The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/23/12 at 01:12 AM ET
I’ve been a very bad Red Wings fan over the past 48 hours. Since the parent received the, “We need you in first thing tomorrow to have a basal cell sarcoma removed” call on Tuesday evening, I’ve spent a decent amount of time in front of the computer, but haven’t done much of anything hockey-related. I know that the Wings played a “spirited” game against the Rangers on Wednesday (with Ty Conklin in goal) but remain winless in six, are 2-5-and-2 in March and have gone 3-7-and-3 since setting their home-ice winning record way back on February 19th. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t watch it—I taped it and played the Sims 3 instead because my brain was too rattled to even watch a Red Wings game.
In between helping the parent recover from a health scare and another deal with a massive flare-up of her health disorder, I’ve heard rumblings that, barring setbacks in practice tomorrow or flare-ups of their respective injuries, we should assume that at least two of Jimmy Howard (groin), Jakub Kindl (strained oblique muscle) or Nicklas Lidstrom (ankle) should return by Saturday’s game against Peter Karmanos’s Hurricanes (I’m sure he’ll at least attend in a suite, but will Mike Ilitch be hosting his business and hockey rival?), and that it is highly likely that all three players will return by next Monday and Wednesday’s set of back-to-backs against Columbus, with Johan Franzen (back spasms), Jonathan Ericsson (broken wrist) and Joey MacDonald (issues with scar tissue from back surgery) likely to all bolster the lineup by the end of next week at the very latest, yielding a full-strength team…
And a full-strength team that finds itself no longer worrying about trying to catch a St. Louis Blues team that is simply out of reach, but instead, is worried about trying to finish with home-ice advantage in a first-round series against either the Nashville Predators or Chicago Blackhawks over Detroit’s last 8 games.
At this point, the Wings, who boast a 44-25-and-5 record and will likely start Saturday night’s game sitting behind both Chicago and Nashville in the standings, and will sit in sixth place in the West off-and-on depending on how each team does over the final two-and-change weeks of the regular season.
And then what? Even if Nicklas Lidstrom’s skating at 85% of his usual self, Jimmy Howard, Todd Bertuzzi, Joey MacDonald and Johan Franzen remain healthy as the chronic-back-becomes-a-chronic-groin-becomes-a-chronic-back-issue fandango plays out, if the blueline is so healthy that Mike Babcock has to start deciding whether he can afford to scratch Brendan Smith to get both Jakub Kindl and Jonathan Ericsson going, if nobody else gets hurt, the power play starts actually scoring on a somewhat regular basis (it’s what, 1 for 35 or something like that?) and we get back to having the luxury of yelling at Jonathan Ericsson (who will never, ever possess the consistency or offensive chops to bail out his occasional brain farts) and Johan Franzen (trust me, folks, I was one of the first people to see him play on North American ice back in July, 2004, and he is what he has always been: a player who is so subtly physical and so casual-looking that you keep waiting for a streaky scorer who simply lurks in stealth mode and bumps bodies more than you would think while driving you nuts because he isn’t more demonstratively aggressive. That’s just who he is and lamenting him for not being Marian Hossa, who was probably never going to re-sign with Detroit in retrospect, is simply a waste of time) because they’re driving us nuts…
Where does this team go in the playoffs? And speaking of the playoffs, especially as the Predators and Blackhawks made more significant moves, why didn’t the Wings load up?
To answer the second question first, asking prices were crazier than perhaps at any other point during the post-lockout CBA thanks to an unnatural level of parity in the standings (which I think is more cyclical than salary cap-floor-related, we just haven’t been through enough shootout era seasons to see this happen before), and the Wings didn’t want to mortgage their future most specifically because of that three-letter summary of a legal document that will be worked out over the summer, as well as the uncertainty regarding the team’s captain’s future. Regardless of what the media rumbles and grumbles and informs us that “insiders” insist will be the case, the Wings are going to have some money to spend this summer, but won’t know how to spend it until Nicklas Lidstrom takes his 3-week break and sits down with his family to decide if he and they are willing to go through another off-season’s worth of training and another regular season grind and regular season’s worth of dad being away from home, and his future will determine the team’s spending habits…
And with Brad Stuart likely to exit, Tomas Holmstrom’s return at an even 50-50, Jiri Hudler (UFA), Darren Helm (RFA), Justin Abdelkader (RFA) and the new acquisition in Quincey (RFA) to re-sign, and players like Jakub Kindl, Cory Emmerton and Jan Mursak’s futures to meander upon should Patrick Eaves return to health and/or the team decide to bring in Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar or Brendan Smith on full-time bases next season, the Wings need the cap and roster flexibility to make some tweaks to the youth movement while retaining as much of it as possible, all while possessing the overriding flexibility to re-sign Lidstrom or spend on his replacement, and on top of that, not handcuff the team’s finances should we find out in July that whatever happens between Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman will require another 2005-style de-facto dispersal draft when salary rollbacks and cranking down of the cap numbers still yielded, “We’ve got to get rid of player X,” because—now take a deep breath, ‘cause I know this is a really long sentence—the Wings have to retain the ability to potentially bid on that pool of players.
