Blashill must go, but that should just be the start

Kenny Holland has done a lot of things since becoming Red Wings manager—the hockey people don’t put “general” in front of it—in 1997.

He’s made trades. He’s signed free agents. He’s hired scouts. He’s given jobs to former Red Wings left and right—including to fourth line players.

He’s hired three coaches.

But there’s one thing that Holland hasn’t done.

He hasn’t fired a coach.

I don’t count Dave Lewis, by the way.

Lewis, who was elevated from assistant to head coach after the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, coached the Red Wings for two seasons. Then the NHL had its lockout, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

During that time period, Holland quietly ate Lewis’ contract and brought in Mike Babcock to coach, starting in 2005-06.

That’s not a true firing.

The Red Wings haven’t given a coach the ziggy since December 30, 1985, when Harry Neale was relieved of his duties—and relieved is the right word—and replaced by Brad Park.

Jimmy Devellano was the GM in those days. Holland was in his first season as a western scout for the Red Wings, having hung up his goalie pads the previous spring.

Holland has never fired a coach. You wonder if he knows how.

I’m not being facetious here.

To some front office folks, knowing when to can a coach has a certain feel to it. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it’s time to make a change.

Does Holland have that knack? We don’t know, because he’s never had to do it before.

The Red Wings are off on a lengthy road trip. They play 10 of their next 11 games away from Joe Louis Arena, which used to be a house of horrors for the visiting team but is now horrifying to the guys wearing the Winged Wheel.

Jeff Blashill is likely to return from the next 11 games as coach of the Red Wings, just as he began the sojourn, despite the team’s woes over the past month.

But if there is a team that could use a new man behind the bench, it’s the Red Wings.

In full disclosure, I was on board with the Blashill hiring in the summer of 2015. I felt he was the best choice to replace the departed Babcock, given Blashill’s ties to the organization as coach of Grand Rapids of the AHL. He knew many of the current Red Wings (Blashill served one year on Babcock’s staff), so what the heck, why not?

It was another example of the Red Wings’ unfailing loyalty, which has turned into a double edged sword for the franchise in recent years.

But 114 games into the Blashill Era, the same bugaboos are there as existed when he took over.

The lack of shooting and driving to the net. The lack of desire in scoring dirty, ugly goals. Starting games, as Babcock used to say, not on time.

The blowing of third period leads, which has been mind-numbing.

In professional sports, of course, it often matters little if the players are deficient in talent or ability. The coach bites it anyway.

Players such as Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar (Saturday’s hat trick notwithstanding), Gus Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Jonathan Ericsson are either stagnant or are regressing. Or—and don’t say this too loud or Kenny might hear—they were never very good to begin with.

None of that will likely change if Holland decides to give Blashill the ziggy.

A new coach isn’t going to cure the deficiencies in talent. Casey Stengel was a great skipper when he managed the Yankees but not so good when he piloted the Mets. See how that works?

But whatever Blashill says he is preaching to his guys, it doesn’t seem to be getting through.

The coach complains of lack of shooting, yet the team continues not to shoot.

The coach says the power play needs to improve, yet it doesn’t.

The coach says the team needs to bear down more in the third period and not let leads slip away, yet they continue to vanish.

The lines get juggled constantly. Because there’s only so much a coach can do, you know.

The players don’t seem to be responding to whatever method Blashill is using to motivate them.

The fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply aren’t very good. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

But you don’t fire a coach because the team is lagging behind in talent. You fire a coach if effort, urgency and mental strength appear lacking.

The Red Wings finally got the message—or so we hope—in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Anaheim.

Most of the goals were scored within five feet of the crease. The Red Wings pounded home rebounds. They scored ugly, playoff-type goals.

Can somebody please tell these guys that they’re not capable of scoring the same pretty, precision goals that Red Wings teams of yore used to score?

The game last Tuesday against Arizona was an indictment. The Coyotes were coming off a 7-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh the night before. The Red Wings were at home, rested.

The Coyotes buried the Wings, 4-1.

