Zetterberg was an elite captain, long after his team wasn’t

Published Sept. 15, 2018

It was March 23, 1974.

I was a 10-year-old attending my second-ever Red Wings game at the old red barn, Olympia Stadium. I don’t remember much about the evening except for two things.

One, was the buzz in the arena before the game. Right winger Mickey Redmond had scored a hat trick in his previous game, bringing him to 49 goals for the season. So naturally, the fans wondered if they would witness no. 50—making it two straight years that Redmond reached that milestone.

Two, was the celebrated goal itself.

The New York Rangers were in town. Redmond—I can’t remember which period it was—raced down his wing, a defenseman between he and goalie Ed Giacomin. Everyone in the building knew that Mickey was going to unleash his howitzer of a shot.

Sure enough, just as he hit the top of the face-off circle, Redmond cocked his weapon. The crowd built into a crescendo of sound.

BAM!!

The slapper beat Giacomin cleanly, and the stadium erupted.

Redmond was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, part of a January 1971 trade that sent Frank Mahovlich to the Habs. He was 23 years old at the time of the deal. Mickey was considered one of the Canadiens’ new generation of stars, but in order to get the veteran Mahovlich, Canadiens GM Sam Pollock included Redmond in a package that included Billy Collins and Guy Charron.

Redmond started pouring in goals almost as soon as donning the Winged Wheel. He netted 42, 52 and 51 in his first three full seasons in the Motor City.

Then his back popped.

With Redmond, it was ‘What could have been’

Mickey suited up for only 29 games in 1974-75 and 37 the following campaign. The back pain was nerve-related, and it caused numbness down his leg. If you think skating on ice is hard enough, try it when you can’t feel one of your legs.

Because of the leg numbness, Redmond couldn’t drive forward with his shot with nearly the same gusto as he could prior to the injury. Think of a pitcher who can’t feel the leg that he uses to push off the mound.

By January 1976, Redmond was done. Finished. At age 28.

In September 1979, Mickey thought he would give it another shot. He was 31, but felt he owed it to himself to try one last time. The numbness was gone. The back felt better. Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay approved Redmond to skate with mostly minor leaguers in Glens Falls, New York while the NHL training camps were going on.

Redmond lasted two days. The back pain returned. He told Lindsay he was going home.

Fortunately for Redmond, he was able to find another career.

There’s no telling how big of a star Mickey Redmond could have been as a Red Wing. He was handsome, possessed a whale of a shot and was entering into his prime when his back gave out. Sure, he played on bad teams in Detroit, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from filling the nets with pucks.

Z: his back died a slow death

Henrik Zetterberg’s back popped. Actually, it’s been a slow death. It’s not like he bent down to lace his skates and felt something amiss.

Where Mickey Redmond was finished at age 28, Zetterberg lasted a decade longer than that, pretty much. He announced his retirement the other day, his 38th birthday less than a month away.

The amazing thing about Zetterberg’s career ending is that it comes on the heels of four straight seasons of being durable. He had played all 82 games for the past three years, and 77 the year before that. But the last few years, especially, were excruciating. The back condition, which was diagnosed last week as being degenerative, forced Zetterberg out of practicing from January on, in 2018.

A captain who doesn’t practice? That was more than accepted by his teammates, who play for an organization that’s been renowned for respected captains.

Alex Delvecchio wore the C for 11 years (1962-73) and even in the shadows of Gordie Howe, “Fats” was the undisputed leader of the team.

Stevie Yzerman took over the C at age 21 and didn’t take it off until almost 20 years later. Few captains in the history of professional sports commanded the room like Yzerman.

Nick Lidstrom had a tough act to follow but he did it with quiet and grace for seven years. The Perfect Human, they called him. How do you not respect that?

Then there was Zetterberg—“Hank” to his charges in the dressing room.

By the time the C was sewn onto Hank’s sweater, the Red Wings had become a shadow of their former selves. Eventually, so did Hank.

Oh, he put up respectable numbers last season (11 G, 45 A) and he played every game, but Zetterberg was a step slower, his shot a little weaker and his dominance was quite diluted. He no longer was one of the best Swedes in the NHL, as he had been in the first half of his 15-year career in the league.

But no one on the Red Wings roster worked harder, no one gutted it out with more determination and no one felt the sting of missing the playoffs after 24 years more than Hank.

He vowed it would never happen on his watch as captain—the Red Wings missing the post-season. In a way, that attitude, which was prevalent throughout the organization, was more of a hindrance than a help to the long term future of the franchise. But I see where Zetterberg was coming from. To the rest of us, it wouldn’t seem to be a shameful thing to finally miss the playoffs, but not to a warrior like Hank.

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Classy leadership in style of Stevie, Lidstrom

Every night after a game, as Lidstrom and Yzerman did before him with class and calm, Zetterberg stood before the hordes of media and answered all their “So what happened out there?” questions. Never did I see him snap, never did I see him complain or whine, especially when there was a lot to complain and whine about.

It’s been said that the Red Wings officially lost their collective mojo when Lidstrom retired in 2013—that they never recovered from that. I’m not sure. While they haven’t come close to replacing Nick—certainly not a criminal offense—the rest of the roster got old and decrepit around the same time. And the long foreseen but only recently instituted rebuild didn’t help matters by its tardiness.

