Blashill Uses Harry Sinden Model (for now) Between Red Wings’ Pipes

It’s an old line, first mined in the world of football.

“If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one.”

It’s derisive and dismissive.

How can a football coach have two quarterbacks, when only one can play at a time?

Must mean that said coach has no quarterback at all—because he can’t rely on a designated starter.

Some would have you believe the same is true in hockey.

“If you have two goalies, then you don’t have one.”

Horsepucky!

Tell that to the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Starting in 1968-69 and extending for four seasons, the Bruins divvied up the goaltending duties in a virtual 50/50 fashion.

Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers took turns in net for Boston, literally.

It didn’t matter if one of them posted a shutout; the next game, the other guy would be between the pipes.

The 50/50 model was the brainchild of coach Harry Sinden, who worked that system for two seasons before successor Tom Johnson carried on the tradition after Sinden moved into the general manager’s chair prior to the 1970-71 campaign.

Cheevers Johnston masks

The goalie masks of Boston’s Eddie Johnston (top) and Gerry Cheevers.

During those four seasons of goalie equality, Cheevers appeared in 174 games, Johnston in 137. Not exactly 50/50, but neither netminder played more than a few games in a row while Sinden and Johnson rotated the tandem.

The Bruins’ goalie duo was somewhat innovative in those days.

The Bruins, an Original Six team, were like any other team from practically the inception of the NHL, in that one goalie played virtually all the games while the second—they were called “spares” in those days—only appeared when the first-string guy was knocked senseless.

Goalies would get traded, but they were traded for each other, often times, to keep everything neat and proper.

I’ll give you my number one guy if you give me yours!

The Red Wings, in the 1950s, had, at various times in the decade, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall. All were firmly established number one guys. It would take an act of God for spares such as Hank Bassen to find themselves in net.

But along came Sinden and his system wasn’t so much genius as it was born out of necessity and logic.

The Bruins were an awful team for much of the 1950s and that tradition of futility carried over into the 1960s as well. And the Bruins lost with just one goalie, because that was the norm in the NHL.

Johnston, for example, played in all 70 of the Bruins’ games in 1963-64—and he won just 18 of those.

But then the Bruins claimed Cheevers from Toronto in the intra-league draft in 1965, and Sinden found that he had two quality goalies.

What to do?

Play both of them! Not at the same time, of course—though the Bruins could have done so and still not won too many games.

Cheevers, a few years younger than Johnston, arrived in Boston in ’65 and soon Coach Sinden had the two of them rotating in net.

No doubt that Boston’s two-headed goaltending monster was derided by league fans and observers.

But something funny happened on the way to ignominy.

The Bruins, thanks to a dynamic, pioneering defenseman they drafted named Bobby Orr, and a terrific trade that netted them Phil Esposito, started to win hockey games.

The Bruins became a league power by the end of the 1960s, and they did so with goalies Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston each playing pretty much every other night.

The 50/50 model even carried over into the playoffs, though not right away.

In 1970, Cheevers appeared in 13 playoff games, going 12-1. Johnston only played once. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

But in 1972, Johnson restored the 50/50 model for the post-season, and again the Bruins won the Cup—with Johnston going 6-1 and Cheevers, 6-2. They literally were rotated by Johnson on a nightly basis.

The Dynamic Goalie Duo split in the summer of 1972 when Cheevers fled the Bruins for the fool’s gold of the World Hockey Association (Cleveland Crusaders). Cheevers returned to the Bruins in 1976, but by then Johnston had also moved on, to St. Louis.

I invoke Boston’s trailblazing goalie strategy because, early on, it appears that the Red Wings of today are taking a page from the old school Bruins’ playbook.

Last month, new coach Jeff Blashill arrived at Traverse City for his first training camp at the Red Wings’ helm. Right away he was socked in the kisser with a dilemma.

Jimmy Howard, or Petr Mrazek?

Which goalie would Blashill tab as his no. 1 guy between the pipes?

Mrazek and Howard

Mrazek (left) and Howard have split the duties 50/50 so far this season

Would it be the veteran Howard, whose injury troubles and poor play down the stretch last season conspired to cough up the starting job to Mrazek for the playoffs, or would it be Mrazek, the confident, almost sassy youngster whose future looked to be brighter than snow reflected on a sunny winter’s day?