OK, so let’s see how they react two nights later against Los Angeles, folks said. That will be more telling than the Arizona game, because anyone can have a bad, uninterested night.

About 30 seconds into Thursday’s tilt against the Kings, the Red Wings trailed, 1-0. They lost, 4-1, and the fans got surly again, as they did on Tuesday.

The same old thing: abysmal power play, lack of shooting, yadda yadda.

Video surfaced recently of captain Henrik Zetterberg, miked up, talking to his teammates in the locker room after the Arizona game. The message was designed to be a scolding, but it wasn’t exactly Knute Rockne stuff.

The Red Wings organization used to hang its hat on its stability.

There was a time when the Red Wings were considered a model franchise.

But today, that same stability has morphed into a staleness that is keeping the franchise, I believe, from making some tough yet necessary decisions.

Firing the coach isn’t the panacea, of course. But it should be done. That’s not all that should happen, though.

The Red Wings need an enema. And I wonder if Holland: a) realizes that; or b) is interested in performing it.

That damn playoff streak.

Holland is tone deaf, and it’s hurting everyone—the organization and the fans alike.

The manager of the hockey team in Detroit is so wrapped up in the Red Wings’ playoff streak—every year since 1991—that he thinks everyone else is wrapped up in it, too.

If he’d only listen—or read—the fans in Hockeytown would be amenable to a flat out rebuild. They’d understand. In fact, they’ve been ready for a couple of years for such an exercise.

I believe that Kenny Holland’s pride is leading the Red Wings down a slippery slope.

He doesn’t want the playoff streak to end on his watch. The fans are ready, but he’s not.

As a result, hard decisions aren’t being made about the franchise’s direction.

Now, it’s one thing to declare that a rebuild is necessary, and quite another to actually pull it off.

The Red Wings are in a financial box with their contracts and the salary cap. Their inflexibility with the roster is an albatross.

Holland doesn’t have much to trade. Just about any player he moves, with the exception of Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, will be a case of selling low. Holland would be taking a bath.

Plus, in today’s NHL, midseason trades just aren’t very common anymore. Gone are the days of a December or February blockbuster that shakes the league to its core.

Holland can’t trade his way out of this and come away with anything more than draft picks or low level prospects. He alone is responsible for the financial mess the Red Wings are in.

But he has to do something, and what he has to do is not comfortable for an organization that is loathe to upset the apple cart.

Holland needs to, in no particular order: fire the coach; cut some veterans; give NHL jobs to current AHL players; and put a padlock on his boss’ checkbook and give someone else the key.

No more spending. Use the draft.

Am I talking about the team bottoming out? You betcha.

Babcock, when he arrived in Toronto to take over the Leafs behind the bench, didn’t mince words with the media and the fans who were clamoring for his hiring.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Babcock warned. “There’s going to be pain.”

Babs saw a sinking ship in Detroit. And that was before Pavel Datsyuk’s return to the motherland.

Yet he was willing to go to Toronto, because at least Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and company weren’t in denial. The Maple Leafs brass knew that a tear down and a rebuild were in order.

Holland seems unwilling to totally buy into the R-word and its need in Detroit.

“We have to find a way to score goals,” Holland said last week. “We’re not scoring goals the way we expected to be.”

See, that’s the problem. The Red Wings didn’t possess very many forwards on their roster that realistically could be expected to score a lot of goals to begin with. The ones that had, were regressing.

The line between loyalty and denial can be very fine in pro sports.

Hard decisions face the Red Wings right now.

Trouble is, the one man who can make them, refuses to acknowledge their need.

 

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Dylan Larkin: The Red Wings’ best player, by default (for now)

May 4, 2016

Just seven months ago, the question was, should Dylan Larkin be included in the Red Wings’ opening night roster, or should he be sent to Grand Rapids for some more seasoning?

Today, we ask, when can he take over as being the team’s most elite player?

Let’s hope ASAP is among the choices.

It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.

It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.

Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.

Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.

It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.

Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).