Even the loss of Pavel Datsyuk a few years ago didn’t truly end an era of Red Wings hockey. It ended with the retirement of Zetterberg.

Hank wasn’t the last connection to the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup in 2008—that honor goes to defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who will be likely following Hank into the sunset after this season. But by hanging up his skates, Zetterberg has officially closed the door on an era of the fast and furious, “firewagon” brand of hockey in Detroit, which is what they used to call Mickey Redmond’s Canadiens style back in the day.

I remember on the night that the Red Wings retired Yzerman’s number 19—Jan. 2, 2007—I was sitting in a private suite, helping out Fox Sports Detroit on that evening’s broadcast. Ted Lindsay sat next to me. As we watched the action on the ice below, Teddy said simply, “It’s a young man’s game today.”

NHL players have been frequently known to skate deep into their 30s and even into their 40s. But it truly is a young man’s game, as every professional sport is. Only the premier, elite players are kept on NHL rosters at advanced ages.

Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t been an elite player in quite some time. His numbers gradually faded with each passing year. But he was an elite teammate and an elite captain.

“One of the greatest warriors I’ve ever been around,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said of Hank last spring.

“One of the greatest Red Wings to ever play for this organization,” GM Kenny Holland said on Thursday.

At least Zetterberg can retire knowing that he had nothing left to give. At his age, and having played so many games in recent years, there really shouldn’t be any “What could have been” feelings coursing through his body.

He wasn’t Mickey Redmond. He was what Mickey could have been.

Nice career, Hank. How Swede it was.

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Time is now for D prospect Cholowski

Published July 1, 2018

The Red Wings have been an NHL franchise for over 90 years and it says something that only one of the retired numbers in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena belongs to a defenseman.

And not just any defenseman—Nicklas Lidstrom was arguably the best to ever play the position. Certainly among the most fundamentally sound. What else can you say about a guy who played 20 seasons on the blue line in the NHL without ever throwing a body check? Lidstrom became a Hall of Famer by knowing how to be in the right place at the right time—aided greatly by a stick that ruined countless passes and evaporated a zillion scoring chances.

Lidstrom was 21 years of age when he hit the ice for the first time wearing the Winged Wheel. When he finally peeled off the sweater in 2012 at age 42, he took with him the heart of the Red Wings’ defense, which hasn’t come close to being replaced since.

For all the kudos that GM Kenny Holland and his lieutenants are receiving—and rightly so by all accounts—for what appears to be a fine amateur draft last month, it’s a player who was selected in the first round two summers ago who stands to gain the most from the selections made in 2018.

No excuses now for Cholowski

Dennis Cholowski is 20 years old, and only in professional sports can that be considered long in the tooth, when it comes to that P-word, potential.

Cholowski, a defenseman who was the Red Wings’ first round selection (20th overall) in the 2016 amateur draft, just finished participating in his third developmental camp—and that’s what makes a 20-year-old kid a grizzled veteran of sorts.

It’s probably too harsh—and too early—to say that Cholowski, a 6’2″, 200-pound sculpture, has to you-know-what or get off the pot, but if anyone has a moment that needs to be seized, it’s he.

Anyone who knows even a thimble full about hockey knows that the Red Wings suffer on defense from a deadly combination of lack of skill and depth. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lidstrom, at age 48, could probably dust off his skates and make the team out of training camp this September.

The June 2018 draft saw a couple of high-flying forwards fall to the Red Wings in the first round: Filip Zadina (6th overall) and Joe Veleno (30th overall). Despite being in desperate need of help on the blue line, Holland et al couldn’t resist snatching up Zadina and Veleno—neither of whom they expected to be available when their two first round turns came.

The Red Wings did draft a defenseman with their second, second-round pick: Jared McIsaac (36th overall). But no matter. This is Cholowski’s moment.

There simply is no better time for someone of Cholowski’s ilk—whether you’re talking size, age, puck-moving skill or hockey IQ—to do anything but make it impossible for Red Wings brass to not include him on the opening night roster in October.

There’s a gaping hole on the D-corps in Detroit, and if Cholowski doesn’t fill it, shame on him.

Yes, that’s a lot to say about someone who’s not legally allowed to have a beer after a game, but that’s what pro sports has turned into. A 20-year-old who was drafted two years ago is on the clock.

Red Wings D: old, lacking skill

The Red Wings, on the first official day of free agency today (July 1), signed 33-year-old D Mike Green to a two-year deal to remain in Detroit. That’s fine, and it didn’t break the bank, and Green is the best offensive threat the Red Wings have on the blue line, but he’s not the future. And, Green is coming off neck surgery.

Beyond Green, the Red Wings on the D have veteran Niklas Kronwall, who’s being held together with baling wire, and a slew of mediocre, uninspiring alternatives who are mistake prone and couldn’t make an electrifying breakout pass even if you put them on the ice without any defenders.

The situation is tailor made for Cholowski.

