Trouble on D: There’s always one

He touches the puck. You gulp. Heart thumps. Palms get sweaty. Stomach drops through your ass.

It’s not just a lack of confidence you’re feeling — his mere presence on the ice takes care of that. No, it’s actual fear that his possession of the puck will initiate a bonehead goal against and cripple the team in a critical moment.

In Detroit, there’s always one.

I’m talking about that horrifyingly bad defenseman that gets third-pairing minutes but still manages to find a way to screw things up.

Oh, yes. Sometimes he’ll pot a goal. Occasionally, he’ll have an inspiring fight or key defensive play. But he was a minus-5 out of the womb and carries the puck through the Wings’ crease like a puppy chasing cars on the highway. “HEY NICK! WATCH ME THIS TIME! I’M GONNA GO COAST TO CO–aww…not again.”

This year’s idiot? Jonathan Ericsson. Lucky us, Detroit has him signed through 2014! Ugh. He’s a living, breathing ulcer.

I once had high hopes for Ericsson. I did. The Red Wings have had so few lumbering defensemen over the years, with the potential to crush opposing forwards, slap a wicked shot on the powerplay and collect bounties at the blue line.

But with Ericsson, I don’t see intimidation. I see players licking their chops.

The same is true of many former Wings defensemen. There’s always one.

What about Andreas Lilja? Yes, he’s gone now (thank the dear Yzerman), but will you ever forget how he cost the Red Wings the 2007 Stanley Cup?

Yep, when the Red Wings lose a key game at the end of the season to Columbus as they so pathetically did tonight, you get to relive these kinds of moments. Taste the pain. Ooh, the burn.

Without that turnover, the Wings would have won Game 5 in overtime, finished the series in Anaheim and crushed the Senators for another championship. I’m still bitter about it.

How about Brett Lebda? Lebda was fast. Faster than most Red Wings players I’ve watched over the years. Maybe even coulda gone to the Olympics for speed skating. He would have fared better there. No puck to forget, no silly stick to carry, no hockey intelligence necessary. Yup, he would’ve been perfect.

There’s always one.

Hey! Red Wings. You lost to Brett Lebda’s team tonight. How’s that feel?

Even in the dream seasons — 1997, ’98 or ’02 — you had guys like Jamie Pushor, Jiri Slegr and Anders Eriksson. (Can we please ban all current and future Eric(k)ssons from the Red Wings roster?)

There’s always one.

Of course, the Wings have had plenty of awe-inspiring defensemen, too: Konstantinov, Fetisov, Chelios, Rafalski, Larry Murphy, and The Perfect Human himself, Nick Lidstrom.

But Lidstrom has to sit sometime. He can only breath through his mouth, ears and eyelids for 25 minutes a night. And when he does, there’s always a chance Coach Babcock will swig his flask, close his eyes and quietly call Ericsson’s number.

There’s always one.

I can’t handle it. Somebody tell Sweden they can have him back. I’ll pay extra shipping to send him home before the playoffs.

Also, two key points on the line and you lose to Columbus? Really, you guys? REALLY?!

Go Wings.

I want Gustav Nyquist in the playoffs

Hear me Babs? There’s only four lines, only 12 forwards sharing ice time, but come playoff time, Gustav Nyquist better damn well be one of them.I was listening to Winging It In Motown Radio this morning via The Triple Deke, and the boys had a lengthy conversation about Nyquist and his role heading into the playoffs. The consensus? It needs to be a big one.

The kid has top-six talent. Anybody who watched him tear up the AHL this year knows it. He could have been on this Red Wings roster all season, but that’s not how the Detroit brass does things. You earn your keep first. Then you wear the Winged Wheel.

But Nyquist has paid his dues. Give him a real shot in the playoffs.

(OK, so that’s a preseason goal. Big deal. It’s either that or a funny pronunciation of his name. Goo-stuff Ny-quist…Gustav Nyquist!)

Bottom line: He’s got the hands, the speed, and the skill to play with the Red Wings’ best. He’s 22 and top 12 in the AHL in scoring, with 58 points in 56 games. He scored his first NHL goal tonight off a beautiful pass from Datsyuk. He’s improving every game.

Still not convinced? Fine.

Remember 2008? A little guy named Darren Helm? Almost no big-league experience but a huge part of the playoff run to the Cup? Yeah, this guy. (Sidenote: Oh, Marty Turco. How the mighty have fallen…)

Nyquist can be the Red Wings’ 2012 version of Helm, on an even bigger scale. I want to see #14 on the ice come playoff time. I don’t care who sits (OK maybe not Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen, Howard…stop being a contrarian asshole).

He needs to be in there. My suggestion? Put Nyquist in the top six, drop Bertuzzi to the third line into a grinding role, and toss out Emmerton or Mursak. Their time will come. Nyquist’s is now.

