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.

Holland’s loyalty, conservative style holding Red Wings back

They used to be judged in May. Their season didn’t truly begin until the Tigers were a month into theirs.

It’s not that way with the Red Wings anymore.

It’s no longer about spring hockey—that special time of year when the players (and the fans) hunkered down and prepped themselves for a six-week battle of attrition that often culminated in hoisting a silver chalice in the first week of June.

Now, it’s more about the annual frantic race in February and March for the eighth and final playoff spot.

You know, to keep that damn streak alive.

It’s 24 years and counting, the number of consecutive years that the Red Wings have qualified for the post-season.

The streak used to be a source of pride, but I wonder if it’s now becoming an albatross that’s hanging (figuratively) around the necks of everyone in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun, as they say it in hockey.

Brendan Shanahan, one of those whose very name and face symbolizes Red Wings championship hockey, talked to me six years ago about how playoff hockey consumed him.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

Ah, the days of the long playoff runs!

The halcyon days of Red Wings hockey are getting further and further in the rear view mirror. The team hasn’t advanced past the second round in seven years.

But no one who’s involved with the Red Wings wants to have the playoff streak end on their watch.

Here’s what it’s been about with the Red Wings in what is becoming a disturbing trend.

Play 82 games. Get 100 points. Play like mad in the last five weeks of the season to make the playoffs. Get drummed out in the first round.

Rinse. Repeat.

The Red Wings, 2015-16 version, are not bad enough to consider a rebuild, yet aren’t good enough to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup. Frankly, that description could fit them for the past five years.

They have to work like hell to score more than two goals on any given night, largely because the power play lacks the first word. They have three elite forwards—two of them are ancient and one of them is a stinking teenager—and a bunch of decent but not great supporting players.

They don’t have an elite defenseman. The one who used to be elite is old and his body is breaking down.

They have a decent starting goalie but even he is just getting past an ill-timed slump at the moment.

So what to do?

GM Ken Holland is a terrific guy. I’ve talked to him several times and if there’s one thing you can say about Holland, it’s that he doesn’t duck the press—which is more than you can say about a lot of executives in other sports who’ve passed through town.

But Holland’s legacy as GM, which does indeed include three Cups, could be legitimately argued as being artificially propped up by two things.

In the pre-salary cap years, Holland didn’t have to make trades and be a shrewd drafter in the high rounds. He needed to just whip out his owner’s wallet and wave a check in a free agent’s face.

Then there’d be a press conference in July announcing the latest star acquisition.

After the hard cap was installed in 2005, the scouts have saved Holland’s bacon.

Hakkan Andersson, the Red Wings’ Chief European Scout—who ought to be in the Hall of Fame someday—doesn’t get nearly enough credit for finding so many diamonds in the rough.

Money and scouting have propped up Holland’s GM legacy in Detroit.

It certainly hasn’t been the big, bold, blockbuster trade, because Ken Holland hasn’t made one in his life.

Never.

He’s never traded a star for a star. No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type courage.

To be fair, this isn’t unique to Holland.

The days of the blockbuster NHL trade have vaporized.

I’ll never forget when the Bruins and the Rangers—two longtime, bitter NHL rivals—engineered a huge trade in November 1975 that shook the league to its core.

Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to Boston. Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais to New York.

For perspective, this was like if the Yankees traded Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson to Boston for Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk.

It was that big.

At the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, I beseeched Holland to do something bold.

Literally a trade for trade’s sake.

I argued that it was time to take the Red Wings’ snow globe and give it a good shake and see what happens.

I didn’t argue for the dealing of 19 year-old Dylan Larkin, or of goalie Petr Mrazek.

I may be stupid but I’m not a fool.

But in order to get off this treadmill that has become Red Wings hockey in recent years, I suggested a top-six forward be traded for another top-six forward.

But that’s not Ken Holland’s style.

The problem with the Red Wings—and it’s not just Holland—is that they tend to be loyal to a fault.

Holland and company can easily fall in love with players and they become Red Wings for life. Then they all get front office jobs when they retire. Even the fourth line guys.

Remember the odd bromance Holland had with Dan Cleary?

The Red Wings are not going to hell in a hand basket, but they’re in a rut.

The good news is that the drafting in the upper rounds has been getting better, and the Grand Rapids Griffins are still a good source of NHL-caliber players.