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“(Cholowski’s) strengths are his skating and his puck-moving ability,” says director of player development Shawn Horcoff, who played 15 seasons in the NHL.  “Like any other young D, he is going to have to defend well enough for the coach to have confidence in putting him out there. That’s the hardest part at the NHL level — unless you are some superstar offensive player, which there are not many of, you have to be able to defend the game’s best players. In our division there’s lots of them, so that’s going to be his biggest test.”

Cholowski got off to a rough start after being drafted by the Red Wings. His early play for the St. Cloud State Huskies (college) in 2016-17 left much to be desired. But he turned it around last season, as a stalwart on D for two teams (Prince George and Portland) in the major junior’s Western Hockey League, registering 14 goals and 52 assists in 69 games, after tallying just one goal and 11 assists for the Huskies in 2016-17.

“He wants to make the team,” Horcoff says. “He wants to knock a guy out of the box. His weight is up, his strength is up. It’s still early in the summer and there is lots of work to be done, but he looks good as of now.”

‘Next in line’

After the Red Wings went heavy on offense in last month’s draft, no one had to tell Cholowski that there’s no better time than now to grab an NHL job for keeps.

“When I saw [the way the draft unfolded], I was: Get on my horse and get going. Because, you know, I think I’m next in line,” Cholowski told the Detroit News.

The funny thing is, Cholowski, though he didn’t know it, has been next in line since he was 14 years old, when Lidstrom retired. Because though the Red Wings have tried mightily, both in the draft and in free agency, they have failed in remaking a blue line corps that dissipated a couple seasons after winning the 2008 Stanley Cup.

That Kronwall, 37, is even going to be on the Red Wings’ roster this fall is an indictment. That Green, at 33, is the team’s best offensive defenseman is another.

The Red Wings haven’t had a young D-man as eagerly anticipated to make his NHL debut as Cholowski, since…well, maybe when Lidstrom debuted in 1991. After Nick, the Red Wings relied heavily on deadline trades and free agent signings to cobble together a top flight blue line corps. They certainly didn’t do it via the draft.

I’m not saying that we will someday see Dennis Cholowski’s number hoisted to the rafters, but the kid has an opportunity like few before him to become entrenched on the Red Wings’ D at such a young age.

This is it, young man. Meet the bull’s horns.

Caps-Golden Knights Cup Final one for the, ahem, books

Published May 26, 2018

OK. Let me see if I have this straight.

The Stanley Cup Finals are pitting the Washington Capitals, who are in their 43rd season and who have never won the Cup and who took 24 years to make their first Finals appearance, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who weren’t even in the NHL a year ago?

Explain this to me, please.

This is either a great story or a tragedy. Or a farce. I’m not sure which.

One thing’s for certain. This is the ultimate case of “if you make the playoffs, anything can happen,” which NHL teams have been telling themselves for years, whether they believe it or not.

We will either have a Cup champion whose franchise needed 44 years to get it done, or one that needed…one.

Not your father’s expansion team

It used to be where an expansion team in the NHL was better suited for the Ice Follies. They belonged in a rink skating with Mickey Mouse instead of with the Canadiens.

But thanks to the league’s overly generous expansion drafting rules and roster procurement, the Golden Knights are four wins away from stealing the chalice that it has taken established teams decades to hoist.

How do you think the Toronto Maple Leafs (last Cup: 1967) feel about all this?

The Capitals (debut 1974) are in the Finals for just the second time in franchise history. The last time was 20 years ago, when the Red Wings blasted them out in four straight. For over 30 years, the Capitals have mostly been known as the NHL’s great underachievers. So many good regular season teams, so many springtime disappointments.

How long has this been going on? Well, when the Red Wings hired Bryan Murray away from the Capitals to be their coach in 1990, the first question he was hit with by the media was, “How come you couldn’t win in the playoffs in Washington?”

It got to be that you could expect two things in May: flowers, and a Capitals choke job.

This is a franchise that up until last week, aside from the 1998 run, hadn’t really won a big game in its life. Alexander Ovechkin looked to be one of those NHL greats whose fingers would never play for a chance to wear a ring.

And when the Caps found themselves down, 3-2, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals this year, it looked like par for the course—an appropriate metaphor because the Capitals often found themselves swinging golf clubs instead of hockey sticks earlier than expected.

But lo and behold, the Caps shutout the Lightning in both Games 6 and 7, and here they are, finally getting a genuine “kick at the can,” as the hockey people say.

In 1974, when the Capitals burst onto the scene—and when I say “burst,” I mean the same way a water balloon does—the NHL gave no quarter to expansion teams. The league took the franchise fee and supplied the newbies with the dregs of the league, talent-wise. Established teams could protect far more of their core players than were allowed the 2017 NHL teams.

The result? The Capitals went 8-67-5 and their expansion Bobbsey twins, the Kansas City Scouts, were 15-54-11. They were the biggest ice-related disasters since the Titanic.

A Fleury of activity in goal

In 2017, the league’s convoluted rules that governed how existing teams could protect the players in their organization gave the Golden Knights way more to work with than previous expansion teams in NHL history.

In goal, for example, the Knights were able to procure Marc-Andre Fleury, a grizzled, multiple Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So what does the 33-year-old Fleury do in 2017-18? He simply has one of the best seasons in his 13-year career, and is 12-3 in the playoffs, with an astronomical save percentage of .947.

