Spotlight on the Opponent: Teemu Selanne

What: Anaheim at Detroit
When: Tuesday, December 17, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

NHL

When Teemu Selanne entered the NHL, George Bush was president—the first George Bush.

The Winnipeg Jets were in the league—the first Winnipeg Jets.

The Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup championship was still in 1955.

And, most ironically, the Anaheim Ducks didn’t even exist.

The NHL consisted of 24 teams in the fall of 1992, when Selanne made his big splash.

Selanne was a rookie for the Jets, a 22-year-old puck magician and sniper from Finland.

And what a splash Selanne made!

The RW Selanne scored an amazing 76 goals in his rookie year, adding 56 assists for an astounding 132 points.

These days, it might take even the most heralded rookies two full seasons, and then some, to amass 132 points.

By comparison, the great Sidney Crosby scored 39 goals in his rookie year of 2005-06—about half of Selanne’s rookie total in 1993.

Selanne was Winnipeg’s first round draft choice (10th overall) in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. The Helsinki native spent the next four years playing in his homeland before finally coming to North America in 1992.

There were plenty of goalies who wished Selanne would have stayed in Finland, as Teemu hit the ice skating, and he hasn’t really stopped since.

Today, at 43 years of age, Selanne may finally be showing signs of slowing down.

Selanne is nine years into his second stint with the Ducks franchise, and after scoring 12 goals in 46 games last season, the Finn has just four goals and four assists in 27 games.

Clearly, Selanne is wrapping up a Hall of Fame career, with his 679 goals and 1,438 points.

Finally, at age 36, Selanne won a Stanley Cup, with the Ducks in 2007. In that playoff year, Selanne scored a killer goal in overtime to beat the Red Wings in Detroit in the Conference Finals.

After his mind-boggling rookie year, Selanne scored over 50 goals just twice more, but his consistency as a 25-to-30-goal scorer puts him among the elite goal scorers in league history. In his 20 seasons previous to this one, Selanne has scored 20+ goals 17 times.

The “Finnish Flash” scored a goal in the Ducks’ last game, snapping a personal 19-game drought in that category which was the longest of his illustrious career.

Selanne, famously, wears no.8 for the Ducks.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Marc-Andre Fleury

What: Pittsburgh at Detroit
When: Saturday, December 14, 7:00pm (TV: NHLN-US; FSD)

Fleury

They call him “Flower,” although for many old-timers (like yours truly), the REAL “Flower” will always be Guy LaFleur.

But Marc-Andre Fleury is today’s Flower, and for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he continues to blossom every winter.

Fleury, 29, is entrenched better than ever as the Pens’ starting goalie, and he’s playing as good as ever.

Pittsburgh is off to a 22-10-1 start, and if it’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin doing the damage offensively, Fleury is putting the hurt on the opponents between the pipes.

Fleury has a 2.01 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He has already registered three shutouts this season, making his career total a healthy 26.

I was on the ice shortly after the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup at Joe Louis Arena, as Fleury led the Pens to two straight 2-1 victories after falling behind in the series, 3-2.

I asked Fleury, who was just 25 at the time, what the moment felt like, a year after the Red Wings beat Pittsburgh for the Cup.

Fleury gazed upon the celebration going on before us, with champagne being sprayed as the Cup switched hands from Penguin to Penguin.

“Amazing,” he finally stammered.

I asked him about the difference in feelings from a year prior.

“The lowest to the highest,” he said, still in shocked disbelief.

Fleury isn’t normally mentioned when the talk is of the NHL’s elite goalies, and perhaps part of that is because the Penguins annually put high-octane, talented teams on the ice. It’s a franchise that most folks feel doesn’t necessarily need a Hall of Fame goalie to support it.

The lack of respect that Fleury gets was highlighted last week, when some of the San Jose Sharks had some sharp criticism of Fleury, despite losing to Pittsburgh, 5-1.

But Fleury, nonetheless, has been one of the NHL’s most consistent netminders over the past six years.

