Darren McCarty wasn’t the most elegant of hockey players.
He was the bull in the proverbial china shop. He was brawn over beauty.
McCarty didn’t skate his wing, he patrolled it. He punched first and asked questions later. On many a night, he was judge, jury and executioner. He especially liked to be the latter.
But for one shining moment in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, McCarty was a virtuoso.
McCarty was one-fourth of the Red Wings’ heralded Grind Line, and if you’re wondering how a hockey line could be chopped up into quarters, that’s because the Grind Line was actually populated by McCarty, Joey Kocur, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, who took turns filling up the three spots at various times.
McCarty wowed the Joe Louis Arena crowd on the night of June 7, 1997.
It was Game 4 of the Cup Finals, with the Red Wings going for the sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Red Wings led, 1-0 in the second period, when McCarty took a pass from Tomas Sandstrom at center ice.
McCarty was known for his stickhandling ability the same way Donald Trump is known for his couth.
Yet McCarty suddenly turned into a maestro with the puck, turning Flyers defenseman Janne Niinimaa completely inside out with a left to right move, slipping the disc between Niinimaa’s legs, leaving McCarty 1-on-1 with goalie Ron Hextall.
McCarty didn’t stop with the Niinimaa move; he lured Hextall out of the crease with a deke to the left before dragging the puck to his right. The result was an open net, into which McCarty neatly deposited the puck to give the Red Wings a 2-0 lead.
The goal turned out to be the Cup-clincher, as the Red Wings held on for a 2-1 win and their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
A year later, Grind Linemate Draper scored another iconic Red Wings goal in the Cup Finals.
It was Game 2 against the Washington Capitals—Detroit won Game 1—and the Red Wings twice fell behind by two goals in the third period at JLA.
But the Red Wings managed to get the game into overtime.
With about 15 minutes gone in overtime, the Red Wings were dangerous deep in the Capitals zone. Draper, his legs fresh, jumped onto the ice while Brendan Shanahan and Marty Lapointe, their legs not fresh, wreaked havoc. The puck went into the corner and so did Shanny and Lapointe.
Draper floated into the slot area, and Lapointe found him with a perfect pass that Draper redirected past Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig.
Game over. Red Wings led the series, 2-0 on their way to yet another sweep to the Cup.
In Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, Kocur, who had been basically playing in a beer league earlier in the season, scored a goal in Philadelphia that got the Red Wings started.
Maltby, the other Grind Liner, scored 14 goals in the ’97-98 season and was no stranger to chipping in with some offense when needed.
Calling the Grind Line a so-called fourth line is really a disservice. They weren’t the Production Line, but nor were they a black hole on offense.
I’m flipping the “on” switch to the way back machine for you in light of the Red Wings’ odd summer of defection, free agency and contract extensions that in some cases are puzzling.
One such head scratcher was the extension of Luke Glendening to a four-year, $7.2 million contract, announced in mid-July.
I may be late to the party on this but it’s never too late to talk about what the Grind Line meant to the Red Wings of yesteryear, and how that can’t be replicated with today’s group of plugging forwards.
Besides, with training camp about a month away and the off-season rapidly draining, it’s time to take inventory of what the Red Wings did to improve themselves from last year’s team that sneaked into the playoffs in the season’s final hours, only to once again be ousted in the first round.
In the case of Glendening, one has to wonder, indeed.
With the original Grind Line, you got not only toughness and tenacity, you got some offense as well.
McCarty could pop in 15 goals a season. Maltby did it a couple of times. Draper scored 10 or more goals in a season six times, including 24 in 2003-04. Kocur didn’t score a ton but the quality of his goals reverberated way more than the quantity. That, plus I never saw Joey Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Ever.
Glendening is a nice hockey player. He brings you some defense, some face off ability and a nose that is hard. He’ll kill some penalties.
He won’t give you any offense.
That’s not his game, of course, but the Red Wings are starved for goal scoring. They’re not going to penalty kill their way to winning hockey games.
The late-1990s Grind Line could intimidate. The Grind Line could frustrate.
But, more importantly, the Grind Line could score the occasional goal—and sometimes more than occasionally.
Red Wings GM Kenny Holland seems intent on locking up players that don’t need to be locked up, especially when there are players in Grand Rapids—ironically, that’s Glendening’s hometown—who could probably do the same thing that Glendening does for a much cheaper price.
The Red Wings, once again, showed their “we’re loyal to a fault” ways by inking Glendening, 27, through the 2020-21 season.
“There are things a player brings to a team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists, and that’s what Luke is,” Holland mused after the Glendening extension was announced.
“He’s a really good defensive player, has the ability to play 16-18 minutes against other team’s best players. He’s fearless. He’s a tremendous penalty killer. He brings intangibles.”
Fine. But two things make this a flawed argument for the extension.
One, see above. The Red Wings need goal scoring, not what “a player brings to team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists.” The Red Wings are in desperate need of goals and assists.
Two, the Red Wings’ success in keeping the puck out of their own net—which runs neck-and-neck with goal scoring among the team’s most pressing needs—is far more attached to the quality of their defensemen than it is to that of their puck hounding forwards.
You could have four lines of Luke Glendenings, all Selke Trophy candidates, and it won’t mean a hill of beans if the guys on the blue line can’t play.
And the Red Wings, as of right now, plan to go to Traverse City next month with essentially the same defense corps as what played most of last season. Except—bonus!—everyone is a year older.
Doesn’t that make you warm and fuzzy inside?
There could be some infusion of youth on the blue line, however.
Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko are two defensemen—age 23 and 24 respectively—who might see more ice with the Red Wings in 2016-17. But with the extension of Danny DeKeyser, the over-reliance on ancient Niklas Kronwall, the odd loyalty to 32 year-old Jonathan Ericsson and with soon-to-be 31 year-old Mike Green just one year removed from signing a big free agent deal in Detroit, where will Ouellet and Marchenko find that time?
Don’t forget Brendan Smith, who figures to be in the mix as well. Kyle Quincey wasn’t offered a contract and is still out there, unsigned.
The days of keeping third and fourth line guys together for years have passed. Except in Detroit, where management loves to unnecessarily reward the “intangible” guys like Glendening, Drew Miller, et al.
The Red Wings seem to bid against themselves a lot. If we all woke up one morning and found out that Luke Glendening had signed with Montreal, for example, would we lose sleep the subsequent night?
But Holland loves to make sure that guys like Glendening will never, ever play for another NHL team for as long as they lace up skates.
I’m not anti-Luke Glendening. I don’t come to bury him.
But you don’t need to lock guys like that, up. You let them walk if they don’t fit into your budget, and you go find younger, cheaper alternatives.
The Red Wings’ problems go way, way deeper than Luke Glendening and players of his ilk.
Holland paid too little attention to the Red Wings’ blue line this off season. However, he can save some face if Ouellet and/or Marchenko become prime contributors this season. But at whose expense?
The Red Wings have too much money sunk into their goalies, they got rooked financially in the Pavel Datsyuk debacle, they’re paying for too many bad contracts and all the while, too many players are stewing in their own juices in Grand Rapids.
But Luke Glendening will be a Red Wing for the next four years.
Glendening himself said it best.
“If you’d have told me two or three years ago that I’d be sitting here talking about a four-year extension, I probably would have laughed.”
But this is no laughing matter if you’re a Red Wings fan.