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A little Wing wobble

Why are the Red Wings a big “Work in Progress,” and why has their collective play dropped off so significantly after a 5-and-0 start? Going into tonight’s game against the Wild, it seems like the Wings’ players aren’t just on “different pages”—they’re on different chapters of their team’s new playbook, if they’ve read it at all, and I think I know why: after a very strong start, we’re witnessing the effects of Kris Draper, Chris Osgood and Brian Rafalski’s retirements kicking in.

You can see that in the fact that players like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Jiri Hudler are waiting for that kick-in-the-ass, “Start engaging physically and getting ‘em mad at you!” speeches that Draper would give both in the locker room and on the bench, Osgood’s willingness to chirp at his defensemen if they weren’t demonstrative enough, and of course Rafalski’s calmness and passing abilities haven’t been matched—instead, the Wings are over-pinching on defense, with only Ian White having the excuse of not knowing how to play less aggressively, and Kindl, Ericsson and Stuart’s physical edges have disappeared as Kronwall’s attempted to adjust to the weight of that “A” on his right shoulder.

I think the Wings need to find new leaders in their locker room and on their bench as much as they need to improve their power play, penalty-killing and ability to stop opponents from cycling the puck down low in the Wings’ zone under Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters, and perhaps every player not named Nicklas Lidstrom has to step up and be more vocal while proving that they can set an example with their on-ice intensity, determination, attention to detail and every-shift effort.

Draper isn’t going to go out there and play a “steady the ship” shift or two, especially when only one line’s playing and the other three are standing around. Osgood isn’t around to crack a one-liner on the bench or deflate tension by walking around shirtless at the most inappropriate time possible. Rafalski’s quiet intensity, mile-a-minute speaking pace or ridiculously high IQ.

As assistant coaches are off-limits to the media, we’ve also learned that the understated Blashill and Peters are finding their way as the players don’t have the ever-smirking Paul MacLean cracking the whip or “Beast” McCrimmon barking on the bench and then being the “good guy” go-between in practice or the locker room.

The Wings are enduring a bit of an identity crisis as they attempt to regain their swagger after two consecutive second round ousters against the Sharks, and without three veterans and two players who loved nothing more than being Red Wings (even when Chris Osgood was out of town), the team’s most certainly missing some veteran savvy…

And it’s not that the Wings need to reestablish a previous incarnation’s worth of identity with so much turnover. Instead, the youngsters, veterans and coaching staff very clearly need to forget a new one, an identity that incorporates addressing of the systemic and systematic flaws which doomed the Wings against the Sharks last spring, two years ago, and on Friday night, too. The Wings are a team in transition, and it’s simply time for them to embrace the ups and downs of dramatic change by not being afraid to start doing things differently.

This year’s Red Wings team is supposed to evolve into something new, something that’s faster, more aggressive and more demonstrative while also playing more efficient hockey, but even with a ridiculously easy October schedule on their side, the team’s very clearly stuck (to steal the title of an album by the Tragically Hip) In Between Evolution.

It’s gonna take the Wings a while to acknowledge, accept and act upon the changes thrust upon them, and in the interim, we Wings fans might have to endure more of what are, by our standards, anyway, surprisingly disappointing efforts, strange-for-Detroit collapses and moments of stick-clutching indecision as this team attempts to define a new incarnation of the Big Red Machine.

For the record the fam has viral bronchitis of the bad penny kind—it refuses to go away. I’ll be back at work soon, I promise.

Update: One more thing: I think it’s great that the Wings have found a way to convince Johan Franzen to engage in every game by utilizing him as their second line center. His effort is there in every game for the first time in what seems like forever (at least when we’re talking about the regular season). He just needs to find some consistent line mates…Or maybe they need to find themselves.

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Forlorn in VA's avatar

Thanks for your perspective, George.  Be well.

Posted by Forlorn in VA on 10/29/11 at 09:21 PM ET

Inglewood Jack's avatar

Good to read some TML report again.  And thanks for handing us a paper bag to help with the hyperventilating.