To answer the second question, I don’t know, and I have to go back to the beginning of the season as to the reasons why.
Over the past summer, the team’s assistant coaches chose to leave to pursue other opportunities, and if there wasn’t major roster turnover to begin with, this season would have marked an adjustment period for a team whose coach has had at least Paul MacLean flanking one of his shoulders since his days with the Ducks. Perhaps more importantly, the team suffered a blow which they chose to replace on a lower-salary, higher-flexibility-going-forward basis in spending about half of Brian Rafalski’s salary on Ian White and pocketing the rest for this summer’s rainy days, and choosing to inform Chris Osgood and Kris Draper that the team’s tide of self-rebuilding was going to sweep past two remarkable on and off-ice leaders. Edit/update: Think of it this way: if the Red Wings were almost any other team, the magnitudes of at least Osgood and Draper’s retirements would have been recognized as so massive that numbers 30 and 33 would be already hanging from Joe Louis Arena’s rafters, fans would be having a spirited debate as to whether Rafalski’s number should be “honored,” and if Todd McLellan hadn’t done so already, fans of teams with less stable coaching would be asking why the Wings didn’t just fire Babcock and replace him with MacLean instead, and that question wouldn’t be deemed insane from the get-go. The Wings lost nothing less than two legends and a superstar, as well as one coach who’d flanked Babcock for almost a decade, and I think we forget how amazingly devastating these losses would be upon just about any other team.
In other words, the Wings lost three tremendous leaders on the ice, on the bench, in the locker room and everywhere from on the team plane to at dinners, in the workout room and during road trips, and in the cases of most of the Wings’ players, had been around for the entire duration of their careers in Detroit, as well as two coaches who’d been around since 2008 in Brad McCrimmon’s case and 2005 in Paul MacLean’s case.
We knew from the get-go that there would be ups and downs, that this team would struggle at times in terms of its tactical approaches and all sorts of on-ice, on-bench and off-ice intangibles. We knew that Ken Holland, Jim Nill, Ryan Martin and the team’s pro and amateur scouts were making a gamble in hoping that the team’s personnel would improve upon its second-second-round defeat playoff performance via internal improvement from Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard, that said players would be expected to fill the leadership void and that Draper’s defensive acumen, Rafalski’s point production and defensive savvy and Osgood’s leadership from the crease and, often, the bench, would all have to be filled by committee.
Just as importantly, we knew that Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters’ coaching strategies would be hit-and-miss in terms of helping the players improve, adjust and adapt to new coaching strategies, and that even the mighty Mike Babcock would make as many missteps as he would hit upon ways to address a power play that’s been bipolar, if not schizophrenic, since the 2009 playoffs, never mind any other strategic wrinkles (like susceptibility to physical teams that set up on a cycle down low) that might pop up.
