2015-16 Red Wings: The young and the restless

When it comes to the Red Wings, they have a streak about which you might have heard.

No, not that streak.

This isn’t about the 24 consecutive years of making the playoffs, which started with the 1990-91 season.

This is about another streak that’s brewing.

Five years—and counting—of not advancing past the second round of the post-season.

The 24-year streak of the Red Wings qualifying for the playoffs is cute; the five-year streak of first and second round defeats isn’t.

What good is making the playoffs if you’re being drummed out after a round or two?

Here’s captain Henrik Zetterberg, talking about expectations under new coach Jeff Blashill.

“We are tired of going through the whole season and then when the fun starts, we are only there for two weeks.”


The Red Wings have had two strong Stanley Cup contenders on the ropes in the past three playoffs, but weren’t able to close the deal.

In 2013, Detroit held a 3-1 series lead over the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, but couldn’t win that fourth game.

Last spring, the Red Wings jetted home from Tampa with a Game 5 win in their hip pocket, giving them a 3-2 series lead in the first round. But alas, the Lightning won Games 6 and 7.

Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, they’ll drop the puck for real to start the 2015-16 season when the Red Wings welcome back Mike Babcock and his new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A lot has changed for the Red Wings since that tough loss in Game 7 in Tampa on April 29, and I think one of the most important is the team’s mindset.

The Red Wings are, as their captain said, tired of the playoff beat downs that have been occurring every year since 2010 before the conference finals start.

“We are not dwelling on 24 years,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “We are dwelling on the fact that we have lost in the first round a couple of times. We are definitely hungry, that is for sure.”

Combine the veterans’ annoyance and restlessness with the injection of youth and seasoned free agents—plus a new man behind the bench—and the Red Wings seem to be going into ’15-16 with a renewed determination.

It simply is no longer acceptable to just make the playoffs.

It’s time for some serious spring hockey to return to Detroit—hockey played when the building’s air conditioning and ice cooling systems strain against May and June’s warmth. Hockey that competes with Memorial Day barbecues.

Here’s the deal. The Red Wings will, indeed, make the playoffs when the curtain draws on the 2015-16 NHL season.

So that “other” streak will be extended, to 25 years.

But that’s not what this organization is all about. The longer the Red Wings go with early playoff exits, the more the post-season streak threatens to define the franchise.

Then it has the possibility of getting cartoonish. The franchise will turn into a caricature.

The Red Wings made the playoffs? What’s new?

They’re out of the dance before May?

Again, what’s new?

Players like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen are playing with one eye on the ice and the other on the calendar. Time stops for no hockey player. The autumn of their careers is nigh.

Thank goodness the Red Wings employ maybe the best amateur scouts in professional sports, bar none.

The men charged with beating the bushes of Moose Jaw and searching the ponds of Krylbo are, probably even as you’re reading this, discovering  a second line winger for the 2019-20 season.

Thanks to the scouts’ tireless work, the Red Wings are getting younger, but they’re not getting worse.

The first wave of youth—Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Danny DeKeyser, to name a few—held the team together a few years ago when attrition and an inability to sign free agents threatened to plunge the hallowed Red Wings franchise into hockey purgatory.

Now those players are young veterans. To someone like teenage rookie Dylan Larkin,  the 26 year-old Nyquist must make Larkin feel like he’s playing with Gordie Howe.

Via free agency, the Red Wings added defenseman Mike Green, who’s in his prime at age 29, and wily veteran center Brad Richards, who’s 35 but not yet ready for a rocking chair.

Those were two nice, smart pick ups that didn’t really break the bank. The Red Wings were fortunate to snag Green for just a three year commitment.

Another young player, goalie Petr Mrazek, is enough of a threat to Jimmy Howard’s tenuous status as the no. 1 netminder to push Howard into a sense of urgency about his job—which is probably what Jimmy has needed for a few years.

Then there’s Blashill, the rookie head coach.

Blashill is a rookie by definition only, as he’s never run his own NHL team. But he isn’t Brad Ausmus.

Blashill has been at this coaching thing for nearly 20 years, starting when he was in his twenties.

He’s new, but he’s not. He’s a rookie, but he’s not.

Blashill didn’t need too many personal introductions when he got the Red Wings job in June. His relationship with many of the players goes back to either when Blashill was a Red Wings assistant (2011-12) or when he coached them at Grand Rapids over the past three years.

His voice is fresh, yet familiar.

That’s a pretty good—and rare—combination in professional sports.

So what does all this mean for the Red Wings’ chances this year?

I don’t do predictions. One, because I’m usually wrong. Two, because who cares? In March, Sports Illustrated picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. It’s easy to go out on a limb and be wrong. No one will care. But if you get lucky, you can brag all day.

So I’m not going to say something silly here that I can wave in everyone’s face in June.

I will say this: the time for one-and-done in the playoffs for the Red Wings must end next spring.

The team is seemingly a nice blend of youth, experience and raw, still unmolded talent.

The coach isn’t learning on the job.

Everything is in place for some May hockey.

So, Katie bar the door, Johnny on the spot, stand on his head, put the biscuit in the basket and all that rot.

Drop the puck already!

Larkin has chance to follow in Yzerman’s footsteps, some 32 years later

It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.

He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.

Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.

Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.

Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.

Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.

The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.

Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily,  I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.

I stepped on someone’s foot.

I immediately turned around to apologize.

“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.

I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.

It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.

WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.

I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.

I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.

What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.

He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.

Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.

He smiled sheepishly.

“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.

Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.

For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.

Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.

Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.

No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.

That streak might come to an end.


Larkin is congratulated after scoring a goal against Pittsburgh this exhibition season

Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.

New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.

Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.

That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.

And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.

The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.

But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.

In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.

This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.

Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.

There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.

Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.

The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.

But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.

The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.

The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.

So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.

So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.

Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?

Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.

“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”

You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.

Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.

GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.

But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.

Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.

They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.

Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.

Red Wings can’t let Abdelkader even sniff free agency

Someone is going to pay.

Next summer, if the Red Wings don’t act accordingly, some NHL team is going to back a Brinks truck up to Justin Abdelkader’s driveway and load bags of money onto a dolly and wheel it inside his home.

If the Red Wings don’t break out Mike Ilitch’s checkbook and write a fat one, Abdelkader will be playing in a different burg when the 2016-17 season starts.

In the world of ice hockey at the NHL level, the next best thing to owning all your own teeth is to be in the prime of your career, coming off a fantastic season and entering the last year of your contract, seeing free agency looming on the horizon.

We’re talking unrestricted free agency—none of this pretend free agency where your employer can match offers without you having any say in the matter.

Abdelkader, the Red Wings’ Michigan-reared power forward, is 28 years old. His type of player is one that’s adored and coveted in the league—a big man who isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty, who can pop some pucks into the net and who won’t back down.

Abdelkader, currently in his prime, has a chance to be the closest thing the Red Wings have had to Brendan Shanahan since, well, the Red Wings had Brendan Shanahan.

Shanny’s game was a modern day version of Gordie Howe’s, where a goal, an assist and a scrap was a night at the office.

Or think Joey Kocur, who was one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen play in the NHL. Kocur never lost a battle for the puck in the corner. Ever.

Abdelkader is signed through June 30, 2016. After that, when midnight strikes, it will be a league free-for-all to acquire the Michigan State grad and Muskegon native’s services.

Unless the Red Wings step in and shanghai Abdelkader to a long-term contract extension.

This is no joke. The Red Wings can’t let Abdelkader go. There really isn’t anyone else on the roster who can, right now, step in and do what Abdelkader does for 17 minutes (not including time in the penalty box) on a nightly basis.

We all knew that Abdelkader was scrappy and pugnacious and relentless, especially along the boards, which is the slop to his pig.

But then, last season, no. 8 broke out another aspect of his game—that of consistent scorer.

It kind of came out of nowhere, not that Abdelkader hadn’t shown a bit of a scoring touch previously. He just hadn’t done it throughout the course of an 82-game season, like he did in 2014-15.

Last season, Abdelkader took his own personal record book and tore it up with his bare, calloused hands.

He set record highs in every offensive category you can think of: goals (23); assists (21); points (44); power play goals (8); shots on goal (154); scoring percentage (14.9); game-winning goals (5); and average time on ice (17:55). He even set a career high in penalty minutes, with 72. He ran the statistical table at Hockey-Reference.com.

So what does Abdelkader do NOW?

He is saying all the right things that a professional athlete should say when he knows that the dollars will be rolling in soon, from somewhere.

The comments were made to the Detroit News, and they were pretty much boilerplate.

“You try to not to think about (free agency) too much because then it starts affecting your game,” Abdelkader told the News’ Ted Kulfan. “You just go out and do your best to make a case for yourself. All you can do is take care of yourself and let the business side take care of itself.”

Yadda, yadda.

It’s pretty much true, of course, if not Earth-shattering.

But anyone can have a great year when they’re not a pending free agent. The trick is to maintain the higher standard that you set, when you know there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the upcoming season.

So in that respect, what Abdelkader said about not letting free agency affect your game, is dead-on accurate. After last season, what we expect from him is different. It’s no longer acceptable to return to the old days of grit and 10 goals.

The Red Wings aren’t oblivious. They know how much they need Abdelkader wearing the Winged Wheel for years to come. But Darren Helm, another vital asset, is unrestricted next summer as well. And several other younger players will be restricted free agents.

In the salary cap world, some hard decisions and some fancy financial footwork await GM Kenny Holland.

But first and foremost must be Abdelkader’s future.

For the player’s part, he must perform. No question. But the Red Wings would be wise to lock Abdelkader up ASAP, rather than wait for the whole season to play out and take their chances.

The Red Wings don’t want their own Ndamukong Suh or Max Scherzer to contend with.

So it’s fair to say that Abdelkader will, in fact, be rewarded primarily for what he did last season, with the Red Wings putting their faith (and cash) in him to be a top-line forward for the next five-to-seven years.

This is the way pro sports works when it comes to free agency: you’re mainly paid for what you’ve already done, as opposed to what is expected out of you several years hence. This makes for some oddball contracts that will haunt teams down the line, but there you have it.

Pay up, because if you don’t, someone else will.

There are, I would say, 29 other teams in the NHL who would be delighted to see Justin Abdelkader pull on their sweater every night. This is an All-Star in the making, and truth be told, possibly a future captain.

Abdelkader knows it. He can see it. He can taste it. But this might be his most challenging year, upcoming, because of what lies ahead. It will be 82 games and six straight months of Christmas Eves, trying to get to sleep knowing what will be under the tree the next morning.

“Obviously you want to stay (in Detroit) but you also know it’s a business,” Abdelkader said. “You just don’t know (what’ll happen). I’m just going to focus on having another good year and we’ll see what happens.”

The Red Wings shouldn’t let this thing get anywhere near the realm of suspenseful.

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.


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.