With old pal Gallant behind bench, don’t bet against Vegas

Published Nov. 18, 2017

The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t your father’s NHL expansion team.

They don’t catch their skates on the blue line. They don’t lose 12-2. They don’t spend 60 minutes every night chasing the puck like they have blindfolds on. They don’t look up at the scoreboard as soon as the National Anthem is done playing and see themselves trailing 2-0.

The Golden Knights don’t do any of those things. In fact, they’re playing as if they’ve been in the league for 10 years.

The Golden Knights have cooled a little since their 8-1-0 start, but at 11-6-1 they’re making a mockery of what being a freshman NHL team used to entail.

I come from the days of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, an expansion team that won a grand total of eight games in their maiden season, with only one of those wins coming on the road.

The NHL has expanded a bunch of times since those laughable Caps, but never has a brand-new team taken the league by storm as the Golden Knights have this year.

The Golden Knights play at T Mobile Arena, where they’re 7-1 and averaging nearly 18,000 fans a night. They have no history and are building their legacy game by game. Yet not only could Las Vegas’ new NHL team qualify for the playoffs as an expansion team, they could (gulp) win the Pacific Division. As I write this, the Golden Knights are just one point behind the first-place Los Angeles Kings.

You wanna bet against a team that plays in Vegas? What is that even like?

Under Gallant, unprecedented expansion team success (so far)

Granted, the NHL doesn’t currently throw its expansion teams to the wolves the way the league used to do back in the day, when all first-year franchises were put behind the 8-ball when it came to building a respectable roster. Expansion teams were bringing a knife to a gunfight every night.

Hence those ’75 Capitals, with a roster dotted with players who would have been hard-pressed to qualify for other NHL teams’ minor league affiliates.

Still, even though the NHL has rejiggered the way newbies can procure NHL-ready talent from the drop of the first puck, for the Golden Knights to be doing what they’re doing is unprecedented. They became the first league expansion team to win seven of their first eight games, to wit.

So who coaches these guys, anyway?

Ah, yes—our old pal Gerry Gallant.

Image result for gerard gallant golden knights

Gallant, after a suspect firing in Florida, is living the good life in Las Vegas.

 

There’s a reason why Gallant wasn’t out of work for very long after being given the ziggy by the Florida Panthers almost a year ago (Nov. 27, 2016).  Gallant was snatched up by the Golden Knights just five months after being let go by the Panthers.

I think the Panthers will come to rue the day they let Gallant go, if they haven’t already.

Gallant led the Panthers to a 47-26-9 record and an Atlantic Division championship in 2015-16, but Florida lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Islanders, who joined the NHL as part of the league’s third expansion in 1972.

But after a mediocre 11-10-1 start last November, new Panthers GM Tom Rowe fired Gallant. This morning, the Panthers woke up with a 7-9-2 record. Just saying.

This isn’t Gallant’s first rodeo with a brand new NHL franchise. He was minding his own business as an assistant coach for the fourth-year Columbus Blue Jackets in 2004 when head coach Doug MacLean was fired, elevating Gerry into the big chair. Gallant spent parts of three seasons as the Jackets coach, then eight years after his last game coached in Columbus, he returned to the NHL as head coach of the Panthers in 2014.

Gallant won 38, then 47 games in his two full seasons in Florida, yet the Panthers, an expansion franchise themselves (Class of 1993) that hasn’t exactly been synonymous with on-ice success, broomed Gallant.

It didn’t take long after Gallant was fired in Florida for fans in other NHL cities to pump for Gerry as their team’s new coach—even if there wasn’t a vacancy.

One of those teams’ fan bases was Detroit’s.

Image result for gerard gallant red wings

In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Gallant played the tough second to Steve Yzerman in Detroit.

“Gallant envy” runs throughout league, including in Detroit

Red Wings fans clamored for a time, before Gallant was announced in Las Vegas, for the team to cashier Jeff Blashill and hire old no. 17 to take Blash’s place.

It was more than mere nostalgia that drove the “Hire Gallant” sentiment. It was more than remembering the 207 goals that Gerry scored while playing for the Red Wings—many of those coming while patrolling Steve Yzerman’s left side, when Gallant and Bob Probert were sandwiched around Stevie and “kept the flies off him,” as former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock would say.