Tonight, Fleury makes what had been a rare return to the place of his greatest triumph. Now that the Red Wings have moved to the Eastern Conference, Fleury will get more chances to gaze around JLA and recall that June night of 2009.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Valtteri Filppula

What: Detroit at Tampa Bay
When: Thursday, December 12, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

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He still wears that familiar no. 51, but he’s no Dick Butkus on the ice.

Valtteri Filppula plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning now, signed away from the Red Wings as a free agent last summer. The Red Wings didn’t particularly want to lose Filppula, but in today’s salary cap world, you can’t always keep everyone.

The Red Wings sure would like to have Filppula, a center, on their roster right about now.

First, injuries in Detroit have decimated the center position, with three of the four Red Wings starting centers (Henrik Zetterberg, Stephen Weiss and Darren Helm) spending time on the injured list already this season.

Second, Filppula’s “replacement,” free agent signee Weiss, has been less than spectacular, registering only four points thus far.

Filppula has 10 goals and 10 assists so far for Tampa this season, and seems to be fitting in nicely with his new team. Filppula spent eight seasons in Detroit, scoring an even 100 goals as a Red Wing. In the 2009 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Filppula scored 16 points, including 13 assists.

Here are some words about Filppula from one of his new teammates and his coach, Jon Cooper.

“I think he kind of got lost in the shuffle for a while in Detroit, with all the great players they’ve had,’’ Steven Stamkos said. “He’s really getting to showcase the skill set he brings game in and game out. I knew he had that skill, but to see the calmness that he plays with, to see the poise he has with the puck, he’s a very smart player. He’s fit in great.’’

Cooper said Filppula has exceeded expectations on and off the ice.

“He’s brought stability in the second (center spot),’’ Cooper said. “I think we just underestimated his quiet calm. He’s not your vocal guy in the room, but he’s a leader. I think he just calms everybody down when he has the puck. He’s poised under pressure all day. He’s been great for our team, especially with all the young guys we have.’’

Though Val has slowed a little from his, ahem, lightning-fast start in Tampa, he is still third on the team in scoring, behind Stamkos (who is likely out for the season with a broken leg) and team leader Martin St. Louis.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Tim Thomas

What: Detroit at Florida
When: Tuesday, December 10, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

Tim Thomas

You look at Tim Thomas’ age and figure he must be in his 15th NHL season by now.

After all, Thomas, the #1 goalie for the Florida Panthers, will be 40 years old in April.

Yet the Davison, MI native is only in his 8th NHL season. How does that happen?

Thomas is a throwback, and where he throws back to, is former Red Wings goalie Roy Edwards.

Thomas made his NHL debut as a 28-year-old with the Boston Bruins in 2002. Edwards, who was a serviceable if not spectacular goalie on some mediocre Red Wings teams, was an NHL rookie at the ripe age of 30 in 1967.

Edwards, bothered by dizziness from fracturing his skull with the Red Wings in the 1970-71 season, finally had to retire by 1973, at age 36. He played just six NHL seasons.

Thomas is a throwback because in Edwards’ day, it was not uncommon for skaters and goalies alike to wallow in the minor leagues for years before getting their shot at the NHL. Edwards was drafted when the league consisted of just six teams. That’s 12 NHL goalies, total. Not easy to crack those dozen. It wasn’t a coincidence that Edwards finally made it to the NHL after the league doubled in size. The expansion draft cleared roster spots on the Original Six teams.

Thomas was drafted by the old Quebec Nordiques in 1994, a 9th round pick after playing one season of college hockey at the University of Vermont. He was 20 when he was drafted.

But Thomas played nothing higher than AHL hockey for nearly eight years, with some stops in Finland and Sweden along the way. His rights had been transferred from Quebec (which became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995) to Edmonton, and finally to Boston, when the Bruins signed Thomas as a 28-year-old free agent in the summer of 2002.