Posted by Inglewood Jack from first in line for curly fries on 10/29/11 at 09:23 PM ET


Wow . . . great stuff George . . . super really . . . . keep up the great work


Posted by bobbo from Romeo, Michigan on 10/29/11 at 09:24 PM ET

cowboycoffee's avatar

very true

Posted by cowboycoffee from San Francisco, CA on 10/29/11 at 09:37 PM ET

cigar_nurse's avatar

Great to hear from your perspective George. You have been missed greatly here. Just take it easy and take 1 day at a time. We will be patiently waiting.

Posted by cigar_nurse from On The mend for next season Greenville Pylons on 10/29/11 at 10:01 PM ET


Good to see you George, in more than 100+ characters.
The thought going through my mind watching them is they look lost—not lost as in they’re losing, but still trying to find their way, still hesitant, and I hope they regain their bearings soon in the transition—as you said. (wow, run-on sentence).

Posted by bugsy on 10/29/11 at 10:09 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

And it’s kinda worthy of underlining after the loss. Boy howdy, were the Wings indecisive, tentative and tense. Harding may have been good but 2 Wings players were losing puck battles against 1 Wild player on a regular basis, and that was just the start of it all.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 10/29/11 at 11:35 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

And if Cleary’s banged up according to Ken and Mickey, it must be noted that Brad Stuart’s wearing extra plastic on his right glove’s index finger after taking a puck there a few games ago…

When has Pavel Datsyuk’s stick been less than invincible? People are picking pucks off Pavel because he’s getting too fancy for him. That’s how bad it’s been going for everybody of late.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 10/29/11 at 11:38 PM ET

dougie's avatar

Ah, a nice way to begin my Sunday morning.

Great to see ya back, George.

Posted by dougie on 10/30/11 at 06:42 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

George!  Let me echo what dougie said.  Great to see a post from you.  And great job, great perspective.

It is a transition time for this team and maybe (hopefully) it is just a matter of time until they get it figured out.

Meanwhile, we fans must “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Posted by MsRedWinger from the State where Tigers roam in the Spring on 10/30/11 at 10:35 AM ET

TheRealYooper's avatar

the fam has viral bronchitis of the bad penny kind—it refuses to go away.

my family went though this during the month of September. this week it reared its head again, and made another pass.

pray the wings find a way out of this funk they are in, or it is gonna be a long, long season.

Posted by TheRealYooper from within sight of the edge of the Earth. on 10/30/11 at 02:42 PM ET

HockeyTownTodd's avatar

This will get worked out, it will take some time, and still may not look good against teams with a noticeable size advantage like SJS.
There has been plenty of effort, no slacking off, but perhaps a bit misguided.
DRW have simply become too predictable.  I am just a fan, but if I know what each player is going to do with the puck every time it touches their sticks, I will bet every other team knows what happens before it happens.  You have to play that way to a certain extent if you are going to have all the players interchangeable, but you are building a mountain you will have to climb every single game.
All the resources teams have these days ...scouting, video, replay overkill with analysis during broadcasts,  I am sure other teams know what is coming down even long before I see it.

You got it right…

and it’s simply time for them to embrace the ups and downs of dramatic change by not being afraid to start doing things differently.

V-Bronchitis is a bitch, it takes time.  Important to get plenty of rest.
Get well soon…

Posted by HockeyTownTodd on 10/30/11 at 03:55 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

I had a thought after the San Jose game…

Todd McLellan’s more or less taught the NHL how to beat the Red Wings, and, to some extent, the Wings have to tweak their systems of play and maybe even their personnel to beat the Sharks. I’m more or less convinced of it after watching the Wild play a very dumbed-down version of the system with great effectiveness against the Wings on Saturday.