When the Red Wings move into shiny new Little Caesars Arena (I know, I know) in October of 2017, it would be nice to have a centerpiece on the roster. It would be even better to have a team capable of making a deep playoff run, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Because of a myriad of reasons, Larkin is now being asked, at least indirectly and not yet publicly, to be the Red Wings’ best player every night. He has no choice, because there’s no one else capable.

It’s so, so reminiscent of no. 19.

Stevie Yzerman, at age 19, was entering his second season with the Red Wings, and it wasn’t much longer after that, that Yzerman was anointed as being the team’s best player. At first it was by default, but then it became a no-brainer.

Right now, Larkin is the Red Wings’ best player, by default. Soon there won’t be anything defaulting about it.

This will be Larkin’s team, and the fortunes of it will turn as he turns. That’s not opinion.

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’s first half was better than his second, but both halves were better than just about everyone else’s.

 

The task now for GM Ken Holland and his scouting staff—both amateur and pro—is to surround Larkin with the supporting cast the kid needs to lessen his burden.

The Red Wings’ core should be reduced to Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Abdelkader, Zetterberg (for now), Anthony Mantha, goalie Petr Mrazek and defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.

Everyone else should be quite touchable, in trades and in cuts, if need be.

That’s a small core, granted, but I don’t see any other way to go about returning the Red Wings to their glory days.

In the meanwhile, Holland should try trades, an occasional low-profile free agent signing when money allows (no more big contracts for awhile) and continue to go to the draft well, which has served the team fairly decently in recent years.

It’s time now to stop waiting on the likes of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan et al to break through as top end players. Trade ’em all, if you can.

Keep the aforementioned core and work from there.

As for Larkin, this plan clearly broadens the young man’s shoulders by proxy, but all Stanley Cup-worthy teams have superstars. The Red Wings are not going to claw their way to the chalice with second tier forwards and grinders and a mediocre blue line corps. The league’s playoffs may sometimes be quirky and unpredictable, but they’re not set up to allow a superstar-less team to win it all.

Again, that’s not opinion.

It can’t all be Larkin, of course. The defensemen badly need a marquee guy as well. Niklas Kronwall has frayed so much that his nickname ought to be The Shadow. His minus-21 is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 5.43. Mike Green is OK but hardly elite.

Trading for or developing a true no. 1 defenseman is a necessary part of the rebuild. And yes, I used the r-word. Sue me.

Holland and his fellow front office suits won’t use the r-word, unless that r-word is “reboot” or “reload.”

It’s a rebuild because in a true reboot or reload, you’re keeping a majority of the roster and doing some tweaks, perhaps to replace stars who’ve left via free agency or who have retired.

In a reboot/reload, you have money to burn to go get another elite player.

This is a rebuild because the Red Wings only have a handful of players worth keeping. The others could be trade chips, if packaged the right way. So they still have some value, especially if packaged with prospects.

Whether Holland and company see the roster this way is the question that many Red Wings fans fear doesn’t have the answer that they would prefer.

But what simply can’t be up for debate is the notion that Dylan Larkin, already, before his 20th birthday, is the Red Wings’ best player.

For now, it’s by default.

But it won’t be that way for much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Wings: Hockeytown needs to brace itself

If the Red Wings were a prize fighter, they’d be Muhammad Ali—in 1980, after his bout with Larry Holmes.

Ali, 38 years old and with nothing left in the tank, was beaten badly by a reluctant Holmes, who didn’t even really want to fight The Greatest to begin with. Holmes knew that Ali was finished. But Ali insisted that he take on the fight, and Holmes used him as a punching bag for 11 rounds, before Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, threw in the towel.

The Red Wings are that boxer who everyone wants to retire, but who doesn’t know when to quit. You know the one—the guy who’s a shell of his past but he just can’t resist lacing on the gloves and giving it another shot.

On Thursday night, the 25th straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs ended the way the previous three of the last four did—with the Red Wings blasted out in the first round, having shown up to a gunfight with a penknife.