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At 33, Fleury is playing some of the best hockey in his 13-year NHL career.

In 1974, the Capitals and Scouts goalies might have been suitable for beer leagues. But in Fleury, the Golden Knights got instant credibility between the pipes.

The leading scorer for the Golden Knights in the regular season was Jon Marchessault (27-48-75), who scored 30 goals last year for the Florida Panthers. Yet Marchessault was available in the expansion draft. Go figure. In the playoffs, Marchessault is again leading the way, with 8-10-18.

Something tells me that a player of Marchessault’s caliber wouldn’t have been remotely available in the 1974 expansion draft.

The Golden Knights have been the best thing to hit Las Vegas since the slot machine. Their fans are rowdy and beside themselves. Their home arena should be renamed The House, because they hardly ever lose in T-Mobile Arena—just 10 times in the regular season and only once in the playoffs.

The coach is former Red Wing Gerard Gallant, who daily is making the Panthers look silly for giving him the ziggy a year ago November. Are the Panthers still in the league?

Even though the Golden Knights are hardly the Little Engine That Could, thanks to the NHL’s benevolence, they were hardly anyone’s pre-season pick for the Cup. Yet they won the Pacific Division by eight points. And they’ve been tearing through the playoffs (12-3) like Godzilla through Tokyo.

Before the season, the, ahem, Vegas bookmakers listed the Golden Knights as a 250-to-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup. Someone, somewhere, plunked some money down on that bet last October. Don’t you just despise that person, without even knowing who it is?

Will the Capitals spoil the party?

Are the optics good or bad?

This is all well and good. Well, it’s well—but is it good?

Is it good that a neophyte should enter the NHL and act like it invented the league?

What does it mean for the next expansion team, which appears to be based in Seattle? The league meets on June 20 to decide if the Emerald City should get a team to begin play in 2020. Will the NHL over correct and be more stringent in how the 32nd league team is able to cobble together a roster?

But that’s two years from now. The 2018 Finals start on Monday, and my sense is that the overall NHL fan base is totally down with an expansion team making it to the big stage. It’s the fringe hockey fans and the non-fans who are looking at the NHL cross-eyed, gauging by comments I’ve seen online.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, what kind of a craps game are you running, the naysayers are asking.

I understand that it can look a little specious, this 97-game hot streak the Golden Knights are on. If the NHL was a casino, the Golden Knights would have been escorted out sometime in January. But I don’t think it’s an indictment on the league in general. The NHL is not foreign to teams bobbing up and down, sometimes year to year. In other words, let’s see how Gallant’s boys fare next year.

Ah, “next year.” The official battle cry of so many teams in the league.

They say,”What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

You can probably include the Golden Knights in that. I doubt another expansion team will go on this kind of a run.

Wanna bet me?

Forty years later, Holland has chance to avenge wrongs of Terrible Ted

Published April 14, 2018

In 1978, the Red Wings had two picks in the first round of the NHL entry draft. It was the last time such an occurrence…occurred.

They have two picks in the first round this year. Right on time—once every 40 years.

The Red Wings’ GM at the time was Terrible Ted Lindsay. As a player, Teddy’s nickname was appropriate for his on-ice behavior, which was of nasty countenance. As a GM, the nickname was also appropriate.

The Red Wings in 1978, in Teddy’s first year in the front office, were coming off a rebirth of sorts. They doubled their win total from 16 to 32. Their points total went from 41 to 78. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They even won a series, though it was one of those best-of-three jobs that the league held in those days.

The mighty Montreal Canadiens blasted the Wings out in five games in the next round, but it was still a remarkable season. Teddy looked like he would be pretty good at this GM thing.

But the summer of 1978 showed that Teddy still had a lot to learn.

Rebirth aborted

It started with the draft.

The Red Wings had those two first round picks and coming off a season in which fan interest was the highest it had been in nearly a decade, the team looked to be on the precipice of good times after the dreary years of Darkness With Harkness—that old-time Red Wings fan’s moniker bestowed on embattled GM Ned Harkness.

Then Terrible Ted lived up to his nickname, the wrong way.

Lindsay drafted Willie Huber, a German-born defenseman, with the ninth overall pick. Three slots later, Lindsay grabbed Brent Peterson, a forward from Alberta. Both were 20 years old.

Within five years, both were traded, ending up as nothing more than fodder in multi-player deals.

Peterson never lived up to his hype as a high-scoring power forward type, scoring a whopping eight goals in his 91 games as a Red Wing. He was traded with a bunch of higher profile Red Wings to the Buffalo Sabres in 1981.

Huber was a little better but in the summer of 1983 he was part of a multi-player trade with the New York Rangers. Huber played in 372 games as a Red Wing but never was he a Norris Trophy candidate, which isn’t unreasonable to expect from a ninth overall pick.

The point is that Teddy had two first round picks and neither helped the franchise get over the next hump.

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Willie Huber, selected ninth overall by the Red Wings in the 1978 draft, was one of two first round picks that year whose NHL career was underwhelming.

Lindsay capped off a bad off-season by signing 33-year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon from the L.A. Kings. The signing cost the Red Wings young Dale McCourt as compensation, and only a long court battle kept McCourt on the Red Wings. The Kings had to settle for Andre St. Laurent, an older and much less appealing player.

