Howard, 31, isn’t clear no. 1 goalie anymore

It was the grizzled old umpire Nestor Chylak who might have been talking about any number of positions in pro sports, but he was specifically referring to his brethren in blue.

“They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on.”

Nestor could have been talking about being a goaltender in the NHL. More directly, being a goalie in Detroit.

In the NFL, the best quarterback is the backup. Same thing in hockey with goalies.

Jimmy Howard is 31 years old, will turn 32 before next season is completed, and wasn’t he just a young whippersnapper?

Wasn’t Howard, a couple of blinks ago, the guy who was taking over for Chris Osgood and had his whole NHL career in front of him?

Wasn’t Howard going to be the next goalie to lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup? Joining Mike Vernon, Osgood (twice) and Dominik Hasek as Cup-winning goalies since 1997?

Wasn’t Howard that kid from the University of Maine who was going to be the first American-born goalie to win a Cup in Detroit?

That probably wasn’t a fair expectation, but who says the fans—and their expectations—are fair?

It probably wasn’t fair because Howard didn’t have the team in front of him that those Cup-winning goalies had in Detroit.

Howard became full-time goalie of the Red Wings when the team began a transition from a veteran-laden, Hall of Fame-sprinkled roster to a younger, more homegrown version that relied very little on big free agent splashes.

But Howard didn’t have chopped liver in front of him, either.

Not once did Howard lead the Red Wings past the second round of the playoffs since assuming the netminding duties in 2010, and fair or not, that has been his legacy in Detroit.

Now Howard is 31 and it looks like he’s yesterday’s news.

The new Red Wings coach is Jeff Blashill and while he hasn’t said so publicly, there is nonetheless a deep feeling that when the boys gather for training camp in Traverse City in September, it won’t be fait accomplit for the coach to write in Howard’s name as no. 1 on the depth chart.

The best goalie in Detroit is so often the one sitting on the end of the bench wearing a baseball cap.

Petr Mrazek is the fans’ darling right now. Lots of that feeling comes from the simple fact that his DNA isn’t Jimmy Howard’s.

Mrazek isn’t Howard and that alone qualifies Petr as being the no. 1 guy, if you listen to sports talk radio and read the comments section of newspaper websites.

Mrazek was named the starting goalie in last spring’s playoffs by then-coach Mike Babcock, and that decision only added fuel to the “Howard is on his way out” fire.

Mrazek played well in the playoffs, shutting out the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning twice in the seven-game, first round loss. And Mrazek was the better goalie down the stretch, as Howard battled back from a groin injury.

But is Mrazek, at age 23, ready to assume the reins as the no. 1 guy in Detroit?

Howard is signed through the 2018-19 season at a cap hit of about $5.3 million per year. Mrazek is signed through the upcoming season at a cap hit of about $550,000.

That’s the new math of pro sports these days. You don’t just make decisions based on performance or merit anymore. You have to take into consideration a player’s contract status.

It’s one thing to say, “Start Mrazek!”

It’s another thing to actually do something with Jimmy Howard.

The Red Wings won’t pay Howard $5.3 million a year to be Petr Mrazek’s backup. Anyone who thinks that is delusional to the extreme.

But what is Howard’s trade value?

Howard will turn 32 in March. He doesn’t have a playoff resume that you would write home about. He has never really “stolen” a playoff series. He continues to be the purveyor of the “soft” goal that can break a team’s spirit. He is a good goalie but he isn’t elite.

The Red Wings might get hosed in a trade involving Howard—i.e., they may have to pay a considerable amount of Jimmy’s salary in order for another team to take him off the Red Wings’ hands. The rest of the league’s general managers know that if Detroit’s Kenny Holland shops Howard, Holland will be doing so from a position of weakness.

As for Mrazek, he’s certainly talented and more importantly, he appears to have the mental toughness and makeup that you want from your starting goalie.

But he’s still just 23 and to put all the eggs in his basket is still a risk.

One thing is for sure: the Red Wings didn’t lose their playoff series to Tampa Bay because of goaltending. An uneven offense did them in.

Really, that’s all you can hope for in the playoffs: for your goalie to not lose the series for your team. As I write that, I have brutal flashbacks to Bob Essensa in 1994 and Manny Legace in 2006.

Mrazek didn’t lose the series to the Lightning. Frankly, he played well enough for his team to win, for the most part.

Howard hasn’t really lost any playoff series, either. But he hasn’t stolen any, and Jimmy has had six playoffs in which to do so.

Howard goes to training camp this September as a man who must fight for his no. 1 job, unless he is traded before then.

Mrazek can still afford to head into camp loosey-goosey and with nothing much to lose.

But as we all know, it’s one thing to be the up-and-coming kid and quite another to be the no. 1 guy with the bull’s eye on the back of your oversized sweater.

Fedorov, Lidstrom Add Two More HOF Members to Amazing 2002 Team

Elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs can be particularly cruel in its suddenness and finality.

