Red Wings’ best player right now? It’s precocious rookie Larkin

The Red Wings’ best player wasn’t even born when Colorado’s Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.

Let that sink in for a moment. I’ll wait.

It’s almost incomprehensible to think that, not even two months ago, there was hand-wringing over whether Dylan Larkin should be included on the Red Wings’ opening night roster.

Right now, Larkin is making this NHL thing look easy; forget what he might have done to the American Hockey League. They would have banned him, like a casino would with an expert card counter.

Larkin is the 19 year-old who on many nights is the best player on the ice for the Red Wings, who are riding his wave to the tune of a 7-0-3 streak in their past 10 games.

In NHL parlance, it’s a polite way of saying that a team is 7-3 in its last ten, but still, it’s a nice streak.

Larkin leads the league in plus/minus, and no matter what you think of that flawed statistic, whenever you lead the league in anything that’s deemed positive, it’s a good thing.

When you do so as a teenager, it’s even better.

Larkin, the kid from Waterford who last year was wearing Maize and Blue and a full face mask, continues to amaze with his hockey instincts, which belie his tender age.

If you didn’t know better, watching Larkin play, you’d think no.71 was a wily veteran.

His passes are threaded like a tailor. His game is awash with deftness. He glides around the ice as if he owns the rink. He has the confidence of a seasoned cat burglar.

And he’s 19.

Forget the Calder Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s Rookie of the Year—and which Larkin just might win next summer.

The kid might want to clear some space for a Hart Trophy. Or two.

The Hart goes to the league MVP, and no Red Wing has won that since Sergei Fedorov in 1994.

Four Stanley Cups have been won since then, but never have the Red Wings had a serious candidate for the Hart Trophy.

That has been a testament to the multitude of great hockey players that have passed through Detroit over the past two decades.

The Red Wings Way—and the path to that quartet of Cups—has never been to rely on one stud player. The Red Wings won by coming at you in waves. If they were a baseball team, their batting order would be lethal, one through nine.

Hence no league MVPs despite the overwhelming team success.

I’m not saying that Dylan Larkin is a no-brainer as an MVP candidate down the line, but he seems to already possess the ingredients.

He scores. He assists. He’s the best player on the ice on many nights. His hockey IQ is in the vicinity of genius.

And the Red Wings are, arguably, being led by him right now.

Larkin is tied for the team lead in points (21, with Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Tatar), but his plus-19 rating is 13 ahead of the next highest (Jonathan Ericsson).

Larkin leads the Red Wings in game-winning goals (3), even strength goals (11) and just plain goals (again, 11). His only weakness seems to be on the power play, where he hasn’t put the puck into the net—yet.

Larkin leads the team in shots on goal and, if they kept such a statistic, he would lead in Smiles Put on the Faces of Fans.

We’re not used to this in Detroit when it comes to our hockey.

The Red Wings have always been about grizzle, not peach fuzz.

On Opening Night, Larkin became the first teenager to crack the Red Wings roster out of training camp in 25 years.

He came out of the gate playing as if he’d been in the NHL for a decade: whip smart ice presence, composure, patience and guile, all beyond his years.

There’s also the physical gifts that Larkin possesses—and which you either have or you don’t—such as speed, power skating ability, and more upper body strength than I originally thought he had.

Some folks wonder if Larkin will hit the so-called rookie “wall,” because playing a truncated schedule in college is nothing like the 82-game grind of the NHL.

True, but Larkin is 19. He’ll never have more energy in his life than right now.

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 17: Dylan Larkin #71of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens  in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin is one-third through what could be a Calder season.

The Red Wings, with the addition of Larkin to the mix, are continuing to shout down the naysayers who, a few years ago, thought this team was on a collision course with a mini-rebuild.

One of the naysayers is banging this out on his keyboard right now.

How foolish of us to doubt the Red Wings’ crack staff of procurers of personnel, who scavenge the Earth from Flin Flon to Omsk year-round, trying to find the next Pavel Datsyuk or even the next Joakim Andersson.

And just like that, the roster is filled with the likes of Tatar and Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan up front, and Danny DeKeyser, Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith on the blue line—all to complement the veteran presence that is still very strong in the Winged Wheel.

And there’s Dylan Larkin.

The Red Wings are being led on many nights by a kid.

The entire NHL is being led by him, in the plus/minus category.

The question no longer is, Should Dylan Larkin make the Red Wings out of training camp?

It’s, Where would they be without him?

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Howard Will Be Playoff Starter, But For How Long?