The forwards couldn’t score, the defensemen were a step slow and, in cruel irony, the one guy on whom you really couldn’t blame anything—goalie Petr Mrazek—channeled Chris Osgood ’94 and made a puck handling blunder late in the decisive Game 5 that cost the Red Wings with less than two minutes to play in the third period.

The fans are the corner men, wanting their team to throw in the towel and get out, while there’s still some dignity left.

This isn’t what the Red Wings have been all about. Their playoff appearances used to strike fear in opponents. Now all they do is elicit sympathy.

Kind of like Larry Holmes’ for Muhammad Ali.

The glory days of Red Wings hockey are over, for now, and the players who remain from the 2008 Cup team are finished, for all intents and purposes.

The so-called next wave of Red Wings after Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have proven to be either overvalued or have underperformed, or both. Regardless, there’s not a Z or a Pavs among the group of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, et al.

Former coach Mike Babcock openly asked the question shortly after the Red Wings were eliminated by Tampa Bay in 2015. He wondered where the next Datsyuk was coming from.

A few weeks later, Babs absconded to Toronto, where expectations are low and where the roster is being built, not held together with baling wire.

There’s a gem in young Dylan Larkin, and there may be another in big Anthony Mantha, who looks like a basketball swingman on skates.

But the defense, which misses Nick Lidstrom oh, so badly, is nowhere near Cup-worthy.

The goalie situation looks to be in flux, yet again. Or, at the very least, the Red Wings have a decision to make.

The coach just finished his rookie season and suffice it to say that he suffered through growing pains as well.

I’ve been critical of GM Kenny Holland in recent weeks. It hasn’t been subtle.

Just before the trading deadline, I beseeched Holland—who’s finishing his 20th season as Red Wings general manager—to make a bold move of some sort. Shuffle the deck. Literally, a trade for trade’s sake.

Didn’t happen, not that I expected that it would.

Then, as the season wound down and making the playoffs was again in peril, I again took Holland to task, bemoaning his lack of boldness and wondering if the Red Wings front office had turned from stable to stale.

Nothing that happened in the team’s five-game playoff “run” turned me into a liar.

I’m not boasting—I’m being factual.

So what to do?

The team will be moving into a new arena in 2017. The last time the Red Wings did that, in 1979, they were a horribly-run hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun.

But Joe Louis Arena was just that—an arena. The Red Wings’ new stomping grounds will be much more than a hockey barn. It’s designed to be a year-round attraction, filled with shops, restaurants and other amenities.

Make no mistake, though. The Red Wings will still be the crown jewel of the new campus. So the last thing team officials want is for the crown jewel to be an atrocity soiling the campus’ lapel.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings’ move into their new digs might coincide with the team being in the midst of a rebuild that could mean no spring hockey for a year or two.

The new arena could open in October of 2017 but host no playoff games until April, 2020.

If that thought doesn’t send chills down the spines of the team’s brass, then nothing will.

Despite the fans’ frustration and their calls for a return to Detroit of Stevie Yzerman, I don’t see Mike Ilitch pulling the plug on Ken Holland. Although, it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world if that happened.

Ilitch has his Stanley Cups. What he doesn’t have, is his World Series ring. And you can’t tell me that it’s a coincidence that the Tigers seem to garner more of the owner’s attention than the Red Wings, when that’s the case.

Holland represents stability to the owner. He’s that old shoe—or skate. For now.

But with the new arena opening a year from October, losing the extra income from having no playoff dates isn’t going to go over well in the owner’s suite.

Kenny Holland and his lieutenants—notably chief of the pro scouts, Mark Howe—have painted the franchise into a corner, so to speak. They’re crippled by some bad salaries and Datsyuk’s uncertain future. They know their needs but may not be able to address them right away.

 

It’s the worst place to be if you’re a pro sports franchise—in the middle of the pack.

Ilitch likely won’t fire Holland and he won’t make a play for Yzerman to leave the year-round sunshine of Florida.

