The Malik Report
by George Malik on 12/14/11 at 05:56 PM ET
Incidentally, no Wings practice today. They’re getting some unexpected days off because of this tough stretch of road games (14 of 19).
This is where the Wings’ status as a self-regulating team will, at least in theory, earn them some much-needed rest as they attempt to play 9 games over the rest of December (17 days; if you take out the Christmas break from December 23-25 the Wings play 9 over the course of 14 nights) and basically play on an every-other-night basis until the All-Star break.
The Wings definitely earned a day off via their 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and we turn back to Khan for a profile of a player who’s got Wings fans thinking, “Geez, what the hell does the team do when Jan Mursak and Patrick Eaves get healthy?” in mighty mite Chris Conner.
Conner registered an assist against his previous employer Tuesday, and the 5’8” forward seems to be all but cementing his place in the lineup, more or less restricting Cory Emmerton’s duties (no, they won’t waive him because he won’t clear) to chaperoning the team’s other resident healthy scratch, Mike Commodore (who can’t get into the lineup thanks to Jakub Kindl). Given that Valtteri Filppula’s promotion to the Henrik Zetterberg line blunted the Wings’ offensive production from the third line, Conner, Danny Cleary and Darren Helm’s slow-coming chemistry is a welcome development, and the Wings can’t say enough about #41’s work ethic:
“You can see as Connie’s gotten more comfortable in the lineup. He’s making more plays,” Cleary said. “He’s a talented little player, tenacious on the puck. He made a nice play there.”
Conner, during a three-on-two rush, slipped a nice pass to Cleary, who was driving the middle. Goaltender Jimmy Howard called it a workingman’s goal.
“He went hard to the net and Cons just threw it to the crease and Danny was able to redirect it home,” Howard said. “(Conner) is doing a great job; he’s got great speed. He played really well last year for Pitt and he’s doing it again this year for us.”
Conner has no hard feelings toward the Penguins, who didn’t re-sign him after last season, but the Livonia native and Michigan Tech product said, “It feels good to get a win in a game like this.” Conner is ahead of rookie Cory Emmerton, a healthy scratch in seven of the past eight games, in the pecking order. But it remains to be seen what the Red Wings do when Patrick Eaves (broken jaw, out until mid-January) and Jan Mursak (broken ankle, out another 2-3 weeks) return.
“I’m trying to keep it simple, use my speed, just keep going out there and working hard,” Conner said. “I just want to come in and play hard. Every chance I get to play I want to prove I can play. I want to keep improving and do whatever I can to help the team.”
He said of linemates Cleary and Darren Helm: “They talk to me a lot, help me out, so it’s been good so far, and I just want to continue and keep getting better.”
Fabian Brunnstrom might find himself in Grand Rapids for an extended period of time as well given Conner’s ability to stick in the Wings’ lineup, but it also bears noting that Babcock made sure to douse the suggestions that Jan Mursak skating with the team somehow equaled a return prior to a Patrick Eaves-like mid-January timeline:
Mursak has begun traveling with the team to practice and get treatment, but Babcock said: “Until he can turn and have agility, he’s not even close. He’s coming, but I haven’t seen any agility out of him yet.”
Between WRIF’s Meltdown, Winging it in Motown and Nightmare on Helm Street‘s campaigns to encourage Wings fans to vote Jimmy Howard into the All-Star Game’s starting lineup, Howard’s starting to climb the leader board, and both The Score’s Justin Bourne and Grantland’s Katie Baker are mentioning Howard’s rise, with Baker utilizing a mailbag feature to do so:
Why is there no love for Jimmy Howard? I never hear about him outside of Detroit & Red Wings media. The guy is having an amazing year statistically and has top ten worthy saves every night. However he’s no where to be found on the All Star ballot. I think he’s the best American goalie in the league this year.
— Nick K.
Jimmy Howard has more wins than any other NHL goalie with 18, has the second-best goals against average in the league at 1.82, and has amassed three shutouts this season. The Detroit Red Wings are 19-9-1, just one point out of second place in the Western Conference. So why wasn’t he on the All-Star ballot? Well, for one thing, the All-Star ballot is kind of a farce; though it is released more than a month into the season, it barely acknowledges what has occurred up until then. (Case in point: The New York Rangers’ representation included defenseman Marc Staal, who has played zero games this year as he recovers from a concussion.)
That Howard wasn’t one of the 18 goalies on the ballot still looks, in hindsight, insane — but he was clearly hurt by his middling performance in 2010-11, in which he posted an ugly .908 save percentage and a GAA of 2.79. Red Wings goaltenders are traditionally discounted, fairly or not, for playing behind such consistently good squads. Take Chris Osgood: His retirement this summer sparked heated discussion in hockey circles over whether his 401 career wins (10th all time) and three Stanley Cups (two as starting goaltender) ought to qualify him for the Hall of Fame — or whether he was just held aloft by his outstanding teams.