The 43-year-old goalie, destined someday for Hall of Fame enshrinement, was losing his mojo at the worst possible time.

It was the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008. The Red Wings had carried a 2-0 series lead into Nashville and advancement into the conference semi-finals seemed assured.

But then Dominik Hasek imploded.

Hasek gave up two relatively soft goals in the third period of Game 3, nine seconds apart, turning a 3-2 Red Wings lead into a 4-3 deficit, just like that.

In Game 4, Hasek was again shaky, letting in two goals within 32 seconds in the first period, then when the Red Wings scored in the second period to make the score 2-1, Hasek let another puck slip by him just eleven seconds later. The Predators won and tied the series, 2-2.

The Red Wings left Nashville, surrendering their series lead and with the Predators brimming with confidence.

Confidence is what Hasek, despite his age and wealth of experience, lacked.

The Red Wings were suddenly in a tricky first-round series against an inferior opponent. It wasn’t the first time.

Six years earlier, the Vancouver Canucks stormed into Detroit and won the first two games of that first round series. Hasek was in goal for that one, too, and he didn’t play well.

Coach Scotty Bowman stuck with Hasek in that series, and the star-studded Red Wings rallied to win four straight over the Canucks. Six weeks later, the Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions—and Hasek was among the brightest of stars.

But Hasek was 37 in 2002 and he was 43 in 2008, with his confidence waning.

Coach Mike Babcock openly complained about the pucks going into the Detroit net as the Red Wings prepared for Game 5 of the Nashville series.

So Babcock, not one to bow to sentiment or to misplaced loyalty, made a change in net for Game 5.

Babcock summoned Chris Osgood, a two-time Cup winner, and inserted Ozzie between the pipes.

The change was not taken lightly. Switching goalies in the middle of a playoff series, especially with a team that had high hopes like the Red Wings in 2008, carried great risk.

Osgood was brilliant as the Red Wings won Game 5 in overtime. And Osgood was good the rest of the way, as Hasek never started another playoff game. The Red Wings won another Cup—10 years after Ozzie led the Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

It says here that Babcock’s decision to replace a future Hall of Fame goalie, in the middle of a first round playoff series, is among the most courageous coaching moves in Detroit sports history.

It also says here that Red Wings fans shouldn’t be surprised if Babcock pulls another 2008-like move this spring.

The playoffs are nigh. And the crooked eye is being turned on goalie Jimmy Howard. Again.

Howard suffered through an uneven (being kind) season last year. Some might say he was downright awful at times.

But the soon-to-be 31 year-old (March 26) Howard started this season as if on a mission, and he was rightly lauded for bouncing back strong.

That was then.

Lately, Howard is making fans nervous. He’s not as sharp as he was earlier in the season.

Adding to the angst is the thought that young backup Petr Mrazek, who’s played well in his 21 games with the Red Wings, might be the one who ought to start in the playoffs.

That notion is far-fetched, but the motivation behind it is understandable.

Howard, frankly, deserves to start in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s earned that right. The Red Wings aren’t paying him millions to take a seat in favor of a rookie, for gosh sakes.

But don’t be taken aback if Babcock shows little patience with Howard and does a switcheroo. In the middle of a series.

It might not even be so much an anti-Howard move as a pro-Mrazek one.

Babcock loves Mrazek’s swagger. He loves it that the 23-year-old Czech firmly believes that he will be a star in the NHL. And the coach has liked what he’s seen from Mrazek in spot duty.

It may not be this spring, but sometime in the near future, Petr Mrazek will be the Red Wings’ no. 1 goaltender. That seems to be the track on which the Red Wings have the Czech.

Mrazek might not play a minute in the playoffs this spring. That wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, because it would mean that Jimmy Howard is doing OK.

But Howard, once again, has to earn trust—of the fans and, more importantly, of the coach.

Or else Babcock might summon his inner 2008.

Don’t be surprised.

I’m baaaack! (and so are the Red Wings)

Welcome to another season of Red Wings hockey, and another season of The Winged Wheeler.

Your fearless host has taken on additional (paid!) writing assignments since starting this blog last fall, so in the interest of time management, I am streamlining things this season at The Winged Wheeler.

Here’s what you can expect to see here this season:

1. Columns. There will be the occasional 1000-worder to keep you on the edge of your seat. At least with the Internet, you can’t use columns that you don’t like to line the bottom of the bird cage!

2. Nostalgia. You can’t be 51 years old and resist the urge to post about the old days. So be on the lookout for some random nods to the past, when appropriate and relevant. Could be old photos, could be some stream of consciousness memories. You’ll just have to wait and see!