Teddy won the battle but he lost the war. Vachon was horrible with the Red Wings and was traded two years later.

Why all this bluster about the bad old days?

Forty years later, another golden opportunity

Kenny Holland, who just re-upped for another two years as Red Wings GM—not what I would have done if I was the Red Wings but that’s another story—has two first round draft picks at his disposal this summer.

The Red Wings, according to the mathematicians, have a less than nine percent chance of turning their fifth overall pick into the number one in the NHL’s lottery. The prize this year is generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has league observers drooling.

Assuming the Red Wings don’t get Dahlin, they will have two chances to slice even deeper into their rebuild in the first round.

Holland, his lieutenants and his scouts better get it right.

The Red Wings have, all told, 11 picks in this year’s draft, which is to Holland’s credit. I’ve been a critic, but I have to be fair. Eleven picks is 11 picks. The Red Wings can make the 2018 draft one that NHL experts and historians will look back on as the turning point in the team’s return to glory.

The entry draft in the NHL is much like that of the NFL. It’s sometimes nothing more than a glorified game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Yet countless time, energy, money and resources are put into this game. The experts will grade the Red Wings as soon as the last pick is made. They will apparently use a crystal ball that no one else possesses to tell us which teams had a good draft and which teams didn’t. As if.

But one thing isn’t debatable. The Red Wings have an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Any franchise that wants to undergo a self-facelift would fall all over itself to have two first round draft picks among 11 overall. A franchise could accelerate things greatly with such an opportunity.

It’s all there for the Red Wings and the newly-extended Ken Holland.

All they have to do is not blow it.

In Toronto, Babs continues his own hat trick: Win, Anger, Annoy

Published Jan. 13, 2018

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t even appeared in a Finals since ’67. For most of these past 50 years, the franchise hasn’t really been all that close to sipping champagne from the silver chalice that is Stanley.

The hockey old-timers in Toronto can recall, vividly, the slapstick ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s, which wasn’t much different than Darkness With Harkness in Detroit over the same time frame. The Leafs and the Red Wings were mostly league fodder in those years—it’s just that in Toronto, the Leafs were fodder with more panache.

Mike Babcock sat at the rostrum in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and glared, steely-eyed, at the media and the television cameras. It wasn’t his scowl; it was his regular face. If Babcock was a food he’d be a prickly pear.

Babcock had just been introduced as the Man Who Was Going to Save the Toronto Maple Leafs—from themselves, really. The Leafs were a long-running league joke when Babcock left the sinking ship that was the Red Wings to hop aboard another that had already capsized in Toronto.

Babcock grabbed the money—who wouldn’t—but at least in Toronto, the Leafs organization knew they needed bailing out. President Brendan Shanahan, so smart it’s scary, was beginning his reclamation project and knew that in order to speed things up, he may as well hire the best coach in the business.

Babcock was brought into Toronto with pomp and circumstance rarely bestowed upon anyone involved with hockey, which is very niche and has always struggled to find folks who have acquired a taste for it. It’s the sushi of sports.

With his scowl, er, regular face, Babcock minced no words when speaking directly to the fans the day of his introduction.

“There’s going to be pain,” he said, and it wasn’t a warning. It was fact. “Make no bones about it. There’s going to be pain.”

Just like that, Babcock dashed the hopes of any Leafs fans who thought he was going to swoop in and bring their team to Cup contention in short order. Enjoy my hiring, he said, but now you just sit and wait. This is going to take time.

Well guess what?

Babcock is in Year Three and already the Leafs are becoming a force in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, drafting a franchise player like Auston Matthews in 2016 didn’t hurt. Neither did getting rid of yesteryear’s franchise player, Phil Kessel. Everyone who knew that a puck isn’t inflated knew that Kessel, long rumored to be a coach killer, wouldn’t last long under Babs. And, Kessel didn’t. He was traded to Pittsburgh not long after Babcock was hired.

There was indeed some pain in Toronto after Babs was hired, but it didn’t last long.

The Leafs went from 68 to 69 points in Babcock’s first season, but then leaped to 95 points last year after Matthews’ arrival and secured a playoff berth (first round loss to Washington).

This season, the Leafs are battling with the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, which is being turned into a runaway by first place Tampa Bay, aka Stevie Yzerman’s team.

So we have ex-Red Wings galore here: Shanny, Stevie and Babs. And they’re all passing their old team as if it was standing still.

But there is some enjoyment in all this for Red Wings fans, albeit in perhaps an eye-rolling way.

In Toronto, the fans are a little annoyed with Babcock. So are the players.

Sound familiar?

The fans think he falls in love with certain players and gives them too much ice time and not enough to the fans’ favorites. The players couldn’t wait for their union-mandated five-day vacation to arrive earlier this week. They could use a break from the coach’s scrutiny.

Babcock is, in many ways, the Scotty Bowman of his time.

Neither man will ever be held up as a cuddly teddy bear by their players. Neither will be accused of being a “players’ coach.” Neither will be missed by many players when they leave for their next project.

But they will win.

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Babcock did it with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when few thought it was possible, getting to Game 7 of the 2003 Finals.

