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Guest commentary: a journalism professor grades the 2011-2012 Wings’ players, coaches and management

Every once in a while, it’s good to change things up, and when readers ask me if they can weigh in with commentary of their own, I’m more than willing to oblige them. I know professor Steve Klein well, and his credentials speak for himself—as do his outspoken opinions—and here’s his take on the Wings’ disappointing 2011-2012 regular season and playoff run, including player grades (I’ll weigh in with my own in a day or two: I need to calm down, grieve a bit and pen something a little less emotionally charged than what you’re about to read) and recommendations in terms of necessary changes. His column comes with the usual blogger’s disclaimer: these opinions are his, not mine, and they stand on their own merit:

Steve Klein was sports editor of the Lansing State Journal from 1985-95 and is a life-long Detroit Red Wings fan. He coordinates the Journalism program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Here’s the thing I like most about Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. He’s brutally honest.

Like my old Michigan State friend, Ron Mason, the all-time winningest college hockey coach, Babcock is a zero-sum guy. It’s not, “What did you do last shift for me?” Its, “What did you do at the end of the last shift for me?” And the answer better not be that you were dragging your ass to the bench because you were on the ice too long.

I will remember the 2011-12 Detroit Red Wings season as one of fun and frustration. Fun until Pavel Datsyuk left the lineup with a knee injury that required surgery after Feb. 21. The Wings were 41-17-2 and leading the NHL at the time.

No more fun.

From there on in, it was mostly frustration: 7-11-4 to play out the season and drop to fifth in the West; 8-15-4 if you add the five games-and-out of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the built-to-beat-the-Wings Nashville Predators.

Except for a couple blowouts against Columbus and one against Minnesota—teams that did not make the playoffs—the Wings won a couple shootouts, a couple one-goal games, and the lone one-goal playoff game after Feb. 21.

Frustration.

For the most part, the Wings weren’t fun to watch at all after Feb. 21.

No more of those Lidstrom-Rafalski laser-pass breakouts up the middle.

No improvement on the power play.

No improvement on defensive zone mistakes.

No improvement on faceoffs and the puck possession it creates.

We kept hoping because we remembered the fun; we’re fans.

The reality, however, was continued frustration.

Since I do a lot of grading in my academic life, my students understand that a “C” meets standards. Standards are supposed to be high. The Wings did not meet their standards this season.

So, using a fun-or-frustration rubric, here is my assessment of the Wings for the 2011-12 season. Forget those pre-Feb. 21 midterm grades, by the way. The NHL is a zero-sum game, as Mike Babcock or Ron Mason will tell you.

GOAL

Jimmy Howard: After he was injured (finger, groin, groin), he wasn’t much fun and a lot of frustration. He was good, but not good enough. We saw what great is from Nashville. C-.

Joey MacDonald: He had his fun—before Feb. 21. After that, he was injured. More frustration. He never played and couldn’t help. F (remember, what have you done for me lately?).

Ty Conklin: He was no fun this season, just all frustration except for a tease of a shutout early. F, and he can’t retake the class.

DEFENSE

Nick Lidstrom: Not the same Nick after the deep ankle bruise. Not the same Wings as a result. Talk about frustration. C- because it’s a zero-sum game. I think he’d agree.

Nick Kronwall: Just not, and likely never will be, the difference maker that Lidstrom has been for two decades. Fun, but he only beat standards by a bit. C+.

Ian White: Frustrating because he is not Brian Rafalski other than he shoots right. C.

Jonathan Ericsson: It took his injury for the fans to appreciate him. That in itself is fun(ny). He’s the kind of player Ken Holland hasn’t given his coach enough of: big with reach. How many times does Babs have to say he likes size for his GM to respond? C+.

Brad Stuart: You want to leave. We understand. Thanks for the memories. Just play for San Jose like you did at the end of the season and during the playoffs (1 assist, minus-5). D (but only because he represents what little toughness the Wings have).

Kyle Quincey: So, we gave him away, then traded a first-round draft choice to get him back? Frustration on so many levels. F.

Jakub Kindl: After that final Chicago game, when he personally handed the Black Hawks their two goals, what are you going to do with the guy? He never played again. Trade bait; don’t want you in class anymore. A frustrating and disappointing F.

NOTE: And remember, Mike Babcock said he was satisfied with the back end. Still, it was more than time for Brendan Smith.