3. A look back at the 1954-55 team. Prior to the Stanley Cup win in 1997, the Red Wings hadn’t captured hockey’s biggest prize since 1955. Remember the 42-year drought that Steve Yzerman and company ended? This season marks the 60th anniversary of Gordie Howe’s Cup-winning squad. So every week throughout the season, TWW will spotlight a player from that 1954-55 team. Pretty cool, eh? Expect those spotlights every Monday morning.

4. Links to relevant stories and articles. Why should I do all the work? So I will feed you links to articles and stories of interest—not only to Red Wings fans, but to hockey fans in general.

Here’s to a great season!

Playoffs Or Not This Year, Red Wings Set Up Nicely For the Future

The applause was thunderous. Big Bob Probert was back.

The date was March 22, 1990. And Probert was making his season debut for the Red Wings after yet another battle in the courts—the one type of fight that no. 24 could rarely seem to win.

Probert, the bruising forward with fists of granite, had been suspended by the NHL, concurrent with his incarceration after being found in possession of cocaine in the summer of 1989 at the Detroit-Windsor border. When Probert’s time in prison and a halfway house was over, the league granted him permission to play again.

Probert’s return in March of 1990 coincided with the Red Wings’ desperate attempt to qualify for the playoffs. His presence was hoped to provide some sort of boost to the team’s post-season chances. Only six games remained in the season when Probie came back, and the Red Wings were a handful of points out of a playoff berth.

The Red Wings were in fifth place in the five-team Norris Division at a time when the top four clubs in each division made the playoffs. The team directly above the Red Wings in the standings, the Minnesota North Stars, were in town when Probert stepped onto the ice for the Red Wings for the first time in nearly a year.

Despite the cheers, despite the electricity in Joe Louis Arena, Probert’s return couldn’t help the Red Wings, who lost that night to the North Stars, 5-1.

The Red Wings went 1-4-1 in their supposed playoff push, and missed the tournament by six points. Probert played in four of those games, registering three points and, naturally, 21 penalty minutes.

Those final six games, with the Red Wings welcoming Probert back for a push, represent the last time the regular season drained away without a team from Detroit making the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The playoff streak almost ended last year during the lockout-shortened 48-game season, but a four-game winning string to close the schedule lifted the Red Wings into the post-season.

It appears that another frantic, late-season push is going to be needed for the Red Wings to extend their playoff-making streak to 23 years.

But whether the Red Wings squeeze in or not, the future looks much brighter now than it did before Thanksgiving.

The infusion of youth, mostly necessary due to injuries, should give Red Wings fans reason for optimism. The water bottle is half-full, not half-empty.

The playoffs would be terrific, of course, and not just because of The Streak.

It would be wonderful to give the likes of Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan a taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, for example.

Not that Tatar, especially, is foreign to post-season hockey as a professional. He scored 16 goals in 24 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins last spring, en route to the Calder Cup as American Hockey League champion. Sheahan played in 24 playoff games for the Griffins last year as well.

But with all due respect to the AHL, which has been a fine minor league for the NHL for decades, those playoffs can’t truly compare to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Red Wings may not be able to give their kids, who have done so much for the team this season, a dose of playoffs, NHL-style, this spring. In fact, given the team’s youth and thinness because of injuries to key players, the playoffs are unlikely.

It would be an upset if the Red Wings qualified. Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss in Columbus, which featured a third period collapse, is more representative of who the Red Wings are at this point.

Playoffs or no playoffs, it doesn’t matter.

The Red Wings’ future is brighter for all the regular season experience the kids are getting, which should make the team much deeper when everyone gets healthy and reports to Traverse City for training camp in September.

 

 

 

Breaking: Red Wings Acquire David Legwand from Nashville

Minutes ahead of today’s 3pm trade deadline, the Red Wings acquired center David Legwand from the Nashville Predators.

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According to TSN’s Gord Miller via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, the Red Wings are sending forward Patrick Eaves, a third-round draft pick and a prospect to be named to Nashville for Legwand, a Detroit native who’s played his entire 15-year career as a Predator. In fact, Legwand is technically an original Pred, having joined the team as an 18-year-old in Nashville’s maiden NHL season of 1998-99.

DAVID LEGWAND STATS

The Red Wings were in desperate need of depth at center due to season-ending back surgery for captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk’s trick left knee.

Legwand, 33, is in the last year of his contract and can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. In 62 games this season with Nashville, Legwand had 10 goals and 30 assists. He shoots left.

