The Malik Report
by George Malik on 10/01/11 at 07:56 PM ET
The Red Wings hopped on Red Bird III and flew to Toronto for tonight’s marquee match-up against the Leafs (at 7 PM EDT on the CBC, CBC Sports online in Canada and the NHL Network in the U.S.); hopefully someone will toss up a link to a stream to those who need it) going with what we’ll politely call the “B Team” against a due to a combination of injuries—Pavel Datsyuk (back), Mike Commodore (knee) and Danny Cleary (upper-body something) and Jan Mursak (ankle, out till January-ish) are sidelined—and the fact that the Wings inexplicably cap off their pre-season slate with a three-games-in-three-nights grind.
I know that as the Tigers and Yankees play tonight and tomorrow, the turn-out for the live blog will be minimal, but that’s OK: this is the pre-season after all…
But between the fact that, according to TSN, Clarke MacArthur was suspended for dinging Justin Abdeklader in the head (and just like you, I’m confused as all hell get out as to how the Wings can swap the suspended Brendan Smith for Brent Raedeke, who was called up this afternoon despite the fact that Smith has to come up sometime to sit out 5 NHL games), the fact that the Leafs are going to ice what the Leafs’ website suggests is a mystery line-up that’s near regular-season quality, the fact that the Wings admitted to their press corps that they were pissed off at themselves for a characteristically slow start, mediocre goaltending and poor special teams play, the fact that it’s more or less the last chance for Fabian Brunnstrom, Ryan Johnson and Cory Emmerton to impress and the ever-persistent glare of the Toronto media, who are already stirring up bad blood between Ian White and Ron Wilson and basically will lord a Leafs sweep of the Wings, even in the pre-season, over the rest of the league as proof positive that the Leafs are Cup-bound—trust me, they’ve done it before…
And we end up with an extremely dense paragraph from a rusty blogger and a very intriguing match-up for those of you who are willing to either flip channels or dare not watch the Tigers game tonight. For the record, per the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness, here’s tonight’s Wings lineup...
Fabian Brunnstrom-Cory Emmerton-Jiri Hudler
Justin Abdelkader-Darren Helm-Drew Miller
Chris Conner-Ryan Johnson-Patrick Eaves
Tomas Tatar-Joakim Andersson-Landon Ferraro
Niklas Kronwall-Brad Stuart
Jonathan Ericsson-Jakub Kindl
Garnet Exelby-Brian Lashoff
And as I’ve been a strong proponent of “red is better than blue” since the, “Blue is for boys and pink is for girls” line during my kidhood, never mind witnessing the Leafs beat the Red Wings in the 1993 playoffs all of seven rows behind the Wings’ bench (I truly despise the Leafs), I’ll mention that while Leafs coach and general weirdo Ron Wilson grew up around the Wings’ locker room thanks to his uncle Johnny (who spoke to the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons about his career), little Ronnie grew up hating Gordie Howe and rooting for the Leafs. I can’t be Ian White, who preferred to say little to the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger about playing for Wilson instead of something rude because this match-up is a bitter one, at least in my slowly self-straightening head, so indulge me here, okay?
In any case, the Toronto Sun’s Bob Mitchell suggests that an NHL-ready Leafs lineup will play its “final exam” game in front of a raucous crowd and international media spotlight while the b-team tries to salvage some pride and players like Conner, Tatar (cue the “underwhelming pre-season” alarm), Exelby, Lashoff and the fantastic Andersson-Ferraro tandem attempt to establish a call-up pecking order, all while assistant coaches Bill Peters and Jeff Blashill continue to work on eliminating those naggingly persistent defensive coverage and special teams problems which have plagued the Wings for the past two years.
As I suggested last night, there are also larger-picture issues at play, and they don’t involve the fact that White’s finally wearing a matching pair of Easton gloves or Jimmy Howard’s decision to ditch those flat-faced Vaughn Vision pads for his classic “Iceberg” look:
1. At first glance, anyway, it looks like playing alongside Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm will give Todd Bertuzzi the every-game level of interest necessary to harness his physical panache, Valtteri Filppula certainly seems to have been freed from his self-imposed defensive shackles by switching to a winger for Henrik Zetterberg and another player with something to prove in terms of consistent offensive production in Johan Franzen, and regardless of whether Danny Cleary or Tomas Holmstrom plays alongside Pavel Datsyuk, they’re both going to put up points if they stay healthy, so at this point, either Jiri Hudler salvages his game from out of the Detroit River or Patrick Eaves takes his place instead and finally reclaims his status as a two-way performer…
But the Wings have always been at their best both offensively, defensively and on special teams when they can roll four lines, and with Tomas Holmstrom’s place in the lineup secure, Drew Miller, Cory Emmerton and Fabian Brunnstrom are clearly fighting for two spots, and especially as the forechecking dynamo and future Eaves-Helm hybrid (Helm’s held back during the pre-season and may have hurt his case for ice time in going at 80%, by the way) Jan Mursak is out until January, the Wings will need to figure out whether their forechecking game requires reinforcement via trade in the form of either a Dallas Drake-type player or the big body I’m still convinced they need to keep up with the Western Conference’s bigger, meaner teams, or whether a little more offensive balance via Babcock’s tweaks and high levels of grit and grind from the fourth-liners can do the job.