FORWARDS

Henrik Zetterberg: He was fun when it really counted. If only he could finish. The ONLY forward Babs mentioned after the Wings were eliminated. A.

Pavel Datsyuk: We never saw much Datsyukian magic after his knee surgery. He was sooooo good until then (although he started the season slowly). C-.

Darren Helm: Babs NEVER talks about players who aren’t available. He talked a lot about Helm. The ultimate frustration for the Wings. F (sorry, but you can’t miss class).

Johan Franzen: What’s lower than an F? Don’t want him back in class. He frustrates his classmates.

Justin Abdelkader: Not the third-line center. That proved frustrating. D.

Todd Bertuzzi: Should not be allowed to play in the first period, when he almost always takes a frustratingly stupid penalty in the offensive zone. Tell me again why the Wings signed him to a new 2-year contract? There are no shootouts in the playoffs. Contract was a Franzian mistake. D (but only because he stood up for Zetterberg).

Fabian Brunnstrom: Remember him? The Wings didn’t. F is for the Fabian-size frustration.

Danny Cleary: Life’s not fair. Played on one leg (and it wasn’t Steve Yzerman’s one leg). D for his bravery. But ultimately frustrating.

Cory Emmerton: Someone has to play on the Frustration Line. F.

Valtteri Filppula: He doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t score. What could be more frustrating? D.

Tomas Holmstrom: Good Lord but I love him. He died almost every game for his sins. F. Can’t come back to class. Time to graduate. No more fun for you.

Jiri Hudler: How many times did I email George, “He plays small.” Frustrating because you almost never see him, even when he scores. Thanks for playing the game. Maybe Columbus wants you? D.

Drew Miller: Except for the PK, disappeared when Helm disappeared. C. He coulda been fun.

Gustav Nyquist: I know, I know, but what did he do? Other teams have promising young players, too; they even score. F. Not fun yet.

Riley Sheahan: Will remember him for knocking a player’s teeth out in his March debut. Thought that was worth mentioning. F. Not fun yet.

NOTE: Kinda makes you appreciate Hank, doesn’t it? He gets the “C” from Lidstrom some day.

BOSSES (and such):

Mike Babcock: I really like him. Bought his book. But there are other coaches just as good in the division. But not better. They just had better players this year. I hope he coaches the Wings for a long, long time. B-.

Assistant coaches: The Wings have assistant coaches? What do they do? F.

Piet Van Zant: We needed miracles. F (another life’s not fair assessment).

Jimmy D.: DO SOMETHING! Are you getting old or something? This wasn’t fun. F.

Ken Holland and his staff: If you compare the job he did this season, for whatever mysterious reasons he did it, compared to David Poile, this is an easy F. Took the fun right out of the season.

Mike Ilitch: Always an A+. Thanks for everything you mean to the Wings, the Tigers, Detroit and me. You make the fun possible.

ME: Too harsh? So give me an F for being a bad fan. Like George, I love the Wings; I have for more than 50 years and will, hopefully, for many more. Ron Mason taught me hockey is a zero-sum game. You heard Babcock’s zero-sum summation. The Nashville series wasn’t close. I agree. Close games don’t make a close series. The Wings’ faults remained consistent all season. They never changed, never improved, they never fixed their problems. Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe inertia is inevitable after two decades. So, who was the poster boy of this team? Johan Franzen. Time for a new poster boy.

 

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Comments

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is this real life?

Posted by andres_rw from boulder on 04/21/12 at 11:47 PM ET

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Ummm, perhaps the most bizarre and unrealistic grades of all time. Remind me to put him on the list of professors whose classes I want to avoid.

Posted by wingsfan31 on 04/21/12 at 11:54 PM ET

soletrain's avatar

that is a hard line… have to agree to a point…i’m pro hudler though.

Posted by soletrain on 04/22/12 at 12:06 AM ET

Heaton's avatar

This guy seems like one of those teachers who have tests where they have 5 correct answers, but you have to pick the most correct answer.  I don’t disagree with everything he said but I assume after watching for 50 years if you’re not in a 3 year cup window its too easy to be insanely pessimistic.

Posted by Heaton on 04/22/12 at 12:10 AM ET

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He’s from MSU. What do you expect. I guess the wings will have zetterberg next year and that’s it. Go Z Go.