Anthony Mantha, the Red Wings’ top pick of 2013, is set to make his NHL debut Tuesday in Philadelphia.

He must have drastically improved, because last May, senior VP Jimmy Devellano blistered Mantha in a scathing interview with the Hockey News.

“Very disappointing,” is how Jimmy D characterized Mantha’s play last season.

There’s a fine line—and one letter—separating stable and stale.

When the Red Wings were strong Cup contenders, the Red Wings’ front office was stable. Everyone had been together for 20-plus years.

Now, I fear the execs are becoming stale. Funny how losing in the playoffs every year can change things.

Two of Holland’s proteges, Jim Nill (Dallas) and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay), have lapped their mentor. Both the Stars and the Lightning are better teams than the Red Wings.

That’s not soothing to a fan base that’s starting to get a little antsy in Detroit.

Let’s face it: it’s not about May anymore. It’s about making the playoffs, period.

Three years ago, the Red Wings had the mighty Chicago Blackhawks by the throats, with a 3-1 series lead in the second round. But Chicago won three straight, including Game 7 in overtime.

Last April, the Red Wings won a “big” Game 5 in Tampa to take a 3-2 series lead, but again couldn’t close the deal.

In both of those playoff disappointments, the lack of goal scoring was the culprit.

It’s time now for guys like Gus Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Justin Abdelkader—to name three—to be the best player in a seven-game series. It can’t always be Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

And it can’t be the teenager, Larkin. Not yet.

If you’d prefer to see Mrazek steal a series, fine, but the young Czech goalie tossed two shutouts at the high-scoring Lightning last spring and the Red Wings still lost.

So it’s not all about Holland and his conservative, loyal style.

And I won’t get into the litany of questionable free agent signings, because Holland isn’t alone in the NHL in that regard.

Holland is what he is. He’s not a gambler. He’s not bold. And it’s not that his approach to building the Red Wings back into a Cup contender is necessarily a bad one.

Ken Holland

Holland’s conservative, loyal style might not be what Red Wings need now.

But it could be accelerated if he’d get out of his comfort zone and call some other GMs this summer, looking to trade a high profile player for another high profile player.

When Mike Babcock was in Detroit, folks wondered whether the players were tired of his voice. And Babcock was blamed for why certain desirable free agents weren’t coming to Detroit anymore.

If a coach’s voice can get tired, why can’t a GM’s?

Harry Sinden, the great GM of the Boston Bruins for almost 30 years, was cut from a different cloth.

Sinden’s teams went to Stanley Cup Finals in each of the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Yes, they lost almost every time, but Sinden built Cup-worthy teams in various ways.

But he also wasn’t afraid to make a big trade.

Sinden was half of the architect of the big, aforementioned Park/Ratelle/Esposito/Vadnais trade.

Sinden was from a different era, however—when NHL teams weren’t afraid to trade stars. Of course, there wasn’t a salary cap back then, either.

I don’t come to bury Ken Holland. But I’m not here to praise him, either.

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that’s missing from the Red Wings, and it comes from the top.

The Red Wings are not a team in disarray. This isn’t Darkness with Harkness, Part II.

But it feels like things are turning from stable to stale upstairs.

Of course, winning a damn playoff series can change everyone’s perspective.

So do it, already.

 

Red Wings’ lack of boldness again on display at trade deadline

There’s never been a lot of riverboat gambler in Ken Holland.

Holland, the Red Wings’ GM since 1997, has done a lot of things in his 19 years on the job, but making the bold, daring, blockbuster move hasn’t really been one of them.

Holland’s M.O., in the pre-salary cap years, was to open Mike Ilitch’s checkbook every July 1 and hold a press conference a few days later, showing off the newest star to slip on a Red Wings sweater.

Since the cap took effect in 2005, Holland has been the architect of a few signings, but mostly the work has consisted of deadline deals in which the Red Wings give up a prospect and get a veteran in return.

No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type stunners. No multi-team deals involving six players.

Holland has never traded a star for a star. It’s not his style.

This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997.

It’s also not just a Ken Holland thing. Big trades in the NHL—those involving high profile players swapping jerseys—have gone the way of drive-in movie theaters and personal accountability.

But if there was ever a year in which Holland should have explored an outside-the-box way of thinking, it was this year.

But alas, as expected, the NHL trade deadline came and went yesterday with no activity from the bowels of Joe Louis Arena—not even a stinking minor deal.