It’s pretty simple these days:

1. In your own zone, either play very hard along the boards and in front of the net because the Wings’ forwards will always peel off when they enter the zone and can be pinned/picked off, or simply make it hard to get to the net because only Tomas Holmstrom screens the goalie with any gusto, and when you eliminate side-to-side passes along the goal line or from the half boards to the faceoff dot, all the Wings can do is dump the puck back to the defense and try to fire a puck through shot-blocking defensemen when Homer isn’t on the ice.

Because their defensemen over-pinch and their forwards can get caught cheating, it’s also useful to lure them down into a corner and attempt the Thornton-style home run pass and/or catch defensemen deep.

2. In the neutral zone, trap like New Jersey used to, stacking four players at the blueline after using a 2-up-3-back formation at the Wings’ blueline, because if the Wings’ puck-moving defensemen don’t catch a forward moving through the neutral zone with speed via a one-touch pass, either the forwards defer to their defensemen and all five Wings get bunched up at center, or one forward who isn’t skating fast to start will try to beat 2 or 3 guys and then make a lateral or backwards pass because the Wings hate dumping it in, and because the NHL more or less allows moving picks again, when the Wings do dump it in, they may not be allowed to pick your forwards off, but you can sure as hell grab theirs to prevent them to get to the puck.

3. In the Wings’ zone, especially if you haven’t caught one of their defensemen pinching and can exploit Jimmy Howard’s lingering willingness to bite on dekes and fake shots to your advantage (he hasn’t quite gotten over that innate trait), just get the puck down low on the cycle and the Wings will almost inevitably either over-block shots or will start running around after the puck carrier if you’re persistent enough, and if you can prevent them from half-assedly clearing the puck (the Wings haven’t bore down upon clearing the zone since 2008) via astute defensive pinches of your own, you can almost inevitably set up at or around the goal line and fire a diagonal pass to someone in the slot or lurking in a “back door” position, or you can fire a puck to an uncovered defenseman (see: Dan Boyle, Ian White, etc.) who pinches in from the left or, more often, right point to get a sneaky shot off.

If you keep your sticks active, you may take advantage of the fact that the Wings tend to clutch up when the puck’s near the top of the crease, and when Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t on the ice now sealing the left goalpost like a goaltender himself (it’s a patented and brilliant play), you may be able to use a lateral pass along the goal line that either slithers into trouble or slithers by the goaltender if he’s cheating off the post.

Add in some gratuitous baiting by targeting players’ heads or shoulders and/or instigating the kinds of scrums where Brent Burns punches Tomas Holmstrom and you then get what you really want—while people were paying attention to Brent Burns jumping Jiri Hudler, Joe Thornton skated into the scrum and tried to clock Henrik Zetterberg—and you can get the Wings distracted to the point that even Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Todd Bertuzzi will seemingly forget how to lay out some players of their own, and because Niklas Kronwall understands that he can’t hit everything that moves if he wants to save his knees, you can always piss off Brad Stuart or Jonathan Ericsson enough to get them off the ice, if not take advantage of the fact that the refs seem to be all too happy to “set an example” by sending Nicklas Lidstrom off for the kinds of penalties that most other players not named Todd Bertuzzi get away with.

I think that at this point, it’s becoming very evident that the Wings need to have both their first and second lines going on the same night and that they need to find an effective fourth line formation (I really like Emmerton at center), and in terms of physical punch, Kindl and Ericsson are starting to exhibit enough uncertainty that despite Kindl’s obvious top-four potential, Commodore might be able to earn a game or two soon and add some much-needed snarl.

Mostly, however, defeating this blueprint involves more attention to detail, concerted effort and a little more moxie, gumption and bold, “I don’t give a f*** how hard you make it for me to get through center ice or go to the net, I’m gonna do it, and I don’t give a f*** how big you are or how much you try to pick us off or cheap shot us, we’re gonna keep coming, we’re gonna slow down the pace of play to stop your chaotic crap, take control of the puck and then ramp things back up to our ‘coming in waves’ standard” determination, and, very obviously, much better execution on special teams as well as much better execution of a hard-charging forechecking game to defeat the Shark Game by chopping it off at ankle level instead of targeting the head.