He did it with Detroit, and even though the Red Wings were set up to win when he arrived, how many times has that been the case but the team doesn’t actually win? A Cup was won in 2008 and almost again in 2009.

Now Babcock is taking on perhaps his most daunting challenge of them all in the NHL and he’s winning yet again. And he’s ticking people off again. Typical.

But Shanahan, who as I mentioned is as cerebral as any hockey man I’ve met, doesn’t care about the ticking people off part. He played for Bowman, don’t forget, and Shanny and Scotty had their moments.

It also didn’t hurt Shanny’s cause that in addition to hiring Babcock, he brought in Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello to add yet another brilliant hockey mind to the organization. Shanahan’s hiring of Lamoriello wasn’t merely payback for the latter drafting Shanny as Lamoriello’s first-ever draft pick in 1987 with the New Jersey Devils.

But back to Babcock.

It’s rather humorous, to me, that a fan base that contains many folks who weren’t even born the last time the Leafs won the Cup, are crabbing about Babcock’s style and doling out of ice time. The man is resurrecting the franchise and is the best thing to hit the ice in Toronto since George Armstrong and Johnny Bower, and they’re complaining?

Even the media in Toronto, which has been subjected to the Ice Follies for a long time in that town, are questioning Babcock’s methods —with Matthews, of all people.

As for the players griping, that’s to be expected and is par for the course.

And to nobody’s surprise who knows even a thimble full of info about the NHL, Babcock looked at the Leafs’ bye week begrudgingly.

“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” he told Sportsnet.ca. “You and I both know that’s not happening.

“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there. We need the points.”

Mike Babcock was smart enough to know when to leave the Red Wings, and even smarter to choose Toronto, money notwithstanding. If he brings a Stanley Cup to that city, all will be forgiven—from the fans to the media to the players.

It’s like what one of Scotty Bowman’s players said about him during the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.

“For 364 days a year, you can’t stand the guy. And on the 365th, you raise another Cup over your head.”

The hockey denizens in Toronto, bereft of any greatness for 51 years, ought to zip it and let the genius do his work.

Why Jeff Blashill should go

Published Dec. 2, 2017

The easiest way to dismiss the Red Wings is to say that they’re simply not good enough.

That would be a quick, nice and tidy way to wash your hands of them. On to the next topic!

It’s true that the Red Wings aren’t very good. They weren’t predicted to be very good before the season began, and after coming out of the gate with a 4-1 record, they’re proving the prognosticators to be correct.

They lack several top-flight defensemen. They struggle to score because they don’t have enough “finishers,” as they say in the hockey world. I like to call them “snipers.” Same thing. The goaltending can’t be trusted, no matter how much you’d like to believe in Jimmy Howard. They can’t win in overtime to save their souls.

All true.

But what’s the most damning about the Red Wings isn’t their lack of talent. It’s their lack of heart.

Same old tired refrain

“We have to fix it.”

“We have to clean that up.”

“We played stupid hockey.”

“We have to be better.”

These are the same, tired refrains pouring out of the dressing room from the players and the coach after the latest uninspired loss.

The Red Wings like to play 20 minutes of hockey per night. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and play 40. It takes them two games, at least, to cobble together 60 good minutes.

The 20 minutes they play may come in the first period, they may come in the second period, they may come in the third period. And it’s not even 20 consecutive minutes, necessarily.

The rest of the time?

“We have too many passengers,” is how the coach summed up a recent loss.

Jeff Blashill is trying really hard, I believe that. He’s tried calling out young Anthony Mantha. He’s tried withholding ice time from Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin. He’s tried juggling lines, until he stopped. He’s implored his club, via the media, to step it up.

Nothing’s really worked.

Blashill, to his credit, isn’t delusional. He didn’t arrive at training camp at Traverse City trying to sell the fan base a bill of goods about his hockey team. He didn’t portend that the Red Wings were a playoff team—not even a no. 8 seed. He didn’t take the “Why not us?” mentality that some coaches use when their players aren’t as talented as others in the league—a smoke and mirrors tact to get them to believe in themselves.

Blashill, from the jump, warned anyone who would listen that the Red Wings would have to work their collective asses off to get every stinking point they could muster this season. He knew he wasn’t coaching the 2002 Red Wings.

It’s fair to wonder if everyone was listening to the coach’s warning except the players.

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Veteran players free from Blashill’s wrath

I’m not usually one of those “fire the coach” types, especially mid-season. But firing the coach mid-season is a professional sports fetish. And I’m getting close to advising the Red Wings to break the glass and reach for the alarm.

The Red Wings haven’t sacked a coach mid-season since they released poor Harry Neale from his bondage the day before New Year’s Eve in 1985, replacing him with the ill-equipped Brad Park.

In fact, the team hasn’t even canned a coach, period, since they didn’t renew Dave Lewis’ contract after two seasons of following in Scotty Bowman’s skate steps, in the summer of 2005.

But how many times do we have to hear Blashill and his players say the same thing, loss after loss?

Well, what would you have them say, you might ask me.

Good question. Which is why the coach should be on the hot seat.

If the refrain is the same, and if it seems to center around effort and loss of focus during games—which it does, then whose fault is that?