Trade Deadline: Today’s Wings Not As Willing to Trade Youth

In Toronto, it was quite evident when Larry Murphy was bringing the puck up the ice. All you needed to do was listen to the boos.

It was March, 1997, and Murphy, the veteran defenseman who already had his name inscribed twice on the Stanley Cup, was playing for a bad Maple Leafs team. The fan base, for reasons unclear, chose to use Murphy as its whipping boy for the team’s travails.

Murphy, 36 years old at the time, was treated viciously by frustrated Leafs fans who were staring down the barrel of a playoff-less year for the first time since 1992. 

The Red Wings swept in and essentially stole Murphy from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline in 1997. The trade is officially listed as Murphy to Detroit for “future considerations” at Hockey-Reference.com.

What those future considerations turned out to be, no one seems to know.

Murphy joined the Red Wings, escaping the hell in Toronto, and helped Detroit snap a 42-year Stanley Cup drought less than three months later. A year hence, Murphy and the Red Wings won another Cup—Murphy’s fourth.

Back in 2007, on the night the Red Wings retired Steve Yzerman’s number, I saw Murphy in the team’s Alumni Suite at Joe Louis Arena. And I asked him what went wrong in Toronto.

He shrugged and wasn’t bothered by it, even if he couldn’t explain it.

“Ah, fans will be fans,” he told me, clearly having forgiven the Leafs faithful who booed him unmercifully ten years prior.

“It worked out pretty well,” he added with a grin.

Indeed.

Today’s NHL trade deadline is likely to come and go without the Red Wings making a move, despite their rather desperate situation—veteran stars injured and having to rely on kids to extend their playoff streak to 23 years.

The Red Wings are likely to stand pat because of that youth, which is serving them well now and figures to do so for many years to come. Unlike the Cup-winning teams from 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, today’s Wings team embraces its young players rather than seriously considering using them as bargaining chips.

Gone are the days of when Murphy was acquired, which was in the heyday of Red Wings GM Ken Holland trading little-known, little-used, little-needed players, re: young guys, for capable veterans.

The Red Wings want into the playoffs, of course, but not at the expense of a cache of players like Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan, which other teams are going to want Detroit to package to acquire someone like Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler or Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

The deadline is at 3:00 p.m. today. Stay tuned, but not with the same anticipation of years gone by.

 

 

Game 52: Red Wings-Florida Enotes

The Red Wings lost a hockey game tonight, but they may have gained a future.

The kid trio of Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan were exciting, buzzing all over the ice, scoring goals, preventing others, and darn near led the Red Wings to victory. As it was, the Florida Panthers erased a two-goal deficit late in the third period and beat Detroit in a shootout, 5-4 at JLA.

It was a disappointing end to a 3-1-1 home stand, but the rookie line showed what Red Wings fans might be in for going forward—a tenacious, speedy, creative line that could give opponents fits in the near future.

The line combined for five points and was easily the best trio of forwards on the ice for the Red Wings (23-18-11).

It was Tatar’s 12th goal with 6:27 left that gave Detroit a 4-2 lead and it looked like the Red Wings would complete a 4-1 home stand with wins over Florida, Chicago, Los Angeles and Montreal.

But the Panthers struck twice in less than three minutes, the latter being a shorthanded goal to tie the game.

Sheahan, who showed his high hockey IQ all night on both ends of the ice, scored a pretty goal at 18:15 of the second period to give Detroit a 3-1 lead.

On the power play, Sheahan—the Red Wings’ first round draft pick in 2010—camped out to the left of Florida goalie Tim Thomas, waving his left-handed stick for Tatar to see from the point. Tatar delivered the pass onto the tape, and Sheahan, in one motion, whipped around to his forehand, made a move on Thomas, and neatly slipped the puck into the net.

It was a goal you’d expect from a crafty veteran, not a 22-year-old kid playing in his 14th NHL game.

So it was a loss, but the Red Wings got a much-needed point, and more importantly, saw the silver lining to the cloud that has been their injury bug—that lining coming in the form of three youngsters who might turn this city on before too long.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: You can’t let two-goal leads slip away, especially at home, with six minutes to play, when you’re scratching and clawing for a playoff spot.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The refs missed a blatant high stick leveled on Tatar late in the third period, a whack that drew blood on no. 21’s forehead. The Red Wings power play, which had been buzzing all night, might have sealed the deal had the call been made. Tatar was caught by FSD cameras incredulously complaining to any zebra that came within earshot.