, and he was rightly lauded for bouncing back strong.

That was then.

Lately, Howard is making fans nervous. He’s not as sharp as he was earlier in the season.

Adding to the angst is the thought that young backup Petr Mrazek, who’s played well in his 21 games with the Red Wings, might be the one who ought to start in the playoffs.

That notion is far-fetched, but the motivation behind it is understandable.

Howard, frankly, deserves to start in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s earned that right. The Red Wings aren’t paying him millions to take a seat in favor of a rookie, for gosh sakes.

But don’t be taken aback if Babcock shows little patience with Howard and does a switcheroo. In the middle of a series.

It might not even be so much an anti-Howard move as a pro-Mrazek one.

Babcock loves Mrazek’s swagger. He loves it that the 23-year-old Czech firmly believes that he will be a star in the NHL. And the coach has liked what he’s seen from Mrazek in spot duty.

It may not be this spring, but sometime in the near future, Petr Mrazek will be the Red Wings’ no. 1 goaltender. That seems to be the track on which the Red Wings have the Czech.

Mrazek might not play a minute in the playoffs this spring. That wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, because it would mean that Jimmy Howard is doing OK.

But Howard, once again, has to earn trust—of the fans and, more importantly, of the coach.

Or else Babcock might summon his inner 2008.

Don’t be surprised.

1954-55 Red Wings: Benny Woit

THE BENNY WOIT FILE:

Born: January 7, 1928

Position: Defense

NHL games played: 334 (262 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 62 GP; G: 2; A: 3; PIM: 22

CAREER: GP: 334; G: 7; A: 26; PIM: 170

If ever there was a personified definition of a “stay at home defenseman,” Benny Woit was it.

Woit was no Bobby Orr, but he ably manned one of the Red Wings’ blue line positions for four seasons and as a result, Woit’s name is engraved on the Stanley Cup three times.

A typical Woit season was a handful of points but a bunch of dashed hopes for the opposition.

Woit’s career is fascinating because it was front-ended with NHL time but back-loaded with minor league experience—the opposite of most pro players.

Woit broke into the NHL in 1951 and stayed until 1957. But after that, Woit played 12 more years, all in the minor leagues. He made several All-Star games playing in the Eastern Hockey League.

After winning three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, Woit was part of an eight-player trade that shipped him to Chicago in the summer of 1955.

Woit has the distinction of being the fourth-oldest surviving member of the 1955 Red Wings, behind Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Marty Pavelich. Woit is 83 days older than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

NEXT WEEK: Our last player to profile—Ed Zeniuk, whose only two NHL games came during the 1954-55 season.

1954-55 Red Wings: Johnny Wilson

THE JOHNNY WILSON FILE:

Born: June 14, 1929; Died: December 27, 2011

Position: Left wing

NHL games played: 688 (379 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 70 GP; G: 12; A: 15; PIM: 14

CAREER: GP: 688; G: 161; A: 171; PIM: 190

In the 1950s, three things were certain: death, taxes and Johnny Wilson in the lineup.

Between 1951 and 1960, Wilson, a left winger, played in 580 consecutive games, including eight straight, complete 70-game seasons.

Five of those complete seasons came with the Red Wings, for whom Wilson played from 1949-55 and again from 1957-59.

In between, Wilson was traded to Chicago after the 1954-55 season, part of an eight-player mega-deal. He returned to the Motor City in 1957 in the famous trade that sent Ted Lindsay to the Black Hawks. Wilson finished his career with Toronto (1959-61) and New York (1961-62).

Wilson, an Ontario native, was not only known for his longevity—he was the NHL’s first “Iron Man”—he was also respected as a steady two-way player who skated up and down his wing and who was a good teammate. Wilson also managed to stay out of the penalty box, which made him an ideal penalty killer. In his 688-game, 13-year career, Wilson was whistled for just 190 penalty minutes.

Wilson, like so many of his brethren, got into coaching after retiring as a player in 1962. He started in the minor leagues, and after a stint as interim coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, Wilson won the AHL’s Calder Cup with Springfield in 1970-71.

Wilson returned to Detroit in November, 1971, being named head coach of the Red Wings after the resignation of Doug Barkley. Wilson’s Red Wings barely missed the playoffs in both 1972 and 1973, but despite an overall record of 67-56-22 in Detroit, Wilson got the ziggy from embattled GM Ned Harkness.

But you couldn’t take Wilson out of Detroit. In the summer of 1974, Wilson was hired to be the coach of the new Michigan Stags of the World Hockey Association. The Stags, who played their home games at Cobo Arena, didn’t survive their maiden season and the franchise moved to Baltimore mid-season.

Wilson’s NHL coaching resume also includes stops in Colorado and Pittsburgh, where his Penguins qualified for the playoffs in 1979 and 1980.

Wilson remained closely attached to the Red Wings in his post-coaching retirement, being active with the Alumni Association and participating in banner-raising ceremonies following Stanley Cups won by the Red Wings in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

Wilson won four Cups with the Red Wings as a player.

Trivia: Johnny Wilson was the uncle of NHL coach Ron Wilson, whose dad (and Johnny’s brother) Larry also played for and coached the Red Wings. Sadly, Larry Wilson died of a massive heart attack while jogging in 1979. He was only 48 years old.

Author’s note: I had the good fortune, in my capacity as editor of a Detroit sports magazine in 2006, to moderate a hockey roundtable at Joe Louis Arena that included Johnny Wilson, Ted Lindsay and Shawn Burr. We discussed how the game has evolved over the years and the magazine published the entire conversation. As you can imagine, the experience was quite remarkable!

Next week: RW/D Benny Woit, who at age 87 is among the oldest surviving former Red Wings.