We’ll see how willing the Wings are to embrace change and address the fundamental flaws the Sharks have exposed to their forechecking, offensive zone play, transition game, defensive postures, one-and-done, chase the puck back down the ice power play and sometimes too frantic penalty-kill, never mind the fact that despite his very genuinely admirable work on getting to the top of the blue paint, squaring up his body to present a big target and move much, much, much better laterally and when recovering to stop rebound opportunities, Jimmy Howard remains a shot-blocking goalie as opposed to the the type of goalie who swallows up pucks, and he’s always going to kick out rebounds, just like Ozzie did.

Howard’s fundamentals are now far superior to Osgood’s (his athletic ability and bulldog’s nature made up for any flaws, most of the time), but he’s just one of those aggressive hybrid goalies who stops the first puck, tries to pump the rebound into a less dangerous place and then relies on his defense to help him deal with secondary and tertiary scoring opportunities.

So yeah, that’s the short version of what I’ve been thinking about lately.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 10/30/11 at 09:03 PM ET

HockeyTownTodd's avatar

Gosh, George, that sounds like they are a little too predictable.

Posted by HockeyTownTodd on 10/30/11 at 09:23 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

The Wings’ system works…But after undergoing the most personnel change in terms of on and off-ice leadership since the 2006-2007 season, it’s time to tweak the system.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 10/30/11 at 09:33 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

Hopefully the fact that they’re more patient than we are will pay off. I wouldn’t abandon puck possession hockey by any stretch of the imagination, because the team’s built on that foundation, its current players thrive playing in that kind of system and its future prospects, both in Grand Rapids and elsewhere, are high-skilled puck possession-style players. Even the bigger guys that the team’s drafted over the past few seasons aren’t dump-and-chase-and-hit guys.

What the Wings need to do is tweak and hybridize a bit. It’s time to shake things up, and again, I’m glad they’re more patient than we are, because right now it’s painful as fark to watch them lose so easily.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 10/30/11 at 10:03 PM ET


Hey George,

You should make that large comment you wrote at 8:03 a posting of it’s own.  The Wings brass that read your blog might miss it buried in the comments.  Judging from the team’s play lately it looks like they could use an outside perspective. 

And get well soon.

Posted by loojay on 10/31/11 at 07:12 AM ET

MOWingsfan19's avatar

Great to see you posting up George.
And any post with a T-Hip reference can’t be ALL bad.

Posted by MOWingsfan19 from I really like our team on 10/31/11 at 11:54 AM ET

red_wings_49's avatar

Yayyyyyyy!!!! George!

Posted by red_wings_49 from Mad Heights, MI on 10/31/11 at 02:27 PM ET

AndrewFromAnnArbor's avatar

Get well, George.  But if I can borrow a play from Gramps…

The Wings are a team in transition, and it’s simply time for them to embrace the ups and downs of dramatic change by not being afraid to start doing things differently.

Dammit, that should include the coach.  I’m seeing some of the ol’ Babcockian inflexibility in these losses, a little too bullheaded for his own good, and that’s cost us in places.  Sure, the players need to embrace the change, but so does the coach.  And puck possession is not a static, single-way system…there are other ways of doing things without overhauling the entire system that would make things less predictable.  If the rest of the League has us pegged after twenty years, it’s time to make them start guessing again.  It’s the old definition of stupidity…doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time.  Uncle Mike, you listening?

Posted by AndrewFromAnnArbor from Fortress Europe on 11/01/11 at 02:54 PM ET

AndrewFromAnnArbor's avatar

So yeah.  Get well soon.  I’m sending you virtual hot toddies…

Posted by AndrewFromAnnArbor from Fortress Europe on 11/01/11 at 02:55 PM ET


George, hope you’re better. Get ready for the next set of fans to break ankles jumping off the bandwagon at this rate. Couldn’t see the game tonight—I should be grateful?

Posted by Bugsy on 11/01/11 at 11:19 PM ET

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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.


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