But even after his dream of playing in the NHL had been realized, Thomas still didn’t stick in the league. He played just four games with the Bruins in 2002-03, then again bounced around in the minors, with Providence. In 2004, it was back to Finland to play 54 games for Jokerit Helsinki.

It wasn’t until the 2005-06 season when Tim Thomas, at age 31, had finally become a starting goalie in the NHL, with the Bruins. This time, he was staying.

Twice he has led the league in save percentage (2009 and 2011) and he backstopped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, posting a .940 save pct. and a 1.98 GAA during the playoffs. Thomas’ performance in the post-season earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. At age 37, Thomas became the oldest winner of the trophy.

But Thomas still had one more exile left in him, and this one was self-imposed. First, he drew controversy when he refused to appear in the White House with his Bruins teammates to recognize the Cup victory, because he opposed President Obama’s politics. Then, after the 2011-12 season, Thomas took a break from hockey.

In January 2013 (lockout year), Thomas was suspended by the Bruins for refusing to report for training camp. He was subsequently traded to the NY Islanders but never played a game for them, as his contract had expired before he could suit up. A free agent, Thomas signed with Florida on a tryout in September and ended up not only making the team, but was installed as the #1 goalie by the Panthers.

So here we are—a 39-year-old goalie playing in just his 8th NHL season.

To quote the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Oh, and Thomas is a throwback in another way—his cage mask, which isn’t quite as plain as the one Chris Osgood used to wear, but is still a little behind the times.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Jaromir Jagr

What: Detroit at New Jersey
When: Friday, December 6, 7:00pm (TV: RDS, FSD)

Jagr

The leading points-getter for the New Jersey Devils is 41 years old and is running away with team scoring honors. It is debatable whether this is a feel-good story or a tragedy for the Devils.

Jaromir Jagr is a Hall of Fame-bound player, but it wasn’t expected that he would be, far and away, the most prolific scorer for the Devils this season, when New Jersey signed him to a one-year deal on July 22, 2013.

That’s usually not what you hope for when you sign 40+ year-old players to one-year contracts.

But Jagr, who has played in every one of the Devils’ 29 games this season, has 11 goals and 11 assists, and his 22 points is only challenged by 37 year-old Patrick Elias, who has 15 points (6g/9a).

In fact, the Devils’ top six scorers are, in age, 41/37/36/31/33/35 years old, respectively. That’s an average age of over 35.

It also may partially explain the Devils’ 11-12-6 record thus far this season.

But back to Jagr.

This is a man who disappeared from the NHL for three years (2008-11) while he played for Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. He did so while being paid the equivalent of $5 million US dollars per year.

Jagr’s exile was self-imposed after he couldn’t come to terms with the New York Rangers after the 2007-08 season. Stating a need to take a break from the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule, Jagr at age 36 left the league and played overseas, enjoying lots of success in the KHL. He was named Avangard Omsk’s team captain in 2009.

But despite eventually being away from North America for three years, it only took Jagr one year of KHL hockey before he professed an interest to return to the NHL. Still, Jagr didn’t ink another NHL contract until July, 2011, when he signed  a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Red Wings were among the teams that were kicking the tires on Jagr when he came back from exile. Jagr proved he could still play NHL hockey, scoring 19 goals in 73 games with the Flyers.

In 2012, Jagr signed yet another one-year deal, this time with Dallas. But the lockout meant that Jagr would only play 34 games with the Stars (14g/12a) before Dallas traded him to Boston on April 2, 2013.

So here we are, with Jagr operating on still another one-year deal—the Devils being his fourth NHL team in a little more than three years.

By his production so far, it is apparent that no. 68 still has a nose for the net, and that even at age 41, Jagr is still a load with his 6’3″, 240-lb. frame.

But expect those scoring numbers to fall off, as Devils coach Peter DeBoer went on record earlier this week stating that the team was playing Jagr too much.

Jagr is averaging nearly 19 minutes of ice time per night, but has played several games lately at over 20 minutes.