The pro-Gallant feeling that other teams’ fan bases have is based on the reputation Gallant has as being very Babcock-like behind the bench: a winner who is tough, who is not your friend but who is also fair. Babcock himself has been described as a modern day Scotty Bowman type—a coach that players might curse under their breath but under whom also enjoy great on-ice success.

“Players really, really enjoy playing for (Gallant),” Yzerman, now the GM of the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning, said recently about the Golden Knights’ success under Gerry, which doesn’t surprise Stevie in the least. “He’s not easy, by any means. He’s not your buddy, but he’s straight forward and he’s honest.”

Gallant is consumed by hockey. “It’s his whole life,” ex-teammate Yzerman said. But even an old-time hockey guy like Gallant can’t truly explain the eye-opening, early-season success of his Golden Knights.

“I’m surprised that we’re playing as well as we’ve played,” Gallant recently told SI.com.

Don’t bet against Vegas

What Gallant is doing in Vegas—and it’s part of why he’s coveted by envious fans of other teams—is he’s keeping his players relaxed, hungry and getting them to believe in themselves. That’s a trifecta that not every NHL coach can pull off.

Knights center Jonathan Marchessault has more experience than his teammates in playing for Gallant, because he did it in Florida as well.

”He wants us to be loose, make plays and have confidence; and I think that he gives us confidence,” Marchessault said recently. ”For a coach, it’s kind of rare. You’re scared to do mistakes. But with Turk (Gallant’s nickname), it’s not like that. He wants you to try hard and if you do a mistake, at least you do it while you’re trying hard.”

The Knights do have one expansion team quality, however: they’ve already used five goalies in 18 games. One of them is grizzled veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh. Fleury has only played in a handful of games so far, but team management understood that it can’t hurt to dot the roster with guys who’ve tasted the NHL’s ultimate measure of success.

Gallant himself never won a Cup as a player, but he played on two Red Wings teams that made the Final Four (1987 and 1988). At his best as a player, Gallant was known as one of the league’s upper echelon power forwards—a guy who could score 30 goals, fight and keep the opponents honest. He was Brendan Shanahan in Detroit before Brendan Shanahan.

Can the Golden Knights keep this up? They’re an expansion team, for crying out loud. Don’t they know that their place is among the league’s dregs?

Not according to Gerry.

“I want my guys coming here with a clean slate every day,” he says. “We don’t worry about what we did yesterday, we worry about what we’re going to do tomorrow and the next day. We know we got a long way to go and we know if we let up one bit we’re not going to win hockey games. If we continue to play the way we’re playing right now, then we can beat any team, any given night.”

So far, 11 times in 18 games, the Golden Knights have done just that.

How dare they!

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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.

First-year coach Blashill not about to be the guy who fouls up Red Wings’ culture

It’s been so long since there’s been dysfunction with the Red Wings, that we’ve lost a whole generation of cynicism.

After dinosaurs like yours truly perish, all we’ll be left with are a bunch of millennials who were born with a silver hockey stick in their mouth.

The Red Wings are 40-plus years past the days of “Darkness with Harkness.” We haven’t been able to truly rail against the franchise’s ineptitude on a regular basis since everyone was wearing bell bottoms and mood rings.

We’re a quarter century into a stretch of nothing but winning, playoff hockey—and four Stanley Cups, plus two Finals appearances.

Sometimes I miss the days of dysfunction.

Sometimes I wish I had been writing about sports when GM Ned Harkness bugged star center Garry Unger about the length of his hair. That would have been a hoot.

I would have loved to pen a column about how the Red Wings sloppily changed coaches in 1973 by firing Ted Garvin and naming player Alex Delvecchio as his replacement—except Alex hadn’t retired yet and league rules forbade a player from also coaching. So Garvin had to coach that night—AFTER he’d been given the ziggy. Teddy left midway through the third period. Injured player Tim Ecclestone finished coaching the game.

What a humdinger that was.

Oh, to have been a sportswriter when GM Ted Lindsay signed 33 year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon as a free agent, only to come perilously close to losing young center Dale McCourt as compensation to the Los Angeles Kings.