I notice that Blashill has tried a lot, but he hasn’t tried calling out any of his veterans. Instead, he’s picked on poor Mantha, a 23-year-old kid who’s still trying to grow into his body, let alone grow into a consistent NHL player. The coach has picked on Larkin and Athanasiou.

Free from scourge has been anyone over the age of 25. I find that odd.

I understand the desire to challenge the kids and give them a baptism by fire into the ways of the National League. But that’s only who Blashill has publicly called out. I haven’t seen any reduction of ice time from players who have more than three years’ tenure in the NHL. For example, I haven’t heard Blashill say—not once—that Justin Abdelkader needs to step it up. And Abbie has been a passenger too often since inking his big contract a couple years ago—a contract that I endorsed.

I haven’t seen Blashill park Jonathan Ericsson’s butt on the pine despite one goofball play in his own zone after the other.

I haven’t heard Blashill wonder where his veteran leadership is.

It’s easy to hold young players’ skates to the fire. And it’s fine to do so, to a degree.

The Red Wings aren’t very good. That’s true. But they also don’t bring forth a total effort very often. That’s true, too.

Too much bad, unfocused hockey

The other night against the Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena—their new home and where they rarely win—the Red Wings played a decent first period then came out for the middle stanza in a fog. You half wondered if they consumed a huge meal in the dressing room during the intermission.

The Canadiens, who haven’t been world beaters this season and who were missing some key players, looked like the Firewagon Hockey Habs of the 1950s or 1970s. They skated circles around the dazed Red Wings.

The reporters needn’t have bothered to enter the dressing room afterward for quotes. They only needed to cue up their saved recordings from any game of their choosing this season.

Jeff Blashill in his third season of coaching the Red Wings. He’s following a tough act in Mike Babcock, but too often, the team hasn’t responded to Blashill. It may not be his fault. But when was the last time a coach got fired because things were expressly his fault?

Country Club culture

The Red Wings appear to need a new voice. They appear to need a swift kick in the hockey pants. It’s fair to theorize that too many “key” players don’t respect the coach as they should.

The Red Wings right now are victims of their own winning, Kumbaya culture. The culture where everyone is a Red Wing for life and gets a job after their playing days are done, should they want one—even the fourth line players. The culture where no one gets fired and pluggers like Luke Glendening get awarded fat contracts. The culture where there’s no true fear for your job. The culture that merely points to the Winged Wheel on the sweater and thinks that’s enough. The culture where you merely promote the minor league coach instead of conducting a real search.

The Red Wings are run like a country club in a league that requires a less privileged atmosphere from time to time.

You can’t only call out the kids while the veterans get off scot-free, for example.

Since this is a culture issue, the coach can’t solely be at blame. Culture starts at the top of an organization, not at the middle.

So what I’m proposing isn’t likely.

I’m proposing that the Red Wings let Jeff Blashill go and look for a coach—outside the organization with zero ties to the Red Wings (not even a fan of the team as a kid)—who won’t put up with the nonsense we see on an almost nightly basis. Someone who couldn’t care less if they ruffle the feathers of Justin Abdelkader or Jonathan Ericsson or Gustav Nyquist.

I’d suggest John Tortorella but he’s not available. But someone like Torts, who whipped the sad-sack Columbus Blue Jackets into shape almost immediately when brought in midway through the 2015-16 season.

I don’t think Red Wings GM Kenny Holland—who is also quite complicit here—has the temerity to fire Blashill, a friend. Especially not during the season.

But he should.

With old pal Gallant behind bench, don’t bet against Vegas

Published Nov. 18, 2017

The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t your father’s NHL expansion team.

They don’t catch their skates on the blue line. They don’t lose 12-2. They don’t spend 60 minutes every night chasing the puck like they have blindfolds on. They don’t look up at the scoreboard as soon as the National Anthem is done playing and see themselves trailing 2-0.

The Golden Knights don’t do any of those things. In fact, they’re playing as if they’ve been in the league for 10 years.

The Golden Knights have cooled a little since their 8-1-0 start, but at 11-6-1 they’re making a mockery of what being a freshman NHL team used to entail.

I come from the days of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, an expansion team that won a grand total of eight games in their maiden season, with only one of those wins coming on the road.

The NHL has expanded a bunch of times since those laughable Caps, but never has a brand-new team taken the league by storm as the Golden Knights have this year.

The Golden Knights play at T Mobile Arena, where they’re 7-1 and averaging nearly 18,000 fans a night. They have no history and are building their legacy game by game. Yet not only could Las Vegas’ new NHL team qualify for the playoffs as an expansion team, they could (gulp) win the Pacific Division. As I write this, the Golden Knights are just one point behind the first-place Los Angeles Kings.

You wanna bet against a team that plays in Vegas? What is that even like?

Under Gallant, unprecedented expansion team success (so far)

Granted, the NHL doesn’t currently throw its expansion teams to the wolves the way the league used to do back in the day, when all first-year franchises were put behind the 8-ball when it came to building a respectable roster. Expansion teams were bringing a knife to a gunfight every night.

Hence those ’75 Capitals, with a roster dotted with players who would have been hard-pressed to qualify for other NHL teams’ minor league affiliates.