Howard currently has more All-Star write-in votes than any other NHL player (the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin has the second-most) and stands eighth in total votes among goaltenders. Because only the top vote-getting goalie is guaranteed a spot on the roster (the others are picked by the league), there’s still a good chance Howard could make the cut. As you said, Detroit-area media is shouting particularly loud about their local goalie: radio station WRIF in particular, which has “taken to the streets” in a “Vote for Howard” tour bus for the cause.
If you’re keeping score at home, Nicklas Lidstrom’s also fourth among defensemen in ASG voting at present, but his fine campaign thus far is flying under the radar, too. He wasn’t even mentioned in ESPN’s Scott Burnside’s discussion of Norris Trophy candidates despite the fact that Lidstrom, Howard, Tomas Holmstrom and now Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen have been the team’s best players, night in and night out, over the course of the season thus far.
Regarding one of Lidstrom’s peers, we’ve already talked quite a bit about Chris Chelios’s deserving induction into the U.S. Hockey Hal of Fame, and I’ll add a few more links to the mix today.
The Montreal Gazette’s Stu Hackel chose to take note of Chelios’s near-insane dedication to physical fitness and off-season training, while the Evergreen Parker’s Chris Clair wasn’t particularly delighted that Chelios suggested that he and Ted Kaczynski* were the only people to make it big from the Chicago suburb (I thought that it was me, Jason Bacashihua and Ashlee Baracy who “made it” from Garden City, but what do I know), and today’s best Chelios link comes from Grand Rapids’ WOOD TV‘s Larry Figurski, who adds a new five-minute interview with Chelios (taken during his visit to Grand Rapids to lend a hand to the Griffins’ younger players) to the mix. Chelios talks about both his U.S. HHOF status, whether he expects to join the Hockey Hall of Fame two years from now, his take on realignment, how he feels about working with the Griffins and what he actually does as Ken Holland’s “executive advisor”:
Shifting gears toward discussing the Wings’ prospects, the Grand Rapids Press’s Michael Zuidema wrote a superb article about Gustav Nyquist, who’s yet another forward eying a spot with the Wings sooner than later (lost in the mix? Tomas Tatar, who won’t be able to clear waivers next season):
Nyquist leads Grand Rapids with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists), which ranks second in the league among rookies—five behind Norfolk’s Chris Conacher—and is tied for eighth overall. His 18 assists lead all rookies, and he has four goals and seven assists in his past eight games. If he continues that pace, he’ll certainly be on the short list of candidates for the AHL Rookie of the Year award. Nyquist, however, isn’t ready to look that far ahead.
“There’s only a third of the season gone, so there’s still a lot of games to be played,” he said.
Grand Rapids coach Curt Fraser said he’s confident Nyquist will be able to maintain his high level of play as the season goes on.
“We knew that when he was coming in here, that he would put up some real good numbers, but that’s what he needs to do,” Fraser said. “He needs to get used to this style of hockey, the demands of a professional athlete, the bus trips, the three-in-three nights, all these things because he’s got to get prepared for his next opportunity when it comes with the Red Wings. Hopefully, he’s moving in that direction quickly.”
If there’s one thing that could derail Nyquist’s rookie of the year potential, it might be a recall by the parent club. He made his NHL debut Nov. 1 against Minnesota, and was sent back to Grand Rapids the next day. But his consistently strong play makes him a candidate for another trip back to Detroit. Nyquist said he would love to return to the NHL, but his primary focus is on helping the Griffins win. If he can do that, he figures it only will help his career in the long run.
“Obviously everyone wants to be up there,” Nyquist said. “That’s the biggest goal you have, to play in the NHL, and obviously for a team like the Detroit Red Wings. But they’re pretty stacked. There’s still a long ways to go for us prospects, you need to learn how to play the game and to be able to play for Detroit. I don’t think most people understand that a lot of guys can play in the NHL, but you’ve got to be able to win in the NHL to play for the Red Wings. That’s the toughest part, and it demands real hard work.”
And as Zuidema suggests, despite his immense talent, Nyquist is as grounded and humble as can be, and that kind of attitude is essential going forward.