But what does it say when two of Holland’s disciples—Yzerman and Dallas GM Jim Nill—have lapped their mentor in a relatively short length of time?

 

The Red Wings need bold, new ideas and fresh faces, and not just on the ice. They need prime time scorers and a stud defenseman. They need to flush the toilet.

The problem isn’t necessarily what the Red Wings need. It’s, how do they go about getting it, if there isn’t a change in upper management’s button downed, loyal-to-a-fault style?

The fans are being asked to believe in a GM who hasn’t exactly had the Midas touch in recent years.

Frankly, the Red Wings need to strip things to a core of Larkin, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Danny DeKeyser and/or Brendan Smith, Justin Abdelkader (your next captain) and Mrazek, and work from there.

I’m recalling what Babcock said at his opening presser in Toronto last summer, speaking to Maple Leafs fans through the media.

“There’s going to be pain.”

 

Is the Hockeytown fan base prepared for some pain?

Because it’s coming, one way or another.

2015-16 Red Wings: The young and the restless

When it comes to the Red Wings, they have a streak about which you might have heard.

No, not that streak.

This isn’t about the 24 consecutive years of making the playoffs, which started with the 1990-91 season.

This is about another streak that’s brewing.

Five years—and counting—of not advancing past the second round of the post-season.

The 24-year streak of the Red Wings qualifying for the playoffs is cute; the five-year streak of first and second round defeats isn’t.

What good is making the playoffs if you’re being drummed out after a round or two?

Here’s captain Henrik Zetterberg, talking about expectations under new coach Jeff Blashill.

“We are tired of going through the whole season and then when the fun starts, we are only there for two weeks.”

Bingo.

The Red Wings have had two strong Stanley Cup contenders on the ropes in the past three playoffs, but weren’t able to close the deal.

In 2013, Detroit held a 3-1 series lead over the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, but couldn’t win that fourth game.

Last spring, the Red Wings jetted home from Tampa with a Game 5 win in their hip pocket, giving them a 3-2 series lead in the first round. But alas, the Lightning won Games 6 and 7.

Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, they’ll drop the puck for real to start the 2015-16 season when the Red Wings welcome back Mike Babcock and his new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A lot has changed for the Red Wings since that tough loss in Game 7 in Tampa on April 29, and I think one of the most important is the team’s mindset.

The Red Wings are, as their captain said, tired of the playoff beat downs that have been occurring every year since 2010 before the conference finals start.

“We are not dwelling on 24 years,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “We are dwelling on the fact that we have lost in the first round a couple of times. We are definitely hungry, that is for sure.”

Combine the veterans’ annoyance and restlessness with the injection of youth and seasoned free agents—plus a new man behind the bench—and the Red Wings seem to be going into ’15-16 with a renewed determination.

It simply is no longer acceptable to just make the playoffs.

It’s time for some serious spring hockey to return to Detroit—hockey played when the building’s air conditioning and ice cooling systems strain against May and June’s warmth. Hockey that competes with Memorial Day barbecues.

Here’s the deal. The Red Wings will, indeed, make the playoffs when the curtain draws on the 2015-16 NHL season.

So that “other” streak will be extended, to 25 years.

But that’s not what this organization is all about. The longer the Red Wings go with early playoff exits, the more the post-season streak threatens to define the franchise.

Then it has the possibility of getting cartoonish. The franchise will turn into a caricature.

The Red Wings made the playoffs? What’s new?

They’re out of the dance before May?

Again, what’s new?

Players like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen are playing with one eye on the ice and the other on the calendar. Time stops for no hockey player. The autumn of their careers is nigh.

Thank goodness the Red Wings employ maybe the best amateur scouts in professional sports, bar none.

The men charged with beating the bushes of Moose Jaw and searching the ponds of Krylbo are, probably even as you’re reading this, discovering  a second line winger for the 2019-20 season.

Thanks to the scouts’ tireless work, the Red Wings are getting younger, but they’re not getting worse.