Those Lindsay teams were fun. Teddy signed the likes of Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson to bully opponents—kind of like how Teddy did as a player, only without the talent.

But then Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 and after a few false starts, it’s been nothing but win, win, win.

As a writer, where’s the fun in that?

At least when the Red Wings lost Mike Babcock to free agency, there was hope that the new coach would come in and foul things up, finally.

No such luck.

Jeff Blashill has stepped in and as the Red Wings did when Bryan Murray came on board and when Scotty Bowman arrived and when Dave Lewis replaced Scotty and when Babcock replaced Lewis, the team hasn’t missed a beat with a new coach.

Again.

Blashill has his team playing good hockey right now, despite the loss in Los Angeles on Monday night, which snapped a four-game winning streak (all on the road).

As a coach, it’s easier to win in any pro sport if you have the players. That’s true. But what’s happening with the Red Wings is further validation that it’s maybe just as much about the system and the culture as it is anything else.

This isn’t to take anything away from Blashill, who was Babcock’s replacement in waiting at Grand Rapids. Actually, it’s praise for Blashill, because even though there might be a great culture in Hockeytown, you can still be the guy who screws it up if you don’t handle things with aplomb.

Blashill made the right move in accepting a pay raise in Grand Rapids with the promise that he wouldn’t pursue an NHL head coaching gig, knowing that Babcock might leave after the 2014-15 season, when his contract expired.

It was the right move because how many coaches can be set up so well for success as you can with the Red Wings?

Coaching, as you know, has all the job security of a snowman in the summertime. The late, great Earl Lloyd once said, after agreeing to coach the Pistons in 1971, “It’s funny. As a coach, as soon as you sign a contract you’re also signing your termination papers.”

So true.

So when a coach has a chance to join a team with a winning tradition and an owner’s commitment to spend and a GM who’s among the best

Jan 7, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) talks to assistant coach Jeff Blashill on the bench against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Blashill’s year as a Babcock assistant is paying dividends now.

in any sport, with a scouting department that makes the other teams’ look like a bunch of Mr. Magoos, you jump at it.

Or, you bide your time and wait for it to open up, as Blashill did.

The wait was worth it, as Blashill would surely admit.

This isn’t to say that Jeff Blashill won’t, someday, be given the ziggy as coach of the Red Wings. But GM Ken Holland has only fired one coach in his 18 years on the job—Lewis, and that was more because of the misfortune of following a legend like Bowman than anything else, because Lewie had two outstanding regular seasons as coach.

But if Blashill gets canned, it won’t be anytime soon and it might be because the two sides got tired of each other, rather than because of any ineptitude. It might not even be a firing—it could be Babcock-like in its circumstance.

The Red Wings have not been the perfect team by any imagination this season, but they’re kings of the road and Blashill has displayed a tender knack for knowing when to push and let up. He demands accountability, albeit not with the same in-your-face style as Babcock did. Blashill has handled his delicate goaltending situation perfectly, if you ask me.

The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.

But that’s nitpicking.

Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.

There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.

First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.

There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.

Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?

Just asking.

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.

Time is Right for Blashill to Take Over Behind Red Wings Bench

Dave Lewis finally got his opportunity. But he never had a chance.

Scotty Bowman skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice. It was a June evening in 2002.

Bowman had just won his ninth Cup as coach, and third with the Red Wings. He was 68 years old.

During the on-ice celebration, Bowman—arguably the greatest coach in professional sports history—whispered into captain Steve Yzerman’s ear that this was it. Scotty was retiring.

Bowman had been the Red Wings coach for nine seasons. After a rough first season (first round playoff KO at the hands of the upstart San Jose Sharks), there was much success. Three Stanley Cups speak for themselves.

With Scotty’s self-ziggy, the Red Wings needed a new coach, and there wasn’t any real competition for the plum job.

Lewis, ex-Red Wings player and longtime assistant coach who’d worked for three head coaches in Detroit, was tabbed as Bowman’s replacement.

It was hailed as the proper comeuppance for a loyal employee.

This was Dave Lewis’ big chance, but truth be told, Lewis didn’t have a prayer as Scotty Bowman’s successor.