Blashill, a former goalie himself, played it close to the chest protector during camp.

The best guy would get the job, he declared as camp began.

Trouble was, neither guy was the best guy, because both guys played pretty darn good in the exhibition season.

So Blashill, no fool he, showed his hockey brilliance.

He went into the regular season with no clear cut no. 1 goalie, so he decided that Howard and Mrazek would rotate.

And it wasn’t because of the old football postulate; Howard and Mrazek could each start on a lot of NHL teams, and not just on the bad ones.

Through eight games of this young season, each Red Wings goalie has started four times. Their save percentages are virtually the same (Mrazek .925; Howard .924).

The  Red Wings schedule has been Blashill’s friend; his team has played three back-to-back sets of games already, which lends itself well to giving each goalie a night off in those scenarios.

But Blashill will likely keep rotating Howard and Mrazek even when the schedule loosens up.

It works out well, because Mrazek, 23, is way too good to be playing in the minor leagues, and Howard is getting a little long in the tooth (32 in March), so not playing 60-plus games this season should keep him fresh all season.

As for the playoffs, Blashill will worry about those when it’s time.

It’s refreshing, actually, to see an NHL coach—especially a rookie one—embrace a two-goalie system, which teams have been abandoning over the past decade or so as the league again has become enamored with the old school model of an established number one netminder who plays at least 60 games.

The Red Wings have two goalies, but it’s not because they don’t have one.

Not the time now for Mule to be stubborn

The question is no longer, What do the Red Wings do with Johan Franzen?

It’s, What does Johan Franzen do for himself?

Franzen, the oft-concussed winger, got through training camp and the exhibition season feeling good—mentally and physically.

His latest recovery, from a hit sustained in January courtesy of Edmonton’s Rob Klinkhammer, was moving right along—after several months of headaches, nausea and general malaise.

As recently as a few weeks ago, a smiling Franzen said that he felt great.

But after just a couple of games of the regular season, Franzen called in sick.

“(Franzen) has had a return of some of the headaches and some of the symptoms that he has had in the past,” coach Jeff Blashill said last week after Franzen was absent for practice.

“I feel unbelievably for him,” Blashill continued. “He has been through a tough go. I think he is a great person. I know he really wanted to get to where he felt good about playing hockey. He worked hard over the summer to get himself into a good position, so I feel extraordinarily bad for him.”

If Franzen can come this far, feel this good and have so much optimism, after such a long recovery, only to be put back to square one (possibly), then it’s probably time to do some soul-searching, which I’m sure The Mule, as they call him, is doing now.

Forget what the Red Wings as an organization should do with Franzen’s roster spot, which is currently available after the team put Franzen on the 7-day Injured Reserved list.

This is about Franzen and what he chooses to do about his hockey future.

He’s 35 years old (he’ll be 36 in December) and even though as an NHL player he’s considered a grizzled veteran, as a human being he’s still a rookie, essentially.

He has an entire life ahead of him, so what quality of life does he seek?

Franzen sfranzen-facex-largeaid, as training camp began last month, that he wanted to go out on his own terms.

Well of course he does, but that may not be on the table any longer.

Frankly, when it comes to issues with concussions, a professional athlete rarely gets to go out “on his own terms.”

That call is often made for him, and often against his will.

Franzen’s latest bout of concussion-related symptoms is a huge disappointment for him, certainly.

This isn’t about proving for the umpteenth time how tough hockey players are. That needs no further demonstration. Everyone knows that hockey players get stitched up, glued back together and return—sometimes without missing a shift.

This is about the brain now. This is about what kind of life a 35 year-old man will have for, potentially, another 50-plus years.

Hockey is what Johan Franzen does, it’s not who he is.

I’m sure there will be another battery of tests. I’m sure there will be more doctors consulted. I’m sure the Red Wings will be willing to give Franzen all the time that he needs to try to get back onto the ice.

But ultimately, Franzen is the only one who gets to determine if there’s anymore hockey left in his addled brain.

I suspect that this will end badly, i.e. Franzen won’t be going out on his own terms.

He won’t be the first, and he certainly won’t be the last.

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.”

Bingo.

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.

dylan-larkin-9-24-15-229032becff65fff

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.