The first wave of youth—Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Danny DeKeyser, to name a few—held the team together a few years ago when attrition and an inability to sign free agents threatened to plunge the hallowed Red Wings franchise into hockey purgatory.

Now those players are young veterans. To someone like teenage rookie Dylan Larkin,  the 26 year-old Nyquist must make Larkin feel like he’s playing with Gordie Howe.

Via free agency, the Red Wings added defenseman Mike Green, who’s in his prime at age 29, and wily veteran center Brad Richards, who’s 35 but not yet ready for a rocking chair.

Those were two nice, smart pick ups that didn’t really break the bank. The Red Wings were fortunate to snag Green for just a three year commitment.

Another young player, goalie Petr Mrazek, is enough of a threat to Jimmy Howard’s tenuous status as the no. 1 netminder to push Howard into a sense of urgency about his job—which is probably what Jimmy has needed for a few years.

Then there’s Blashill, the rookie head coach.

Blashill is a rookie by definition only, as he’s never run his own NHL team. But he isn’t Brad Ausmus.

Blashill has been at this coaching thing for nearly 20 years, starting when he was in his twenties.

He’s new, but he’s not. He’s a rookie, but he’s not.

Blashill didn’t need too many personal introductions when he got the Red Wings job in June. His relationship with many of the players goes back to either when Blashill was a Red Wings assistant (2011-12) or when he coached them at Grand Rapids over the past three years.

His voice is fresh, yet familiar.

That’s a pretty good—and rare—combination in professional sports.

So what does all this mean for the Red Wings’ chances this year?

I don’t do predictions. One, because I’m usually wrong. Two, because who cares? In March, Sports Illustrated picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. It’s easy to go out on a limb and be wrong. No one will care. But if you get lucky, you can brag all day.

So I’m not going to say something silly here that I can wave in everyone’s face in June.

I will say this: the time for one-and-done in the playoffs for the Red Wings must end next spring.

The team is seemingly a nice blend of youth, experience and raw, still unmolded talent.

The coach isn’t learning on the job.

Everything is in place for some May hockey.

So, Katie bar the door, Johnny on the spot, stand on his head, put the biscuit in the basket and all that rot.

Drop the puck already!

Zetterberg Playing Like a Young 34 After Being an Old 33

The Red Wings captain of today was wearing a suit when he should have been wearing a uniform.

When the Red Wings honored defenseman Nick Lidstrom last winter by retiring his no. 5 jersey, the evening was jarred by the sight of two current Red Wings and former Lidstrom teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, wearing Armani instead of Reebok.

Both were battling injuries. Zetterberg’s was a back ailment, and watching him move around gingerly that night was less-than-inspiring.

The Red Wings captain, Lidstrom’s successor in that role, returned in time for the playoffs but he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Hockey players are the Frankenstein monsters of athletes. They are sewn together and zipped up. I think if you look closely, some of them have bolts coming out of their necks.

They’ll play on one leg and seeing out of one eye. Teeth are optional, as are all internal organs other than the heart.

But as tough as they are, hockey players aren’t immune to two things: groin injuries and bad backs. Those maladies are the hockey player’s Kryptonite.

Just ask the guy in the broadcast booth who has described Zetterberg’s on-ice wizardry ever since Hank broke into the league in 2002.

Mickey Redmond was 28 years old when his back popped. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Redmond’s hands never left him. His shot never vanished. But his back went out and that was pretty much it for him as a hockey player. His last NHL game played was in January, 1976.

More than three years later, at age 31, Redmond tried to give it another shot on the ice but only lasted a few days in training camp in 1979 before retiring for good. The bad back quickly re-flared.

So there was some understandable breath holding when Zetterberg’s back, which has given him problems off-and-on for several years now, ached him yet again last season. Zetterberg’s age (33 at the time) only added to the angst.

Seeing Z waddle around during the Lidstrom ceremony didn’t help the psyche of a fan base that was rooting for its team to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.

Fast forward to this season. The captain’s back is repaired and he’s, well, back.

Boy, is he ever back.