Lewis was too close to the players as an assistant, especially given Bowman’s sometimes prickly relationship with his players. When the players in pro sports have a beef with the boss, they take those beefs to the assistants.

Lewis had been that assistant, for some 14 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Bowman. For 14 years, Dave Lewis played the role of confidante and sounding board for the players.

That role evaporates when you move into the big office.

Lewis had two good regular seasons in Detroit as head coach, but he failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. In his first year, Lewis’ Red Wings were swept in the first round by a surprising Anaheim team that would make it to the Cup Finals.

The Mighty Ducks were coached by some guy named Mike Babcock.

In year two, Lewis managed to make it past Nashville before being blasted out by Calgary in another playoff upset.

Then the lockout happened, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

When play resumed in 2005, Lewis was out as coach of the Red Wings.

Babcock replaced him, and three years later the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.

Dave Lewis is the cautionary tale among Red Wings coaches.

He was Exhibit A in the argument that longtime assistants shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded with promotions.

Lewis didn’t get along with some of the veterans as head coach, notably Brett Hull, who in Lewis’ defense could be a handful.

Things change when you go from assistant to head man.

The Red Wings, as I write this, are homing in on their new coach, to replace Babcock, who signed with Toronto.

He is Jeff Blashill, a loyal, longtime employee of the Red Wings organization and current coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Blashill appears to be on the verge of being hired with virtually  no competition.

Kind of like Dave Lewis was in 2002.

But Blashill has an advantage over Lewis: Blashill only stood behind the Red Wings bench as an assistant for one year. Several players at the NHL level know Blashill from their days at Grand Rapids.

But there’s a distinct difference between being a former Babcock assistant and an AHL coach, and being head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Blashill is, apparently, about to find out. He is expected to be named Red Wings head coach any day now.

The Red Wings, unlike with the Dave Lewis hire in 2002, are doing the right thing. My opinion.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone outside of the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to replace Babcock.

The Red Wings, if they’re anything, are prepared.

As early as last summer, the Red Wings had a hunch that Babcock might bolt when his contract expired come July 1, 2015. So they locked up Blashill, doubling his salary at Grand Rapids with the provision that he not entertain any offers (he would have gotten some) from NHL teams throughout the 2014-15 season.

Now Babcock is gone, as feared, and the Red Wings have their next coach all lined up.

Preparation.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone other than Blashill because the Red Wings have groomed him for this moment. Now that it’s here, why look elsewhere?

 

The eggs are all in the Blashill basket, but that’s OK, because if there was ever a “good” time for arguably the best coach in the NHL to flee Detroit, it’s now.

Mike Babcock—with some definite help from GM Ken Holland—has left the team in good shape for a young, inexperienced (NHL-wise) coach such as Jeff Blashill to commandeer.

Babcock has coached up the Grand Rapids Griffins-turned-Red Wings who’ve turned up on the NHL roster over the past three years. Players that Blashill had first crack at.

Blashill coaches in the same manner, it’s said, as Babcock. Certainly Blashill, in Grand Rapids, believes in the same system that they use in Detroit.

The next couple of years should be fascinating to watch when it comes to Red Wings hockey.

There’s going to be a referendum, one way or the other.

The question to be answered will be, “How much will the Red Wings miss Mike Babcock?”

That’s where Jeff Blashill comes in, because if he’s able to lift the Red Wings to the next level, i.e. past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it won’t be about Babcock anymore.

With Dave Lewis, the shadow of Scotty Bowman always loomed. Lewis took over the defending Stanley Cup champs and a team that won three Cups in six years.

There was nowhere to go but down for Lewie.

Blashill is succeeding a high profile guy behind the Red Wings bench, but at the same time, it’s not a terribly tough act to follow.

Babcock has a great resume and the hardware to support it, but the hard fact remains that the Red Wings haven’t advanced to round three of the playoffs in six years.

In the six years prior to Lewis taking over the Red Wings in 2002, the team had won three Cups.

Dave Lewis, in retrospect, never really had a chance as Red Wings coach.

Jeff Blashill seems to have a great chance.

We’ll see.

Babcock’s Unprecedented ‘Winning’ Tour Came Down to Money, After All

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

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.