In other prospect-related news involving a slightly larger ego, Expressen’s Mattias Ek reports that Modo Ornskoldsvik’s Dick Axelsson will play for Sweden’s entry in the Channel One Cup, and in a roundabout way, NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer reveals that Wings prospects Mattias Backman (Linkopings HC) and Teemu Pulkkinen (Jokerit Helsinki) might play in the Red Bulls Salute tournament in Salzburg, Austria this weekend, depending on whether their respective World Junior Championship teams’ training camps (Backman’s Swedish and Pulkkinen’s Finnish) start early;
Speaking of prospects and their journeys to the pro ranks, Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon made sure to mention the tale of one Danny Cleary while discussing the fact that prospects can face a particularly harsh developmental road when they’re cut from their respective national federations’ WJC teams, and while you and I are assuming that Petr Mrazek (Czech), Backman (Sweden), Pulkkinen (Finland) and Marek Tvrdon and Tomas Jurco (Slovakia) will make their teams’ final rosters, stranger things have happened:
When a player is asked over the phone to come down to a room with coaches and Hockey Canada personnel, he knows it’s not an invitation to enjoy the continental breakfast. The conversations are rarely drawn out. There’s no point in letting things linger, and feedback—unless specifically requested by the player—falls on deaf ears after the message is conveyed. “As soon as you tell them they’re not on the team, they don’t hear another word you say,” says Mike Babcock, Canada’s bench boss at the 1997 world juniors.
Today Babcock coaches the Detroit Red Wings and frequently leans on Cleary, a player whose career he helped breathe life into almost 10 years after axing him from the ’97 world juniors, Cleary’s second attempt to make the club. By his own admission, Cleary didn’t play well enough at that camp to earn a spot. The previous year, when Baumgartner helped soften the blow, Cleary had just turned 17 and was the last player cut. He was still more than a year away from NHL draft eligibility, so it was easy to characterize it as a learning experience.
That wasn’t the case when he was cut for the third time—at least, not immediately. Cleary began the 1997–98 season with the Chicago Blackhawks, who nabbed him 13th overall in the ’97 draft. He played six games for the Hawks that year before they released him in time for the junior tryout camp. “Pretty much every single guy makes the team from the NHL,” Cleary says. “I was thinking, ‘This is the year I’m going to make it.’”
His confidence was ill-founded. Coach Real Paiement cut him, and Cleary took it hard. “It’s not an easy thing to deal with mentally,” he says. “I didn’t have any family around, it was just me. I was pretty upset that time.”
With his head still swimming, a player gets to have his second meeting shortly after the first, as a slew of media lurk in the hotel lobby. Angelo Esposito, the only other player to be cut three times from Canada’s junior team, said dealing with microphones and cameras is no fun for a recently rejected teen. “You don’t want them to see those blurry eyes, you don’t want to look like a little baby, but it’s hard to just turn around and talk to the media,” says Esposito, who made the club on his fourth attempt in 2009. “It helps you mature in a way, but it’s not fun to go through.”
The truth is, being dropped from the world junior team by no means precludes a player from having a fruitful NHL career, just as making the club isn’t a definitive predictor of pro success. Baumgartner captained the gold medal–winning team Cleary was cut from in ’96, yet he never stuck as a regular in the NHL. Babcock, who led Canada to gold in ’97, rhymed off the players he had on the back end for that tournament in Switzerland. Of the seven, only Ottawa’s Chris Phillips and Calgary’s Cory Sarich played 250 games in the NHL. Some, like Richard Jackman and Jason Doig, played a bit, but never caught on as full-timers. Then there’s Hugh Hamilton, whose high point was 54 career games in the American Hockey League. Meanwhile, two blueliners who didn’t make the grade that year, Derek Morris and Stéphane Robidas, will likely end up combining for over 2,000 NHL games. In recent years, young studs like Matt Duchene of Colorado, Boston’s Tyler Seguin and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were cut just months before shining in the Show. “This is a moment in time,” says Babcock of the cuts. “If you get the bad news and you want to be a player, you keep playing.”
Though it took a while for Cleary to put the pieces together—he was arrested for driving under the influence in junior, traded by Chicago and waived by the Phoenix Coyotes before finding himself with the Wings—he cites the gut-punch from his final world junior camp as something that helped him get on a productive path. “It took me looking over the edge to realize, if you don’t get it together and work harder than anybody, then your great junior career and all this talent is going to go to waste,” he says. “For me, that was one of the steps.”
If you’re looking for some tailings from last night’s game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Seth Rorabaugh posted some pretty spiffy pictures and notes from the Wings’ 4-1 win on his Empty Netters blog, and both the Free Press’s Helene St. James...