Zetterberg is 34 now but he is flitting around the ice like he’s 24. Usually he is the Red Wings’ best player on any given night. He skates freely, briskly and with purpose. Sometimes you swear there are two no. 40s on the ice at once.

All Zetterberg has been doing is scoring goals, assisting on others, playing defense on both ends of the ice and leading by example. You know, kind of like what Z’s predecessors at captain—Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom—did all their careers.

On October 15, Zetterberg said he played a stinker of a game against Boston at Joe Louis Arena. He was quick to call himself out. The Red Wings lost in a shootout that night to the Bruins.

Zetterberg then took out his anger on the poor Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a rare home-and-home series with an Original Six club the weekend of October 17 and 18, Zetterberg assisted on all four Red Wings goals on Friday night in a 4-1 victory. The next night, he scored the game’s only goal, in overtime. The following game, in Montreal, Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal in a 2-1 loss.

That goal in Montreal meant that Henrik Zetterberg had a hand in the Red Wings’ six most recent goals.

The schedule moved on and Zetterberg moved on with it, his back healthy and leaving him pain-free.

Two nights after Montreal, the big, bad Pittsburgh Penguins came to town and with less than three minutes remaining, the Red Wings trailed 3-1 and the arena was emptying.

Enter Zetterberg. Again.

He took a pass near the Penguins blue line and split the defense like a high-flying youngster. Before Pens goalie Thomas Greiss, making his first start of the season, knew what hit him, Zetterberg had fired a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder to make the score 3-2.

Exactly two minutes later, at 19:21, Zetterberg assisted on Niklas Kronwall’s tying goal.

In overtime, with less than a minute remaining, Zetterberg was hard on the forecheck behind the Penguins net and got his stick on an attempted clearing pass. The puck squirted out to Justin Abdelkader, who deposited it past Greiss to cap the amazing comeback, which gave the Red Wings two of the most unlikeliest points they will earn all season.

When the snow settled, the three points Zetterberg earned against the Penguins gave him a hand in nine of the last 10 Red Wings goals.

The streak started immediately after the captain indicted himself for his play against Boston.

Watching the man they call Hank or Z—because Henrik and Zetterberg take too long to say—play this season is like watching a youthful rookie skating on fresh legs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Zetterberg was one of those Grand Rapids Griffins called up last year.

Lately, coach Mike Babcock has paired Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk on the same line, now that Datsyuk is back in the lineup, healed from his shoulder injury.

To say that it’s pleasing to finally see Z and Pavs together again is an understatement. Last season, injuries kept the two off the ice far too often. Or when one was healthy, the other wasn’t.

Zetterberg turned 34 a few weeks ago. Last season he looked like an old 33, with his bad back. This year he looks like a young 34, mainly because his back doesn’t make him feel 54.

He captains a team that is younger and less experienced than any roster Yzerman or Lidstrom led, which makes Zetterberg’s savvy and skill on the ice all the more appreciated.

And heaven help the league the next time Z thinks he’s had a bad game.

Zetterberg Out At Least Two Weeks With Bad Back

This seems ominous.

The Red Wings say that captain Henrik Zetterberg will miss a minimum of two weeks with a herniated disc in his back.

Back problems are nothing to mess with, especially for hockey players. Just ask Mickey Redmond, whose career was ended at age 28 because of a bad back.

GM Ken Holland said Zetterberg complained about back spasms following the Red Wings’ win in Ottawa on Sunday. No word yet on how the Red Wings plan to fill Z’s roster spot.

Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports tweeted more.

 

The Nine Year Itch?

The NHL has a way of sugarcoating a team’s record.

Thanks to its doling out of points to teams that lose, you’re left with some deceiving metrics.

Take the Red Wings. Please.

They are 9-6-7, which looks like they’re three games over .500. But looks, as we have mentioned, can be deceiving when you’re talking about the NHL’s funny math.

The Red Wings have played 22 games, and won nine. There—that’s bottom line talk.