The easiest thing to do, of course, is stand pat when you’re up against the cap, which the Red Wings mostly were. They shed a little more than $2 million by trading defenseman Jakub Kindl to Florida on Saturday, but that’s not a lot of dough if you want to do something significant to the roster.

Unless you consider something bold.

Last year, the Red Wings went up against the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, and everyone wondered how a rookie goalie would do against such an explosive lineup.

Petr Mrazek tossed two shutouts in the Lightning series, and the reason the Red Wings lost it in seven games had little to do with goaltending and their suspect defense.

De-TROY-it couldn’t put the puck in the net—plain and simple.

The Lightning didn’t score very much, either, but they managed just enough offense to escape.

The Red Wings this season, once again, are offensively challenged. They’re again prone to scoring droughts. A 19 year-old rookie is their leading goal scorer.

It doesn’t get easier to score in the playoffs, you know.

It’s not the Red Wings’ style, but if ever there was a time to consider trading a top-six forward for a top-six forward, it was this year.

ken-holland

As expected, Holland was quiet on trade deadline day.

It’s going on eight years since the last Stanley Cup was hoisted in Detroit. With our other teams, eight years is like a blink of an eye. But with the Red Wings, who have a different standard, eight years is cause for restlessness.

I can hear some of you now.

Why make a trade for the sake of making a trade?

Hey, why not?

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take the snow globe, shake it up, and see what happens.

Look, when I say top-six forward, I’m really only talking about a few guys.

The Red Wings wouldn’t be expected to trade Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk or Justin Abdelkader. Brad Richards, while valuable, is too old to garner much of a return. And The Kid, Dylan Larkin, is as untouchable as they come.

So I’m looking at you, Gustav Nyquist. And you, Tomas Tatar. And you, Riley Sheahan. I might even cast a glance at Darren Helm.

Yes, I know that’s more than six forwards. But with the Red Wings, top-six is a misnomer, because coach Jeff Blashill juggles lines frequently.

One of the reasons he juggles is because the Red Wings are always sniffing for goals.

It would have been out of character for Holland, but it would have been nice to see a trade designed to do nothing other than shake things up.

What have you got to lose?

If you catch lightning in a bottle and you bring over a guy from another organ-eye-ZAY-shun who gets hot wearing the Winged Wheel and keeps it going in the playoffs, wouldn’t you take that?

Yes, that means giving up an everyday player but that’s why they call it bold and risky.

Again, not the Red Wings’ style.

The concerns on the blue line—the lack of a true stud being one of them—is something to be addressed this summer.

But in the playoffs, you shouldn’t worry about keeping the puck out of your own net as much as pumping them past the other team’s goalie.

The Red Wings have trouble scoring on too many nights, and the playoffs aren’t the time or the place to get relief in that area.

The Red Wings played it safe on deadline day. They’ll tell you that nothing came across Ken Holland’s desk that made sense. They’ll say that they didn’t want to disrupt their core guys.

Sigh.

It would have been fun to see the snow globe given a good shake.

Sometimes you have to be bold.

But the Red Wings haven’t done that in over 20 years, so why would they start now?

Where are hockey’s riverboat gamblers?

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.

Crafty Holland plays it safe, smart just before trade deadline

The 36-year-old defenseman arrived in Detroit, a moving piece in one of those NHL trade deadline deals, toting his equipment bag and maybe a bottle of Geritol. It was a chance for another “kick at the can,” as the hockey people like to say about the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The aging blueliner, booed out of his previous city, had already won two Cups by the time he was traded to the Red Wings in March of 1997. He gained those rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in consecutive years (1991-92).

Larry Murphy was already on his fourth team and was 11 years into his NHL career when he helped lead the Penguins to glory, but that was five years ago and he had added a fifth team to his travelogue when the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs swung a deadline trade.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf fans funneled their frustration with the team’s proclivity to spin its wheels on Murphy.

They booed whenever he touched the puck. They jeered him at every turn. If there ever was a player who needed to be moved, it was Murphy from the Maple Leafs in 1997.

The trade is listed on Hockey-Reference.com as Murphy to the Red Wings on March 18, 1997 for “future considerations.”

Murphy was an offensive defenseman who rocked the NHL as a rookie, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. He was 19 years old when the season began.

