Thursday, May 30, 2013

Looking Back: Expected Bitterness and Unexpected Joy

I was unaware that Mike Ilitch was building an amusement park, but that's the only explanation I have for the roller coaster we all got to ride this year. The ups and downs, twists and turns; moments of sheer terror mixed with unmitigated joy that spiraled into confusion. I know there were several moments when I thought I was going to die.

We all know that this season was something unlike anything Red Wings have had to endure for years. Sure, there'd been loses, seasons of disappointment. But never since I've begun following hockey have I ever known the terror of not making the playoffs. I've never known being the Red Wings being the underdog. We're always the favorite, or at least a contender. This was different. Sometimes different is good.

And sometimes different is painful
The Red Wings almost missed the playoffs, but didn't. They rallied and made it in. They weren't supposed to beat the Anaheim Ducks, but took it to seven games and won. They were supposed to get rolled over by the Blackhawks, but they didn't. They took it to seven games and lost in overtime. So I guess if you were to say anything about this team this season, it could be, "They were supposed to, but..."

So what do we take away from all of this? Well, I figure there are three good things and three bad things we can take away from this abbreviated season.

The Good: The Kids Got to Play

And I don't mean they got to play the classic kids game of "Peg your buddy in the nuts with a soccer ball because it's fucking hilarious" - but the young kids who we have been desperately clamoring for got some ice time. Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Smith who were expected to get ice time did. We saw the unexpected emergence of Brian Lashoff and Joakim Andersson. The added bonus of Danny DeKeyser made the youth movement that much more explosive and impressive. While line jumbling and ice time caused a lot of confusion, when the Andersson-Nyquist-Brunner line came together and clicked, we got a real glimpse of the Red Wings' future. That line could be a future first or second line, with some combination of Lashoff-DeKeyser-Smith possibly filling 3 out of your top 4 defense men.

That's extremely promising. Andersson was just supposed to come up for a couple games but earned the right to stay. The only reason he could have been sent back down is if Darren Helm came back, and with the nagging injury, who knows when that will be. Brunner was streaky, but was puck hungry and scored some goals. He amped it up in the playoffs and should be back next year. Goose, despite having his eggs smacked, played like the top six forward we know he can be.

"YOU WILL NOT TOUCH OUR FUTURE KING GUSTAV!"
The Bad: There's still "veterans" in the way

The reason that the kids got to play was because Bertuzzi, Helm, Samuelsson, Ericsson, White, Quincey, Coaliacovo and Filppula got hurt. As the injuries dissipated, some of the kids got to keep playing in favor of some of the vets. Coaliacovo and White continued to sit, as did Samuelsson. Bertuzzi was back and the gone and then back and then gone again. Some of these guys have value - Helm, if he can stay healthy, Ericsson has proven his worth, and even Coaliacovo played well when he wasn't broken into thirty pieces.

Questions arise around guys like Bert, Samuelsson, Cleary, Coaliacovo, White and Filppula. Re-sign? Buyout? The question for some (Kevin, RE: Samuelsson) is easy, while guys like Bert and Filppula are trickier. What do you do with guys like Nyquist, Andersson and Tatar chomping at the bit? Can you win after sacrificing some of your tried and true veterans?

The Good: The defense was better than people expected

The biggest stories for me of this defense were Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl. They both made stellar improvements over the course of this season and could very well be the next veterans on this team. For a guy who was nicknamed Riggy Shitbox and someone who was thought to be out the door, those two guys showed to be some of the better guys on the blueline for us. Brendan Smith played well for the most part, Lashoff was great until he struggled in the playoffs, and Kronwall eventually grew into his role as the new defensive leader on the team

Even Kyle Quincey started to be...not so Kyle Quincey.

We won't ever see again the kind of perfection that Nicklas Lidstrom brought to Detroit, but anyone who counted this team out because of the defense was wrong. This young defense is going to grow into one that will continue to keep the Detroit Red Wings as a contender.

The Bad: Turnovers 

I'm not entirely sure if it was the result of new defensive strategies, or was simply the result of a lot young kids trying to adjust to the NHL level, but we killed ourselves with sloppy passes and turnovers, forced and unforced, that led to scoring chances and goals.

There's a lot of work that's going to have to be done this offseason. Part of it will be conditioning to make sure that Wings can come out of the gate and "start on time" as Mike Babcock is fond of saying. However, they are simply going to have to work on the basics. Passes have to connect tape to tape, even under pressure. The puck has to get out of the zone on the first attempt, especially on the penalty kill. We have to gain the offensive zone cleanly and get second and third chances on net. There were far too many one and done plays, especially on the power play.