The NHL’s way of record keeping means that 9-6-7 is a nice way of saying you’re 9-13. The only difference is that on seven occasions, it took you five minutes and some change longer to lose.

Yes, the league gives teams a point for losses in overtime/shootouts, but that’s hardly something on which to hang your hat.

The Red Wings have lost seven straight games, albeit in a crooked line sort of way. You can try the league’s sugarcoating and call it a “winless” streak, if that helps you sleep at night. But the truth is, the Red Wings have lost seven in a row. Let’s be honest here.

It’s a tight bunch right now—squeezing the sticks a little harder, making passes in a tentative nature, looking at each other in that “I thought you had that guy” sort of way, as the red light goes on behind Jimmy Howard once again.

They’re playing without confidence, having little fun on the ice. It’s like they’re behind 1-0 when they come out of the tunnel.

I’ve watched the Red Wings since 1970, so I remember when the hockey in Detroit was a nightly train wreck. The decade of the ’70s is something you’d like your mind’s eye to forget. And the 1985-86 season was hard on the eyes too.

So it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen a Red Wings team this unsure of themselves.

It’s time like these when we go to the captain for an answer to the question, “Hey, what’s with you guys?”

“I think we’re more like robots out there now,” Henrik Zetterberg told the curious media after last night’s 2-0 stinker against the Nashville Predators at the Joe. “We’re not being creative when we get our chances. We have to get back to playing the way we should. Go out and relax a bit and enjoy the moment. I think we’re not enjoying playing out there.”

OK, so that’s the diagnosis. But how to fix it, doctor?

The Red Wings aren’t getting their butts kicked. The losses haven’t been blowouts, though the 2-0 loss to Nashville was zombie-like.

“I thought we competed but we didn’t generate,” coach Mike Babcock said after the Preds game. “You’ve got to spend more time in the offensive zone.”

So the losses have been of the close-but-no-cigar variety. With seven OT/shootout losses in 22 matches, that means that about a third of the time, the Red Wings do just enough to lose the game. Yes, they get a point when that happens, but see what a 9-6-67 record will get you. That’s 85 points and likely far out of the playoff picture.

The Red Wings need a win in the worst way. It doesn’t matter right now how they get it. They’ll take a goal deposited by the opponents into their own net on a delayed penalty at this point, or the lights getting into the other goalie’s eyes. Anything.

I posed this question to Matt Hutter, Bleacher Report’s featured Red Wings columnist.

Are the Red Wings tuning Babcock out? This is Babs’ ninth year behind the Red Wings bench, after all. More than enough time for a message to get stale.

“That could be the case, to an extent,” Matt told me via Facebook.  “However, I think it’s the leaders of a team that are the barometer for a coach’s ‘freshness’. That is, if your leaders aren’t performing and buying into your system anymore, it’s probably time for a change. That isn’t the case as I see it. Z, Pav, Kronner…all seem to be on the Babs Bus.”

Good point.

Mike Babcock

But I can’t help but wonder if a coach who’s been at the same place for nine years, might not have some difficulty getting through on occasion.

The Red Wings haven’t made a coaching change mid-season since they fired Harry Neale on December 30, 1985 and replaced him with Brad Park, which was the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

It’s not the team’s style to change coaches, period—and certainly not with the season going on. So if a change is to come, it likely wouldn’t occur until next summer, if at all.

I’m not suggesting that Babcock is the problem, per se. It might just take a couple of wins to right the ship. But when you’re at one place for almost a decade, and most of the key players have been there at least as long as you have and longer, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but it could breed tone deafness.

This is likely the most adversity Babcock has faced as Red Wings coach—certainly in the regular season, last spring’s mad dash to the playoffs notwithstanding, as it came during a truncated season.

You can say it’s early. You can say that at least the Red Wings were cobbling together some points during this period of lethargy. But the points are fool’s gold. The 2-0 loss to Nashville might have been the low point of the season thus far.

We’ll see, in the next couple of weeks, how Babcock and his players deal with this mess. The season could be riding on it.