Go Wings.

21 Straight

The Cold War ended in 1990. That’s the last time the Red Wings failed to make the playoffs.With a big 7-2 win over the hapless Blue Jackets tonight, the Red Wings sealed their 21st consecutive playoff berth — longest streak in the four major sports.

I watched the first two periods and caught less of the third. The Wings looked good. The Blue Jackets looked bad. Any analysis beyond that is pointless. I could talk about how nice it was to see Holmstrom score two pretty goals or to see Gustav Nyquist bucket the first of his career, but you wouldn’t have much context if I didn’t also mention the incredible ineptitude of the Columbus defense and Steve Mason’s sievemanship.

Nonetheless, the Wings took care of business. Quickly. They were up 4-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game, which was a nice relief compared to the Carolina game Saturday — where they were down 4-1 late in the second period against an equally horrible squad of hockey players. I hope to see much of the same Wednesday night, with a chance to grab another two easy points in Columbus.

The team’s getting healthy. The atmosphere is picking up. The playoffs are coming. Are you ready?

Go Wings.

Hiatus

I apologize for the “brief” eight-month hiatus. It was a summer resolution to start blogging again, and I failed — mostly due to the lengthy and exhausting process of applying to business school. But now that I’m in at Boston College and have less responsibility after work, I’d like to try again.

Normally, I wouldn’t even bother apologizing to my one to four total readers because you’d forgive me anyway and I don’t like those “I’m sorry I haven’t been here in a while yuk-yuk-yuk” posts. But this is here to draw a line in the sand, between the Red Wings making their 21st consecutive playoff appearance and Kris Draper retiring — two events that have nothing to do with each other and would only be connected if someone blogged about them both and sucked for eight months in between. With two paragraphs of separation, it’s like those eight months didn’t even happen.

Exodus Continues: Draper bids adieu

It feels like I’m saying goodbye to Red Wings a lot lately. Brian Rafalski bowed out in June. Chris Osgood hung ‘em up last week. Now, Kris Draper makes the walk from the locker room to the front office.

Rafalski’s departure was sudden and Osgood’s was nostalgic, but Draper’s choice to retire hurts the most.

I could see it coming. It was never a secret. At 40, Draper’s best days were behind him. But this is a guy who’s been in a Red Wings uniform since 1993. He played more than 1,000 games in the Winged Wheel, something only four other guys have ever done — Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Gordie Howe, and Alex Delvecchio — arguably four of the greatest Red Wings ever.

How do you measure a guy like Draper? He is the rarest type of player in sports: the hard-working, mid-level guy who never rises to stardom yet who’s also never deemed expendable.

It’s uncommon enough to see guys like Yzerman and Lidstrom stay with a single team for two decades, but at least they’re star players; the franchise would have to pull off one hell of a trade and upset the fanbase to move them.

A guy like Kris Draper? A guy that was famously traded from the Winnipeg Jets for $1 back in 1993? A guy that was never better than the team’s third line in 17 seasons? You don’t see a guy like that hang around one team for 1,137 games and four championships.

But Draper did. He never had the skill to compete with Yzerman, Shanahan, Fedorov, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, the list goes on. But he used his strengths — speed, determined forechecking and backchecking, faceoffs — to earn a spot on the team every year. He dug into the corners and knocked time off the clock in a tight game. He killed penalties and sacrificed his body to block shots. He was a veteran leader and always respected in the locker room.

It might sound crazy, but Draper is a once-in-a-generation player.

That doesn’t mean he belongs in the Hall of Fame or deserves a statue outside Joe Louis Arena. His stats and skill never earned him the ‘immortal’ title.

But his loyalty, leadership and consistent talent for 17 years warrant something. Something more than most Red Wing retirees.

So retire his number. Hang No. 33 up in the rafters.

Plenty of fans might argue that if you retire Draper’s 33, you’re opening up the argument for Kirk Maltby’s 18 or Darren McCarty’s 25 or even Tomas Holmstrom’s 96. And you can’t get carried away retiring numbers. It’s an honor meant for a select few.

Maltby is the hardest to ignore if you retire Draper’s 33. He played 14 years with the Wings and nearly got to 1,000 games (he played 908 in Detroit). But McCarty only played 13 seasons and 659 games with the Wings and Holmstrom has never gained the same type of respect year after year.

None of those players have had Draper’s impact. He’s remembered as part of that Grind Line group, but I think he set himself apart. He always had a smile on his face. He lived to play hockey and stay in shape all summer. He was a great friend to his teammates and kept them honest with practical jokes in the locker room. He respected the organization and his role on the team.

It wasn’t hard for me to watch the Red Wings without Maltby or McCarty. They had their runs, but at the end neither player could do much on the ice. Draper was different. Despite injuries, he was still a key contributor this year.