Little #RedWings stat tidbit for today: Datsyuk has 19 of his 30 points in last 12 games - coincides with gaining Bertuzzi as a line mate
And MLive’s Khan tossed off some interesting factoids via Twitter, with Khan answering a question which makes an intriguing point:
@Landreas_ Interesting that [Brad S]tuart [is the] only trade acquisition on Wings roster if I’m not mistaken
I know that we’re all hoping that the Wings bulk up and add some skill to the equation, if not a little more goaltending insurance (though we really have yet to see what Ty Conklin can do, and we won’t know if there’s any concern about the Wings’ back-up position until he plays more regularly over the next few weeks; and we’re still going with a, “No, and you people are crazy” regarding the persistent Alex Semin trade rumors) at the trade deadline, but for now, it’s pretty remarkable to note that, aside from Stuart, the Wings’ only non-home-grown players are all free agent acquisitions.
Regarding the M1 Rail Line mess I mentioned this morning, the cancellation of the M1 Rail line and its likely demise even as a shorter-stretching entity along Woodward Avenue’s spine from Downtown to the New Center may, coupled with the City of Detroit’s imminent bankruptcy and the FBI’s investigation of a thoroughly corrupt Wayne County governmental money-stashing machine, force the Wings to privately fund their follow-on rink.
The Detroit News’s Tom Greenwood and David Shepardson report that the City is in “full astern” backpedaling mode today, with Mayor Dave Bing tossing out quite the insult toward people who are supposed to be his allies (and senator Carl Levin is pissed off at the City, so it’s bickery business as usual downtown):
The proposed light rail system was supposed to be underwritten by a $100 million investment from private investors, including Peter Karmanos, Mike Ilitch and others, to fund the first stretch of tracks from Hart Plaza to the New Center area.
“There was a $100 million commitment, but little money was actually on the table,” Bing said.
I’ll post some Predators practice updates in this space a little later, but for now, we’ll end with a new episode of Fake Henrik Zetterberg. Fake Henrik’s poor treatment at the Joe this past weekend didn’t prevent him from enjoying a little office party...Or did it?
Update #1: I wonder if WXYZ reads TMR or TMR reads WXYZ (probably the latter), per, well, WXYZ’s staff:
The light rail project would have cost $500 million, but the city had already received a $25 million federal grant to help fund the first stage of the build.
Private funding had also been committed to the project. This summer, speculation over the new location of a hockey stadium was fueled by the involvement of Mike Ilitch, chairman of Ilitch Holdings, which is the parent company to Olympia entertainment, which operates the Joe Louis Arena.
Given Detroit’s economic crisis, concerns surfaced that the city would be unable to fund the cost of maintaining the rail system financially.
I still believe that the Woodward and Temple location discussed in that earlier report by WXYZ’s Smita Kalokhe is the likely spot where the follow-on rink will be built given that the plot of land vacant and all but cleared there is a stone’s throw from Hockeytown/Comerica/the Fox Theatre and is stadium-sized, but I’m not exactly building the darn thing.
• In Tigers-Wings synergy news, the Detroit News’s Lynn Henning has bad news for Tigers fans: the fact that the Wings will be using Joe Louis Arena on January 12th = no alternate location for Tigersfest this season, and no Tigersfest, period, due to renovations at Comerica Park;
• Let’s stick with plugs for things Wings-related via an email I received from the Andiamo restaurant group of all people, which pointed me to a flyer advertising a pond hockey tournament in St. Clair Shores from January 20-22. Kirk Maltby shall serve as the grand marshal of the inaugural “Nautical Mile Pond Hockey Winter Classic”;
• The Wings’ Twitter account is also plugging a contest serious golfers might want to enter: Wings GM Ken Holland will play golf with the winner of the “Indianwood Golf and Country Club U.S. Senior Open 2012 Gift Pack” contest. As I’m with Mark Twain regarding golf being a good walk spoiled, I promise I won’t enter;
• And the Post-Gazette’s Seth Rorabaugh spoke to Ty Conklin about his memories of his time as a Penguin and a few other things on Tuesday. Here are the Wings-relevant portions of their conversation…Two whole questions’ worth of it:
Question: You’ve played in each conference. What are your impressions of the proposed realignment?
Ty Conklin: “Obviously they wanted to keep a lot of the rivalries. I think it will be a great thing, certainly for travel. Teams in the west, especially on the West Coast, they’re always going to have to deal with a lot of travel. When we go out to California, people are asleep when the game starts. The thing I like the most about it, every fan gets to see every single player, barring injury. Guys in the west, for a while there, you wouldn’t go to Western Canada but every third year. Those people want to see (Alex) Ovechkin and (Sidney) Crosby play too.”
Question: What’s the biggest issue with travel in the Western Conference, distance or time zones?
Ty Conklin: “For us it’s the time zones. Certainly we have to go a long way and there’s other teams that have to go further, but it’s the time zones. When you’re flying back from Vancouver, we’re not getting in until six or seven in the morning. It’s tough, especially come playoff times, (my first) year with Detroit, we played Anaheim in the second round. It’s bad for both teams.”
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.