As things have played out, they’ve played out more or less to what I believe were the realistic expectations of coaches and management who didn’t talk about their team taking steps forward as much as they spoke about the Detroit Red Wings re-infusing the team with youth, both in terms of its player personnel and its coaching staff, and rebuilding on the fly prior to the start of the regular season. I think that the 6-game losing streak and this partially injury-induced 3-7-and-3 stretch were more or less accounted for in the master plan, and that not making drastic moves to bolster the lineup at the trade deadline may very well have been the management sticking to that plan.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Valtteri Filppula blossom into an offensive borderline superstar after being relieved of his defensive responsibilities as a center as he’s allowed to blaze up and down the ice freely on the wing, we’ve seen Jiri Hudler reaffirm his status as a strong performer, despite his struggles with confidence, Johan Franzen has indeed proven that he can, when healthy, equate to a 35-goal-scorer, we’ve seen Niklas Kronwall step up tremendously in both the point production and leadership departments, Jimmy Howard display much more consistency, confidence, poise and with-the-press accountability, we’ve seen Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and even Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom bend and flex as the “A’s” placed on their chests and the “C” on Lidstrom’s right clavicle weigh them down before adjusting to no longer possessing Draper, Osgood or Rafalski as back-up, we’ve seen the team’s reclamation projects in Todd Bertuzzi, Danny Cleary and the sadly-likely-gone Brad Stuart continue to flourish, grow and become more vocal, we’ve seen players like Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson and sometimes even Drew Miller, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader rise and fall through streaky stretches and growing pains, Ian White both inspire and remind us, over the last stretch, remind us that he’s also a reclamation project that came cheaply for a reason, Mike Commodore and Ty Conklin “not work out” and players like Joey MacDonald and Doug Janik surprise while Jakub Kindl, Cory Emmerton and Jan Mursak have slowly but surely gained their NHL “legs,” and over the past three weeks, we’ve witnessed that even a highly promising #3/4 defenseman who is more or less Brad Stuart’s replacement still has a ways to go in terms of getting up to speed with the Red Wings’ style of play and their requirements regarding mental and physical robustness and engagement.
On top of that, we’ve seen the power play and penalty-kill sometimes dazzle and other times—most of the time—infuriate, some line and defensive combinations work wonders and fail miserably at others, some management of goaltending work wonderfully and other carefully-placed starts prove disastrous, a perhaps predictable amount of too-many-men penalties and difficult opponents become either almost bafflingly unbeatbable or incredibly easily preyed upon, depending on the month, and we’ve seen a team that has been left to its own devices perhaps a little too regularly so that those Filppulas, Kronwalls and Howards learned the hard way to be equally accountable for their play on the ice and in front of microphones as that skittish little pack of MSM’ers who do a very hard job but simply have neither the time nor impetus to “dig deeper” (it’s not their fault that they’re expected to get the quote, write the story and move on in an age where there isn’t the personnel necessary to write feature stories or dig for extra interviews or access) ask what must be surprisingly difficult questions to answer.
To some extent, this really has been a rebuilding year, and, depending on the captain’s decision regarding his career, the team’s free agency moves and/or re-signing difficulties or defections, as well as the CBA constraints reimposed upon the Wings and 29 other teams, the team may very well be better-poised, better-stocked in the personnel department and better-coached and better-adjusted to its personnel a full year after Kris Draper, Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, Brad McCrimmon and Paul MacLean left the scene—and as such, better-positioned to make a long, deep playoff run—a season from now than it is today.
This spring, the Wings’ current roster will learn the hard way whether it’s able to survive against teams whose coaching and managerial staffs are less concerned by sticking to the blueprint and are more concerned with short-term solutions and quick fixes, long-term growth of their team be damned, and the players, coaches and management will take the lessons learned and adjust accordingly.
As this still exhausted son of a mom who’s just had a tremendous health scare and an aunt whose fibromyalgia is all sorts of screwy lays back down for a desperately-needed full night’s sleep, all I can tell you is that even in late March, 2012, I think that the Red Wings’ struggles are still a result of the team’s struggles to overcome a really devastating slate of injuries which have made the team’s flaws as readily viewable as what will eventually become laugh lines on a 25-year-old supermodel’s face, with those injuries only compounding what has been a rebuilding and coach and player-developing year for a team that is still dealing with the aftershocks of the seismic shift in direction yielded by the retirements of Draper, Rafalski and Osgood and the departures of McCrimmon and MacLean.
I know that this seems like a simplistic explanation of what’s probably a more complicated scenario than anyone outside the locker room can imagine, but given 20 years of watching the team, six years of covering this team, albeit somewhat obliquely, for a living and over-thinking things to a fault since I was able to talk, I think the simplest and most logical explanation as to why the Wings are struggling is simple: this team’s trying to balance dozens of changes in terms of on and off-ice departures, the performances of and injuries sustained by new and old personnel and attempting to keep its head above water against a league where teams like the Ken Hitchcock-coached Blues can become this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning, and last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning, thanks to only half-a-dozen personnel changes/injuries and the rest of the league adjusting to them, can become this year’s bottom-dwelling Bolts.
In the attempt to remain a perennial contender for at least a decade to come, the Red Wings chose to go sideways, trying to address their massive changes mostly internally or via low-key acquisitions and transactions, and we’ll find out whether the team’s coach and management’s gamble to work with an incredibly light instead of heavy, change-intensive hand was a safe bet, or merits reassessing.
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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.