Sixteen years and two Stanley Cups later, Murphy was still known as a good puck-moving defenseman, except that the fans in Toronto used him as a figurative pinata. It is still a mystery as to why the Maple Leaf faithful turned on him so.

Regardless, Murphy jetted into Detroit on March 18, 1997 and there was one mission and one mission only: to win the Stanley Cup for a third time.

I asked Murphy about the treatment he got in Toronto. We chatted as we watched the Red Wings play Anaheim the night Steve Yzerman’s jersey went up into the rafters. It was January 2, 2007.

The brutality he went through in Toronto didn’t seem to have bothered Murphy all that much.

“Fans are fans,” he told me. “They pay their money.”

So it didn’t get to you?

“I thought it was kind of funny, actually,” Murphy said.

Murphy switched his Toronto blue for Detroit red and the results were palpable.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup the next two springs. Murphy was again on a team that won two straight Cups, the only player in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

The Larry Murphy trade is among the best the Red Wings ever made at the deadline. And they’ve made a lot of them.

Two years after Murphy, the Red Wings made a big splash at the deadline, acquiring forward Wendel Clark, goalie Bill Ranford and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Chelios in a whirlwind of trades.

But despite the pomp, the Red Wings were blasted out of the playoffs in the second round in 1999 by their arch nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes deadline deals make all the difference in the world; sometimes they don’t do a lick for your Stanley Cup chances.

In 2002, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, by that time a five-year veteran of the art of the deal, landed veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr at the deadline. It wasn’t looked at as much more than a move for depth. Slegr wasn’t expected to contribute too much.

Slegr didn’t play in a single playoff game for the Red Wings that spring, except for one: Game 5 of the Cup Finals.

In Game 4, fellow defenseman Jiri Fischer got suspended for a game after taking some liberties in Carolina.

Slegr, who was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season, got the call for Game 5. The Red Wings led the series, 3-1.

Slegr played 17 minutes that night at Joe Louis Arena as the Red Wings won their third Cup in six seasons.

You never know.

Holland, who inexplicably has never won an Executive of the Year Award, gathered his scouts and coaches at the Joe on Sunday and Monday. It’s a routine that gets played out every year on the eve of the trade deadline.

The list of potential acquisitions gets bandied about. Holland listens to input, takes notes, asks some questions. His money people are in the room, too, because it’s a salary cap world now and the contracts have to fit, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Holland was under no real urgency to do a deal. His team is playing well and while you can never have too much depth, the Red Wings didn’t have to go crazy and mortgage the future. If something made sense, Holland said he would do it. But it was felt that a move wasn’t a prerequisite for this spring’s playoff run.

There would be no 1999-like splash.

On Sunday, Holland got on the phone with former assistant Jim Nill, now the GM in Dallas. Two good friends talked trade.

When the cell phones closed, Holland had acquired 36-year-old forward Erik Cole for some lower level prospects. Cole can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future in Detroit beyond this season is uncertain to say the least.

On Monday, Holland fulfilled coach Mike Babcock’s wish for a right-handed shooting defenseman with some offense, getting Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky is 38 and he, too, is unrestricted come July 1.

These were old school Holland moves but with a new school team: bring in veteran guys who might be considered “rentals.” Only this time, the core of the Red Wings is more young than old, a reversal from the Cup-winning years.

But the price for Cole and Zidlicky was hardly steep, and in today’s NHL, these moves might be good enough to catapult the Red Wings.

The NHL post-season is a two-month roller coaster ride. It’s hockey’s version of March Madness, in that the eventual champion could be one of half a dozen (or more) teams. It’s not the NBA, where only a select few teams have a legitimate shot at the championship. You never see any six or seven seeds make it very far in pro basketball’s playoffs.

Whether you call it parity or just plain unpredictable, the NHL’s post-season is a crap shoot, like baseball and football’s.

For that reason, why unload a bunch of high-level prospects and front line players for someone who likely won’t improve your team’s Cup chances all that much?

This was Ken Holland at his best—accurately gauging his team’s current state and making smart, prudent moves without giving up the farm, literally.

Will Cole and Zidlicky do for the Red Wings, in their own way, what Larry Murphy did for them in 1997?

No one knows for sure, but again Holland has seemed to have improved his team without weakening its core.

One of these days, those who determine such things will name Holland the NHL’s Executive of the Year. It might be like when Paul Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for a movie that wasn’t his best work. But one day the voters are going to get smart.