2. While Jimmy Howard very clearly needs to continue working on rebound control and consistency with his mentor in Chris Osgood and a netminding partner who looks rock solid thus far in Ty Conklin, sooner or later, the Wings’ goaltending is going to be just fine, so it’s very clear that once again, porous defensive play and the power play’s disturbingly habitual tendency to disappear when the Wings need it to score the most are the issues that will separate the team from the combination of strong defensive performances and superb special-teams play on the PK and PP especially that can lift the team into contention for the Western Conference crown as well as the Central Division title, and as of yet, Babcock’s new assistants have yet to display any sort of ability to break the Wings’ cycle—pun intended—of allowing teams to set up their own cycling game down low and thread passes to the slot, back door or blueline for easy goals—while losing the first faceoff and chasing one-and-done scoring chances back down into their own end during power play attempts.
It also bears mentioning that while Joey MacDonald fights for his right to play out next year’s one-way contract on the Wings’ roster, the team also has to figure out whether it’s going to tab Thomas McCollum or Jordan Pearce as their goaltender of the future while Petr Mrazek knocks on the door from the OHL, but that’s an ancillary issue as we’re talking about the fact that the team’s NHL netminders need a hand….
3. In that same prospect-centric vein, while Gustav Nyquist’s distinguished himself as a first-order sniper-in-the-making who might torture opponents on the Wings’ cycle, perhaps alongside the equally fearless Tomas Tatar down the line, Joakim Andersson’s been better defensively than Jonathan Ericsson (so is uber-grinder Brent Raedeke) and Landon Ferraro’s offered glimpses of both blinding speed and tenacity, while Chris Conner’s proven himself as the kind of call-up who can make a difference on the scoresheet, we can at least say that if Ryan Johnson’s willing to go down to Grand Rapids to reclaim his game, Brendan Smith’s clearly shown that in terms of both positioning and decision-making, he’s not quite ready for prime time, the physical Garnet Exelby and plain old steady Doug Janik are clearly limited to #6/7 roles at the NHL level and there’s a mass of prospects that has had barely any chance to distinguish itself via opportunities to play regularly in Travis Ehrhardt, Brian Lashoff, Willie Coetzee, Logan Pyett (perhaps the surprise of the bunch), McCollum and Pearce and players like Andrej Nestrasil, Trevor Parkes and Mitchell Callahan never got the chance to do so…
4. We still don’t have an answer as to whether the team plans on grooming a replacement for Tomas Holmstrom….
5. And, and most importantly, while Ian White’s going to fit in nicely as Nicklas Lidstrom’s partner and the Kronwall-Stuart reunion gives Kronwall license to roam and Stuart a request to stop pressing offensively and just play his game instead, the third pairing is a puzzle at best, with Ericsson continuing to commit defensive errors as a stronger Jakub Kindl finally shows flashes of his former status as a first-round pick and potential PP quarterback in the making, and Mike Commodore has at least proven that he can keep up and play a rock-steady game while keeping the flies off…
It’s one thing to worry about whether the Wings need a fourth-line forechecking grinder, whether the team can reverse its habitually poor defensive play and ineptitude on the power play and whether Howard can finally eliminate those bad-rebound and “squeaker” goals; the biggest question for the Wings going forward involves whether White, Kronwall and a third pairing of Ericsson and either Kindl or Commodore can collectively step up and fill Brian Rafalski’s skates in terms of both offensive production and puck-moving savvy. At least based upon pre-season observations, it looks like the Wings may have to go out and pay, if not overpay, for a top-four defenseman who can move the puck to truly regain its form as a team built upon a tungsten carbide-strong foundation of puck-moving defenseman, and that’s got to be Ken Holland’s biggest concern heading into the regular season. Everywhere else, we can see very concrete signs that things will eventually work out, but Rafalski’s decision to retire was one we knew the team couldn’t address via free agency, and the team’s current blueliners’ collective ability to fill his void may be even more pivotal to the team’s playoff future than the systemic issues which Peters and Blashill must address.
So with a rust-shaking shudder I’m turning the live blog over to you. Enjoy the game, fellow die-hards!
Edit/update: I don’t want to harangue you with personal details, but I’m doing my best to get back to abnormal here. I dunno whether I can reach my goal of being back on the job by the time the regular season starts, but I’m gonna do my best to catch up on a full month’s worth of stories to read and regain some physical endurance after a long fight because a) I miss you and am still floored by your support; b) I miss doing my job; and c) If I am to purchase the hot rod laptop I need to do my job properly for the next three years, I’ve gotta go back to work as this one’s gonna be “donated” to the aunt. Mostly, I miss doing my job and talking with all of you, but if I am to head to Toledo and Grand Rapids a few times, learn how to interview prospects via Skype and plain old pay the bills, going back to earning a living helps, too.
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About The Malik Report
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.