The Red Wings of 2000-01 led the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, in the first round, best-of-seven go-round. The Kings finished 19 points behind the Red Wings in the conference standings, winning 11 fewer games than Detroit (49-38).

After Games 1 and 2, it looked like the Kings would be on the golf course in a matter of days.

But in Los Angeles, things changed. The Kings won Game 3, then handed the Red Wings an especially galling defeat in Game 4, coming from behind with a three-goal third period and then winning the game in overtime.

Back in Detroit, suddenly embroiled in a series, the Red Wings were flat in Game 5 and lost, 3-2.

Then came that suddenness and finality of elimination.

It happened in Los Angeles, on April 23, 2001.

The Red Wings lost Game 6 in overtime, and just like that, their promising season was over with.

After spotting the Red Wings a 2-0 series lead, the Kings swept them in four straight.

When a Cup favorite gets dismissed in the first round of the playoffs, there is no shortage of blame to go around.

Was it the goaltending? Chris Osgood wasn’t brilliant.

Was it the offense? The Red Wings scored nine goals combined in Games 1 and 2, then could only muster eight over the next four contests.

Was it the defense? The Red Wings didn’t give Osgood a lot of help in several of LA’s goals.

Regardless, to not even make it into May grated on the Red Wings and especially owner Mike Ilitch in the summer of 2001.

Several of the Red Wings’ star players weren’t getting any younger. If the team was going to win another Stanley Cup, reinforcements would be needed.

So Ilitch broke out his checkbook and pumped some of his pizza dough into his hockey team.

It started in May with the signing, for depth, of veteran defenseman Fredrik Olausson, the Swede who’d been out of the NHL for a season, spending the 2000-01 campaign playing in his home country.

It continued—and the stakes got higher—with the trade for All-World goalie Dominik Hasek on July 1. After the trade, Osgood was exposed in the waiver draft and was claimed by the New York Islanders, of all teams.

Late in the summer, Ilitch green-lighted huge contracts to snipers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, who weren’t spring chickens themselves.

Defense was addressed. Goaltending was addressed. Offense was addressed. And the Red Wings suddenly had an embarrassment of riches. Their roster read like a Who’s Who of NHL power brokers.

It was all done for one reason, of course: to win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

Everyone that GM Ken Holland added with his boss’ blessing in the 2001 off-season was old. But they were still damn fine hockey players.

Fine enough to indeed win the Cup the following June, after a scary first round against Vancouver.

With the announcement on Monday that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom had been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that brought to nine the number of players from the 2001-02 Red Wings who are now Hall of Famers.

Nine players is almost half of a nightly lineup of 18 skaters and two goalies.

The team was coached by a HOFer as well—Scotty Bowman.

Bowman had been down this path before, in Montreal.

With the Canadiens, Scotty coached the likes of Guy LaFleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey et al. The goalie was Ken Dryden. That team won four straight Cups (1976-79). So Bowman knew what to do when the roster was filled to the gills with elite talent.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the 2002 Red Wings should go down as one of the best teams of all-time.

Two things work against that notion, however.

One, pretty much the same team (minus Hasek, who retired but who was replaced by Curtis Joseph, who was no slouch; and Bowman, who retired) was ousted in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, in four straight games to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (coached by Mike Babcock).

Two, because of age and retirement, the core of that 2002 squad didn’t last together for very long.

But it’s fair to suggest that, when considering single seasons only, the 2001-02 Red Wings rival some of the greatest teams in league history, if only due to star power.

Put them up against the Canadiens of the 1950s/1970s, the Islanders of the early-1980s and the Oilers of the late-1980s. Put them up against those powerful Red Wings teams of the 1950s as well.

The 2002 team holds up just fine, when compared in terms of doing, for one season, what those teams did in multiple ones. Certainly in terms of Hall of Fame talent.

But because of the mercurial nature of the 2002 Red Wings, never can they be considered one of the greatest teams of all-time when discussing sustainability.

The base core was built via the draft, but when push came to shove, Ilitch used the hammer of his deep pockets and free agency to finish the job.

Without Hasek, Hull and Robitaille, the 2002 Red Wings probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup, though it was a possibility. The addition of those three Hall of Famers put the team over the hump.

There’s a lot of chatter today about whether Fedorov deserves to have his no. 91 hanging from the rafters—if not at Joe Louis Arena, then in the new facility that’s being built.

That’s a fair question. Maybe even a good one.

But Yzerman and Fedorov and Lidstrom and Chelios and Shanahan needed some help. The 2001 early exit from the playoffs illustrated that.

Hasek, Hull and Robitaille provided that help, and then some.

This doesn’t take away from Sergei and Nick’s special day, of course.

What it means to do is remind Red Wings fans that they were alive to see, for one brilliant season, a hockey machine and a collection of talent that may not be seen again, thanks to the salary cap.

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.

Time is Right for Blashill to Take Over Behind Red Wings Bench

Dave Lewis finally got his opportunity. But he never had a chance.

Scotty Bowman skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice. It was a June evening in 2002.

Bowman had just won his ninth Cup as coach, and third with the Red Wings. He was 68 years old.