Still, even though the NHL has rejiggered the way newbies can procure NHL-ready talent from the drop of the first puck, for the Golden Knights to be doing what they’re doing is unprecedented. They became the first league expansion team to win seven of their first eight games, to wit.

So who coaches these guys, anyway?

Ah, yes—our old pal Gerry Gallant.

Image result for gerard gallant golden knights

Gallant, after a suspect firing in Florida, is living the good life in Las Vegas.

 

There’s a reason why Gallant wasn’t out of work for very long after being given the ziggy by the Florida Panthers almost a year ago (Nov. 27, 2016).  Gallant was snatched up by the Golden Knights just five months after being let go by the Panthers.

I think the Panthers will come to rue the day they let Gallant go, if they haven’t already.

Gallant led the Panthers to a 47-26-9 record and an Atlantic Division championship in 2015-16, but Florida lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Islanders, who joined the NHL as part of the league’s third expansion in 1972.

But after a mediocre 11-10-1 start last November, new Panthers GM Tom Rowe fired Gallant. This morning, the Panthers woke up with a 7-9-2 record. Just saying.

This isn’t Gallant’s first rodeo with a brand new NHL franchise. He was minding his own business as an assistant coach for the fourth-year Columbus Blue Jackets in 2004 when head coach Doug MacLean was fired, elevating Gerry into the big chair. Gallant spent parts of three seasons as the Jackets coach, then eight years after his last game coached in Columbus, he returned to the NHL as head coach of the Panthers in 2014.

Gallant won 38, then 47 games in his two full seasons in Florida, yet the Panthers, an expansion franchise themselves (Class of 1993) that hasn’t exactly been synonymous with on-ice success, broomed Gallant.

It didn’t take long after Gallant was fired in Florida for fans in other NHL cities to pump for Gerry as their team’s new coach—even if there wasn’t a vacancy.

One of those teams’ fan bases was Detroit’s.

Image result for gerard gallant red wings

In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Gallant played the tough second to Steve Yzerman in Detroit.

“Gallant envy” runs throughout league, including in Detroit

Red Wings fans clamored for a time, before Gallant was announced in Las Vegas, for the team to cashier Jeff Blashill and hire old no. 17 to take Blash’s place.

It was more than mere nostalgia that drove the “Hire Gallant” sentiment. It was more than remembering the 207 goals that Gerry scored while playing for the Red Wings—many of those coming while patrolling Steve Yzerman’s left side, when Gallant and Bob Probert were sandwiched around Stevie and “kept the flies off him,” as former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock would say.

The pro-Gallant feeling that other teams’ fan bases have is based on the reputation Gallant has as being very Babcock-like behind the bench: a winner who is tough, who is not your friend but who is also fair. Babcock himself has been described as a modern day Scotty Bowman type—a coach that players might curse under their breath but under whom also enjoy great on-ice success.

“Players really, really enjoy playing for (Gallant),” Yzerman, now the GM of the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning, said recently about the Golden Knights’ success under Gerry, which doesn’t surprise Stevie in the least. “He’s not easy, by any means. He’s not your buddy, but he’s straight forward and he’s honest.”

Gallant is consumed by hockey. “It’s his whole life,” ex-teammate Yzerman said. But even an old-time hockey guy like Gallant can’t truly explain the eye-opening, early-season success of his Golden Knights.

“I’m surprised that we’re playing as well as we’ve played,” Gallant recently told SI.com.

Don’t bet against Vegas

What Gallant is doing in Vegas—and it’s part of why he’s coveted by envious fans of other teams—is he’s keeping his players relaxed, hungry and getting them to believe in themselves. That’s a trifecta that not every NHL coach can pull off.

Knights center Jonathan Marchessault has more experience than his teammates in playing for Gallant, because he did it in Florida as well.

”He wants us to be loose, make plays and have confidence; and I think that he gives us confidence,” Marchessault said recently. ”For a coach, it’s kind of rare. You’re scared to do mistakes. But with Turk (Gallant’s nickname), it’s not like that. He wants you to try hard and if you do a mistake, at least you do it while you’re trying hard.”

The Knights do have one expansion team quality, however: they’ve already used five goalies in 18 games. One of them is grizzled veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh. Fleury has only played in a handful of games so far, but team management understood that it can’t hurt to dot the roster with guys who’ve tasted the NHL’s ultimate measure of success.

Gallant himself never won a Cup as a player, but he played on two Red Wings teams that made the Final Four (1987 and 1988). At his best as a player, Gallant was known as one of the league’s upper echelon power forwards—a guy who could score 30 goals, fight and keep the opponents honest. He was Brendan Shanahan in Detroit before Brendan Shanahan.

Can the Golden Knights keep this up? They’re an expansion team, for crying out loud. Don’t they know that their place is among the league’s dregs?

Not according to Gerry.

“I want my guys coming here with a clean slate every day,” he says. “We don’t worry about what we did yesterday, we worry about what we’re going to do tomorrow and the next day. We know we got a long way to go and we know if we let up one bit we’re not going to win hockey games. If we continue to play the way we’re playing right now, then we can beat any team, any given night.”

So far, 11 times in 18 games, the Golden Knights have done just that.

How dare they!