“I didn’t expect he’d be able to take the kind of work load we’ve given him so far,” DeBoer said. “Frankly, in my mind, we’re playing him too much. We’re overplaying him and a few other forwards, partly because of depth and injuries. We need some secondary guys to step up and help some of those guys out.”

Factor in that Jagr is a prime candidate to play in the Olympics in 2014, and you can see why DeBoer is cautious about Jagr’s workload with the Devils.

Regardless, DeBoer can’t say enough about the 41-year-old future Hall of Famer.

“He’s been a great surprise. He’s been great to work with, a good team player. He’s bought into our system and our style of play and our identity. He makes other players better.”

Spotlight on the Opponent: Wayne Simmonds

What: Philadelphia at Detroit
When: Wednesday, December 4, 8:00 p.m. (TV: NBCSN)

Wayne Simmonds

Wayne Simmonds would have fit in very nicely with the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” teams of the mid-to-late-1970s.

Simmonds is a Flyer of today—6’2″, 210 pounds of toughness mixed in with some scoring punch, along with some fist punches.

Simmonds is 25 years old but has already played in almost 400 NHL games. He debuted with the LA Kings in 2008 as a 20-year-old.

In those nearly 400 games, which equate to about five full NHL seasons, Simmonds has averaged 17 goals and 102 penalty minutes for every 80 games played.

Those are numbers that would have been perfect complements to scorers like MacLeish, Clarke, Leach, et al, back in the day.

Simmonds is like the Paul Holmgren or Mel Bridgman of today’s Flyers, to invoke the names of two franchise players of the past whose combination of scoring pop and grit helped make those Flyers teams the bane of the NHL.

Simmonds busted out, offensively, in 2011-12 when he pumped in 28 goals in his first season as a Flyer, having been traded by the Kings to Philly in June 2011. The deal netted the Kings Mike Richards.

Simmonds’ nickname is the Wayne Train. He was born in Scarborough, Ontario. Despite growing up close to Toronto, Simmonds, who is of Black Nova Scotia descent, has said he was a fan of the Red Wings as a youngster.

Last month, with the Flyers freefalling, Simmonds’ name popped up in trade rumors, supposedly with the Edmonton Oilers. He read them, but didn’t let the trade talk bother him. Instead, he focused on his current team, not one that he might be traded to.

“We’ve got a good squad in here,” Simmonds was quoted on Delawareonline.com. “ The onus is on us to play. We’ve already had a coaching change. It’s time that the players start owning up to what’s going on here. We’ve got to be responsible.”

Simmonds wears no. 17 for the Flyers.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Paul MacLean

What: Red Wings at Ottawa
When: Sunday, December 1, 5:30pm (TV: FSD)

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He’s the partial answer to an infamous Red Wings trivia question, but I bet there’s something else about Paul MacLean that you don’t know.

Like, that he was born in France, and didn’t move to Canada until he was two years old?

But clearly what most people know about MacLean, the Ottawa Senators coach, is that he was one-quarter of one of the worst trades in Red Wings history.

MacLean was a perennial 30-goal scorer (sometimes 40) that the Red Wings had acquired from the Winnipeg Jets after the 1987-88 season for Brent Ashton. But MacLean played just one season for Detroit, scoring 36 goals (often playing RW on Steve Yzerman’s line), before The Trade happened.

In one of GM Jimmy Devellano’s worst moves ever, MacLean and C Adam Oates were shipped to St. Louis for aging C Bernie Federko and RW Tony McKegney.

Hockeytown still talks about the trade, like Tigers fans bring up John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander ad nauseam.

Then MacLean returned to Detroit, as an assistant under Mike Babcock, in 2005.

When MacLean left Detroit the second time, in 2011, it was under much happier circumstances for Red Wings fans, for MacLean had assisted Babcock to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and almost another a year later.

MacLean is in his third season at the helm of the Senators. His overall record is 75-60-20. He’s 8-9 in the playoffs.