During the on-ice celebration, Bowman—arguably the greatest coach in professional sports history—whispered into captain Steve Yzerman’s ear that this was it. Scotty was retiring.

Bowman had been the Red Wings coach for nine seasons. After a rough first season (first round playoff KO at the hands of the upstart San Jose Sharks), there was much success. Three Stanley Cups speak for themselves.

With Scotty’s self-ziggy, the Red Wings needed a new coach, and there wasn’t any real competition for the plum job.

Lewis, ex-Red Wings player and longtime assistant coach who’d worked for three head coaches in Detroit, was tabbed as Bowman’s replacement.

It was hailed as the proper comeuppance for a loyal employee.

This was Dave Lewis’ big chance, but truth be told, Lewis didn’t have a prayer as Scotty Bowman’s successor.

Lewis was too close to the players as an assistant, especially given Bowman’s sometimes prickly relationship with his players. When the players in pro sports have a beef with the boss, they take those beefs to the assistants.

Lewis had been that assistant, for some 14 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Bowman. For 14 years, Dave Lewis played the role of confidante and sounding board for the players.

That role evaporates when you move into the big office.

Lewis had two good regular seasons in Detroit as head coach, but he failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. In his first year, Lewis’ Red Wings were swept in the first round by a surprising Anaheim team that would make it to the Cup Finals.

The Mighty Ducks were coached by some guy named Mike Babcock.

In year two, Lewis managed to make it past Nashville before being blasted out by Calgary in another playoff upset.

Then the lockout happened, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

When play resumed in 2005, Lewis was out as coach of the Red Wings.

Babcock replaced him, and three years later the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.

Dave Lewis is the cautionary tale among Red Wings coaches.

He was Exhibit A in the argument that longtime assistants shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded with promotions.

Lewis didn’t get along with some of the veterans as head coach, notably Brett Hull, who in Lewis’ defense could be a handful.

Things change when you go from assistant to head man.

The Red Wings, as I write this, are homing in on their new coach, to replace Babcock, who signed with Toronto.

He is Jeff Blashill, a loyal, longtime employee of the Red Wings organization and current coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Blashill appears to be on the verge of being hired with virtually  no competition.

Kind of like Dave Lewis was in 2002.

But Blashill has an advantage over Lewis: Blashill only stood behind the Red Wings bench as an assistant for one year. Several players at the NHL level know Blashill from their days at Grand Rapids.

But there’s a distinct difference between being a former Babcock assistant and an AHL coach, and being head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Blashill is, apparently, about to find out. He is expected to be named Red Wings head coach any day now.

The Red Wings, unlike with the Dave Lewis hire in 2002, are doing the right thing. My opinion.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone outside of the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to replace Babcock.

The Red Wings, if they’re anything, are prepared.

As early as last summer, the Red Wings had a hunch that Babcock might bolt when his contract expired come July 1, 2015. So they locked up Blashill, doubling his salary at Grand Rapids with the provision that he not entertain any offers (he would have gotten some) from NHL teams throughout the 2014-15 season.

Now Babcock is gone, as feared, and the Red Wings have their next coach all lined up.

Preparation.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone other than Blashill because the Red Wings have groomed him for this moment. Now that it’s here, why look elsewhere?

 

The eggs are all in the Blashill basket, but that’s OK, because if there was ever a “good” time for arguably the best coach in the NHL to flee Detroit, it’s now.

Mike Babcock—with some definite help from GM Ken Holland—has left the team in good shape for a young, inexperienced (NHL-wise) coach such as Jeff Blashill to commandeer.

Babcock has coached up the Grand Rapids Griffins-turned-Red Wings who’ve turned up on the NHL roster over the past three years. Players that Blashill had first crack at.

Blashill coaches in the same manner, it’s said, as Babcock. Certainly Blashill, in Grand Rapids, believes in the same system that they use in Detroit.

The next couple of years should be fascinating to watch when it comes to Red Wings hockey.

There’s going to be a referendum, one way or the other.

The question to be answered will be, “How much will the Red Wings miss Mike Babcock?”

That’s where Jeff Blashill comes in, because if he’s able to lift the Red Wings to the next level, i.e. past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it won’t be about Babcock anymore.

With Dave Lewis, the shadow of Scotty Bowman always loomed. Lewis took over the defending Stanley Cup champs and a team that won three Cups in six years.

There was nowhere to go but down for Lewie.

Blashill is succeeding a high profile guy behind the Red Wings bench, but at the same time, it’s not a terribly tough act to follow.

Babcock has a great resume and the hardware to support it, but the hard fact remains that the Red Wings haven’t advanced to round three of the playoffs in six years.

In the six years prior to Lewis taking over the Red Wings in 2002, the team had won three Cups.

Dave Lewis, in retrospect, never really had a chance as Red Wings coach.

Jeff Blashill seems to have a great chance.

We’ll see.

Babcock’s Unprecedented ‘Winning’ Tour Came Down to Money, After All

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

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

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

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

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

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

Go figure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

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.