Posted by T on 04/22/12 at 12:14 AM ET

IwoCPO's avatar

How nutty that all those smart students can end up with such shitty grades but the teacher is viewed so positively.

Posted by IwoCPO from Sunny San Diego, bitches on 04/22/12 at 01:00 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

I was kinda stunned when I read them, but Steve asked for a guest commentary and I understand that he’s being emotional. I think it’s important to give that perspective a voice.

And yeah, these are like engineering grades, not journalism grades. The kind of stuff where getting 40% on the test is really, really good and getting 20% is passing.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/22/12 at 01:05 AM ET

IwoCPO's avatar

More like pharmacy school grades.  much too advanced for a simple PBR drinker like me to understand.

Posted by IwoCPO from Sunny San Diego, bitches on 04/22/12 at 01:07 AM ET

DocF's avatar

This guy may be a fan, but he sure doesn’t know hockey or grading.  Babcock wanted the two failed assistants.  They are his responsibility.  His zero sum approach has turned the players he has off totally.  His only possible grade is F.

Posted by DocF from Now: Lynn Haven, FL; was Reidsville, NC on 04/22/12 at 01:23 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

Don’t ask me…I spent half my time in elementary school where grades were on a ten-point scale and then went to Catholic school, where it’s 900-93, 92-84, 84-77, 77-70 and down from there, then I took engineering classes for two years (where a “C” is a good thing) and literature and writing classes (where you had to work your ass off to get an A, but a B was a very wide-ranging grade and the line between C and D was very slight, all depending on the teacher), then I had two years of education courses, where it was a B+/B/B-/C world, and I taught in a school system where every grade was rounded up to the point that you simply could not fail thank to ye olde No Child Left Behind Act.

I like the elementary school “outstanding, satisfactory or needs improvement” grades for a reason,

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/22/12 at 01:24 AM ET

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Jakub Kindl is untouchable and not a trade bait. He just had a most successful rookie season. He was a force on defense in 18 games during the 23 games of NHL-record home win streak.
His two mistakes in one game against Chi is nothing to talk about. He is our only young D who is actually capable of making those laser-like breakout passes up the middle.

Something on a different note:
We have just witnessed a momentous event - a turning point not only in the Detroit Red Wings history but the history of the entire NHL league. The last link to the old NHL is gone. The LAST DYNASTY came to an end. Montreal in 1974-79, Islanders in 1980-83, Oilers in 1984-91 and the last one - Red Wings in 1991-2012. Do you realize that there will NEVER AGAIN be another dynasty in hockey? It’s simply not possible anymore unless NHL discards the cap and returns to free-spending era. NHL Inc. finally got what they wanted for so long - no more dynasties, only “one and done"s. No more elite teams and underdogs. Every team now has a chance and can make a run at the Cup. Playoffs look and feel like a crapshoot. I prefer the old NHL and personally do not find the “new” NHL interesting or captivating at all.

Posted by Alex on 04/22/12 at 01:30 AM ET

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Come think of it: Ken Hitchcock was available as late as mid-season. Insane

Todd McLellan gave credit to St.Louis: “They are stifling. They are just defensively stifling.”

Posted by Alex on 04/22/12 at 01:50 AM ET

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Weird to insist it’s a zero sum game over and over again, but then use a grading curve.

If it’s truly zero sum, the grading options should only be pass / fail.

Posted by Snepts on 04/22/12 at 02:16 AM ET

Chet's avatar

many of these are too harsh but it’s a good way to start a debate.

Posted by Chet from twitter: thegansen on 04/22/12 at 02:21 AM ET

OlderThanChelios's avatar

Piet Van Zant: We needed miracles. F (another life’s not fair assessment).

So this prof thinks the trainer was a failure? Maybe a better trainer would have prevented Pavel’s knee injury and that would have led to more wins which would have resulted in…

Thank god they don’t let idiot college professors become President of the United States or we’d be in a real mess. Oh, wait…

Posted by OlderThanChelios from Grand Rapids, MI on 04/22/12 at 02:41 AM ET

babymachine's avatar

Grades aside, he makes some great points. This was not the same team once the home winning streak ended. Once we lost Lids and Datysuk to injury, the team was not fun to watch.