There are three young guys ready to step up and fill his skates — Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller — but it will be tough not seeing Draper race down the ice to chase a dump-in and scrum in the corners.

The Red Wings might shy away from a special ceremony for Draper, given his close comparisons to those other longtime players, but he’s got a banner in my mind. No one will ever wear No. 33 the same way again.

Another Adios: Chris Osgood Retires

I was wrong.

Call it nostalgia, call it lunacy, call it whatever you want, but I am finally ready to embrace Chris Osgood as a truly great goaltender.

I never could for so many years, but after he announced his retirement Tuesday after 17 NHL seasons – 14 with the Wings – I finally realize what the team and we as fans have lost.

We lost Ozzie, a remarkable goaltender marred by a few half-ice goals, failed Cup runs and a lack of career-defining moments.

I always focused on the negative. He wasn’t Dominik Hasek with the Sabres or Marty Brodeur with the Devils, so he was never good enough. But in fact he was; I just never saw it that way.

I saw a shaky baby-faced goalie with the worst helmet in the league. I held too much against him, and I never gave him the credit he deserved.

To play goalie in Detroit is to play quarterback in Dallas. There are championship expectations every season regardless of how good the team is, and nearly every ounce of scrutiny falls on one guy’s shoulders.

Osgood took that blame for a long time — despite the fact he won a Cup as the starter in 1998 — and back-to-back second round losses to the Avs followed by a first-round choke against the Kings led to his departure from Detroit in 2001, in favor of the newly-acquired Hasek (which led to the greatest team ever assembled in the history of sports, but I’ll save the 2002 Red Wings for another post).

When Ozzie came back to the Wings in 2005, he played backup for a while and never took the starting position back until the first round in the 2008 playoffs against Nashville. Hasek was shaky in Games 1-4, and Coach Babs called Osgood’s number for Game 5.

I remember at the time, I thought the Wings were doomed. Too many announcers were saying the ultimate jinx — “The Nashville Predators have never won a playoffs series in team history” — and I wasn’t sold on Osgood.

Shame on me. Ozzie rattled off nine straight wins, lost just four times (two each to Dallas and Pittsburgh) and carried the Wings to the Stanley Cup at the age of 35.

On top of that, he absolutely should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as MVP of the playoffs. Henrik Zetterberg won it instead, and he did an incredible job defending Cindy Crosby, but Ozzie’s stats during that playoff run are ridiculous.

Remember all the people clamoring for Tim Thomas to win the Conn Smythe this year, no matter what the Cup Final result? Thomas absolutely deserved it, posting a 1.98 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.

Those are fantastic numbers, but Osgood crushed them in the 2008 playoffs. Ozzie posted a 1.55 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 2008, and he was right behind Thomas’ numbers again in the Wings’ 2009 playoff run, with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.

Despite amazing stats, there’s an easy explanation why Osgood never won the Conn Smythe (or other individual awards): he’s never been flashy goaltender. You don’t remember that he had such amazing playoff runs because he was surrounded by great players and never had to make highlight-reel saves. Thomas made plenty this year, and that’s a huge part of why he was so highly touted for the Conn Smythe.

That’s always been Osgood’s style. Under the radar and consistent. Humble and solid between the pipes.

I can honestly say I don’t remember a single ridiculous save in Osgood’s entire career. Nothing comes to mind. Why? He rarely had to make them. When he did, they looked routine. He didn’t flop around or flash the glove; he smacked pucks away and prepared for the next save. Ozzie was all business.

(Turns out there were some incredible saves, many in his early seasons and a few recent ones that I remember upon watching them again):

But what people remember about Osgood is what kills him in the Hall of Fame debate. He never won the Vezina. He never won the Conn Smythe. He was always a passenger on the road to the Cup. Blah fucking blah.

There are plenty of good arguments against Osgood as one of the greatest goaltenders of all time. He doesn’t make that cut. But the Hall of Fame? He surely belongs there.

Three Cups, 15 playoff shutouts, six seasons with 30+ wins and over 400 in his career — something only 10 goalies have ever achieved — puts him in the Hall.

There is no debate. He might not be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, but he deserves a spot. He’s earned it.

I always backed down and shied away from arguments against Osgood’s talent. I never had much evidence to the contrary. Save highlights are few and far between, as are his individual accomplishments. Lots of people will ask how a guy with just two All-Star games on his resume could be in the Hall.

But Osgood played nearly two decades — unheard of for a goaltender — and his career numbers are some of the best the league’s ever seen. He never had a standout year or an incredible single-season compared with other Vezina winners during his time, but he was always in the top tier behind the curtain.

Shame on me for never taking the time to look.

Goodbye, Ozzie. I’ll miss you. You were always good for a quote and great with the press, you were always better than I thought you were and you never backed down from a fight. Even that horrible helmet of yours was starting to grow on me.