Speaking of the power play, the Red Wings allowed at least 5 shorthanded goals this season. You can't give up shorthanded goals and expect to win hockey games. Not only are you allowing goals, but it completely neuters your power play. Granted, we ended the season with 18%  on our power play, but imagine how much better it could have been had the Red Wings been more responsible with the puck.

The Good: Our leadership 

Henrik Zetterberg deserved to be the captain of this team, and he definitely demonstrated it throughout the season, especially when it came down to the wire. He scored huge goals late in the season and in both series against the Ducks and the Hawks. When he wasn't scoring, he still had the throttle down almost every game. There were times when I was frustrated with him, and he definitely has to be a scoring threat every night, but he has shown that he has the mettle to lead this team.

If for no other reason than this
Kronner showed why he's an alternate captain and why he was tapped to lead this team's defensive corps. He struggled early on for sure, but he got his feet underneath and started playing smarter hockey. He even started to throw his body around more often, which is what we expect and need from him.

I've written definitively on the need for Jimmy Howard. That talks about his skill in net and his ability to win big games. But if Roberto Luongo hadn't shamed the goalie as team captain thing years ago, I'd make the case that Jimmy could wear the C. Every game he takes stock of what he did to help win or lose the game. He takes responsibility for his mistakes, and immediately sets out to improve upon his weaknesses. He'll ask Chris Osgood for help, work harder every night to keep the Red Wings in games, and show the utmost of respect and support for his team mates.

He doesn't even take total credit for his own shutouts. It's mind blowing the amount of poise and leadership the guy has, even while his team is hanging him out to dry.

And always remember this: Kronwall, Datsyuk and Howard have never been kicked out of a hockey game for throwing a temper tantrum. Henrik Zetterberg has never had to have one of his team mates put their arm around him while he sits in the penalty box for his third penalty of the game.

The Bad: Uncertainty

There's obviously still so much unknown about what's coming our way. We're headed to the Eastern Conference next year. We're going to be seeing the likes of the Bruins, Penguins, Canadiens, and Flyers. These are some very good teams, and I really get the sense that the Eastern Conference is going to be a much harder fought, grittier, more physical experience than the Red Wings have been used to.

We've had these nagging injuries to a lot of our players, and we don't necessarily have the physical presence that some of these other teams have. We'll once again be up against the age old question of what kind of teams can win the NHL, especially the playoffs - skill or grit? When we lost to New Jersey back in 95-96, everyone thought that the Red Wings, loaded with their soft, finesse European players could never win against hard hitting North American players. As a result, the Red Wings went and got some of those guys and came back in win back to back Stanley Cups.

We're going to have to wait and see who gets left behind and who gets tapped to be a Detroit Red Wing next year.

And now to hand out the Season Awards. They're going to look very suspiciously like the game pucks and the series pucks, but they're totally different.

The Bret Lebda Game Series Season Puck: Mikael Samuelsson - It has to be. Some might say that it's not fair to give this award to Samuelsson simply because he was a useless, injured nincompoop all season long. Sure, injuries aren't exactly a player's fault, but he's just such a schmuck. He wanted to come back to Detroit and got a no trade clause and ended up being a complete and utter wretch. If Samuelsson is still on this team next season, Red Wing fans should riot. And by riot I mean bitch and moan on the Internet. 

The Kris Draper Game Series Season Puck: Patrick Eaves - Statistically, this should probably go to Justin Abdelkader or Drew Miller. More ice time, more goals or points. More games played. All of that is true of either Abdelkader and/or Miller. But Patrick Eaves came back from a crippling concussion and broken jaw. He played his ass off in every game he was in. He had as many points during the regular season as Miller did while playing 10 fewer games and had a better plus/minus rating. Plus he got rid of that terrible handlebar mustache. 

10 Points to Griffins-dor: Gustav Nyquist - This was actually a hard decision to make, because Damien Brunner was so good. And Joakim Andersson and Brian Lashoff were such amazing surprises. Tatar was impressive in his time with the Wings this season, and Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser were great as well. But it has to be Goose. He scored some big goals, really earned his spot on the team and the respect of Mike Babcock. Plus, he gave us #BroLaunching.

The Perfect Puck: Pavel Datsyuk - There were so many great Datsyuk goals this year, but I have to go with his "Fuck You Nashville" NHL 94 style.



O' Captain, My Captain Game Series Season Puck: One James Tiberius Howard - I wanted to write about why he had to be the season MVP. I've basically already done it. I don't really think there's anything else that needs to be said. But if you did want to know, I'll leave it to Kronwall:

"I wish we could have won that series for [Howard]. He really deserved it."

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