In years past, guys would step up and pick up the slack, and everyone would take note of the depth the Wings had. Not this year. The team lost its identity and never got it back.

Some of the positives I take away from this season: Flip emerging as a second line center, Huds having a bounce back year, and Ericsson finally getting recognized as a legit #3 or 4 D-man. Big E finally escaped the shadow of the 2009 playoffs from the “critics”.

Posted by babymachine from Portland, Oregon by way of Macomb, Michigan on 04/22/12 at 03:51 AM ET

w2j2's avatar

The Wings really stunk all year.
If not for Jimmy Howard saving their a** in many games, they would have not made the playoffs.

Wings Legacy: 
It took the other teams in the Central Division 15 years to copy the Wings, and now they are the best of the NHL.

I am rooting for Nashville (They will win the cup) and Paul MacLean’s Senators.

Posted by w2j2 on 04/22/12 at 04:34 AM ET

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Hey, thanks for all your comments.
The discussion is like office hour, y’know?
Please keep one thing in mind: Everyone thinks they start life/school/a class with an “A”. But you actually start with a “C”, which means “meets standards.” Standards should be high, especially when we’re talking about the Detroit Red Wings—which is what we’re talking about here. So my grading here started from “C”, not “A”, and from Feb. 21, not the start of the season.
In class, my students get unlimited rewrites, by the way—until deadline. Then you have to pay for your mistakes. Life is like that, y’know, and often not as forgiving. It’s no different for the Wings, Mike Babcock or Ron Mason.
My apologies to Piet Van Zant, by the way. I was just attempting to make light of the Wings’ many injuries, were certainly not his fault. He’s a terrific trainer. But ultimately, this team broke down in the NHL’s war of attrition, and the team needed a miracle even Van Zant couldn’t produce.
Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if Todd McLellan came back to the Wings if the Sharks are foolish enough to make him a scapegoat? I don’t think Paul MacLean is going to be available anytime soon.

Posted by Steve Klein from Fairfax, VA on 04/22/12 at 08:47 AM ET

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The Detroit News’s Gregg Krupa has a terrific piece of analysis at:
http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120422/OPINION03/204220313/1128/rss16?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Posted by Steve Klein from Fairfax, VA on 04/22/12 at 08:55 AM ET

BrendonR's avatar

Thanks for switching things up George, but I have to agree with others that these grades make no sense at all.  So it was Helm’s fault he got injured? You cant miss class, so shame on him for going and throwing his arm at Radulov’s skate!  So an F for him.  And Datsyuk was amazing this year and managed to almost single-handedly will the Wings to win a ton of games this year, but of course this is a zero-sum game. Other opinions are great, but really only from people who have any idea what they’re talking about.

Posted by BrendonR on 04/22/12 at 09:37 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

Something on a different note:
We have just witnessed a momentous event - a turning point not only in the Detroit Red Wings history but the history of the entire NHL league. The last link to the old NHL is gone. The LAST DYNASTY came to an end. Montreal in 1974-79, Islanders in 1980-83, Oilers in 1984-91 and the last one - Red Wings in 1991-2012. Do you realize that there will NEVER AGAIN be another dynasty in hockey? It’s simply not possible anymore unless NHL discards the cap and returns to free-spending era. NHL Inc. finally got what they wanted for so long - no more dynasties, only “one and done"s. No more elite teams and underdogs. Every team now has a chance and can make a run at the Cup. Playoffs look and feel like a crapshoot. I prefer the old NHL and personally do not find the “new” NHL interesting or captivating at all.

Posted by Alex on 04/22/12 at 12:30 AM ET

When I look at the current playoff standings, I have to agree with this.

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 04/22/12 at 10:14 AM ET

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Hey Steve,

Love the column and have to agree with the majority of the grades based on your criteria for grading.  Results matter, you are either successful or you aren’t. 

If you are you get a C or above, if you aren’t you drop appropriately.  We aren’t grading intent or bad luck.  These grades (for the most part) are not a prediction of future performance, simply an assessment of what happened. 

I’ll take Lidstrom (C-) over Kronwall (C+) or Ericcson (C+) any day, but in the grading period, Lidstrom played worse than the acceptable standard for his role (TPH).  However, I’ll give him a mulligan and let him retake the class as many times as he wants.

Posted by Sabby on 04/22/12 at 12:42 PM ET

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Great writeup. Folks complaining these grades aren’t “fair” or “realistic” have not taken a real college course, and are taking the grades too seriously. A “C” isn’t bad by any means, but it does show that there is a much higher ceiling that wasn’t reached. And besides, these grades don’t mean a damn thing (besides being material for us to discuss on a blog).

Quibbles/disagreements:

Helm gets and “F” for missing class. Not realistic. If you miss class for reasons outside your control (sick in the hospital for a month or something, you have a doctor’s note), you don’t fail that class, you drop it. I’m all for the harsh grades, but telling a guy he failed because he accidentally fell on a guy’s skate and couldn’t play anymore goes beyond harsh.

Zetterberg: He really was the best player on the ice. But I don’t even think he should get an A. For all that hard work and effort he put in, how many goals did he have in the series? If it’s a results based scale, then his results still were not enough. I loved his play, but there were several times I got frustrated because he didn’t shoot the puck or attack the net enough. I would give him a “B” or “B+”. Reserve the “A” for players who dominate in all phases of the game.

Babcock’s grade is too high. I love the coach too, but his stubbornnes was his undoing. He never split up the lines until late in games, his “stay the course” message after the game 4 loss was teh absolute wrong message to send to your players. Whether you dominate puck possession or not, if you don’t score then you change things up. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time…for as down to earth as our coach normally is, his stubbornness is at times insane.

Nyquist the rookie with promise fails? Why? He actually had some fun moments…no goals, sure, but how much do you expect of rookies? I don’t think he deserves any lower than a “D” on your scale.

It feels wrong to grade Quincey worse than Stuart. Quincey was the new guy, and your grading is based on things beyond Quincey’s control (what the Wings gave up for Quincey…that’s on the GM, not Quincey). Q actually had some positive moments in the series, and I remember more positive out of him than Stuart.

Howard should at least be a “C”. He had a bad game 4, but then again, was that loss really his fault when your team dominates but can’t score on the other end? He was the only reason the Wings were tied at the start of the 3rd in game 5. I would give him a “B-” or “C+” personally. He was an “A” up until his injury time…when he came back he was disappointing, but worked back up towards his previous high. Not quite all the way back, but he was probably the Wings’ second best player of the series, behind Z.

Posted by tehGOALIE on 04/22/12 at 02:40 PM ET

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Thanks for getting it, Sabby.
A lot of folks are missing the criteria for the rubric.
Happens all the time in school, too ... smile
This was just about a pass/fail based on how you played when it really mattered, which was after Feb. 21. Everything before that just gave the Wings position to succeed—which they didn’t.
In fact, they probably had the worst record in the league going into the playoffs. Columbus was playing better than Detroit was at the end of the season (albeit with a lot less pressure).
The Stanley Cup playffs aren’t a skills competition. I keep saying that the playoffs are a war of attrition. The Wings wore out, plain simple. They took injuries—of course it wasn’t Helm’s fault! But if you’re in the class (on the team) and you don’t take the test (play), you fail.
I don’t see how that is any different than the things Mike Babcock had to say. Of course, Coach Mike was Professor Mike, too ... smile

Posted by Steve Klein from Fairfax, VA on 04/22/12 at 02:42 PM ET

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To tehGOALIE:
I know a guy who calls himself the Goolie ...
I like your comments and assessments. Great office visit!
You’re right: The grades really don’t matter. I tell students that if they do the work and learn, the grade generally follows. Too many students work for the grade. They should work to learn; they they will succeed.
I can’t say this enough: I love Darren Helm. Really I do. He made the third line matter; no one else could do that. I wish I could have seen that line with Helm, Miller and Eaves. But that’s the point. Wish, wish, wish. On the scale I used, Helm played one or two shifts, then got hurt. He wasn’t a factor. that was frustrating. Thus the “F”. But I’m more than willing to let him retake the class. That would be my pleasure—and Wings’ as well.
And one more time: We’re talking about the Detroit Red Wings—not the Columbus Blue Jackets, not even the Nashville Predators. Standards are the highest in Detroit; teams, including the Preds, measure themselves by the Red Wings.
Standards matter. That’s why Harvard and Yale and Princeton are who they are.
So, with the exception of Helm and Van Zant, the grades stand ... smile

Posted by Steve Klein from Fairfax, VA on 04/22/12 at 03:03 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.