Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Long Time Coming

With all due respect to Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades and Kyle Vanden Bosch; it has been a very, very long time since the Detroit Lions have fielded a statistically elite defense. So long in fact, that you would have to travel all the way back to the 1983 season to find a unit that finished better than 10th overall in points against. That year, Detroit was witness to the last, great season of the team's famed "Silver Rush" defensive line and it's intimidating leader; defensive tackle Doug English. The defense would total 44 sacks, 16 fumble recoveries and 22 interceptions on it's way to surrendering the 2nd fewest total points in the NFL that season. They were big, they were mean and most importantly, they were talented enough to dominate NFL offenses where it matters most; on the scoreboard. Oddly enough my first season as a Lions fan came in 1984; at the ripe old age of 7 and just in time to see legendary tailback Billy Sims shred his knee in the first of what would be many, disappointing seasons. In each of the 29 years that I have followed the team, the defense has varied from average, to notably poor, with just enough absolutely putrid thrown in to make a grown fan cry. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with an almost 3 decade long period where Lions management treated the defense as an afterthought, while building prolific, pinball-machine, offensive units. Over that time period, the blueprint I've known involves combining a couple of elite pass rushers with a relentless tackling machine, and a ball hawking defensive back who may or may not gamble recklessly to inflate is own stats. Otherwise, the Lions defense has been populated by unwanted, unremarkable and at times completely unacceptable players who lacked the size, strength or talent to create impact plays at the NFL level. As the old saying goes, "you get what you put in" and Detroit has spent a very long time plugging holes in it's defense with late round draft picks, aging journeymen and the occasional "street" Free Agent.

More disturbingly, even when the Lions have spent early draft picks to acquire defensive talent, they've trended towards undersized and over-hyped prospects who rarely improve with age. As ridiculous as it may appear to outsiders; the Lions seem to fancy themselves as "reckless innovators" who are capable of "outsmarting" the rest of the league. While much of this ineptitude has been blamed on he who shall not be named; the simple truth is that owner Bill Ford Sr likes to meddle with his football team and is committed to hiring the kind of men who'll allow him to do so. To this very day, the Lions still seem to value sexy over smart and flashy over functional; whether this is due to poor management or incompetent ownership is frankly, largely irrelevant. In light of this abhorrent historical track record, no sane individual could blame Lions fans for regarding any given draft class with apprehension and fear. At best we take a cautiously optimistic, "wait and see" approach to our newly drafted rookies; at our worst, we seem to delight in vilifying the franchise no matter who they pick. This is after all a fan base that coined the term "Lion-ized" and practically has a patent on the phrase "drinking the kool aid." It's a hard road, rooting for the objectively worst team in NFL history; years of losing have instinctively conditioned fans in Detroit to avoid ideas like hope and anticipation.

There are however, objectively measurable signs that the Lions are at long last starting to think like an NFL franchise; even on defense. It started with using 1st round picks in back to back drafts on massive, pocket destroying defensive tackles who are still quick enough to get to the quarterback. While everyone knows about the unstoppable force of nature that is Ndamukong Suh; fewer fans are aware of just how ridiculously talented his linemate Nick Fairley is as well. With two years in the league and his injury woes seemingly behind him; Fairley should be hitting his stride this season, which in turn will make it harder to neutralize Suh with the now customary double and triple team blocks opponents assign in his direction. Frankly it doesn't really matter who draws the extra blocker; both men excel at creating inside pressure and running down enemy quarterbacks as they try to escape. The Lions have also been fortunate to find a couple of key defensive cornerstones amongst the endless waves of jobless free agents Martin Mayhew has signed over the past few seasons. The team has clearly found it's obligatory, hard-tackling "Mike" linebacker in the undersized but utterly fearless Stephen Tulloch. The Lions have also latched on to cornerback Chris Houston, who is rapidly becoming one of the better coverage men in the league. Unfortunately at only 5'11" and 178lbs he's probably too small to ever become an elite, shutdown corner in the modern NFL. Despite size concerns with either man, there's no question that they are both extremely athletic. Finally, the Lions have again dipped into free agency and come up with two more, athletically gifted defenders; defensive end Jason Jones has the kind of length that makes defensive coordinators weak in the knees, while new free safety Glover Quinn is a converted cornerback with excellent field vision.

Of course, no matter how you slice it, the Lions were a 4-12 team last year with the 27th ranked scoring defense in the NFL; it's going to take a lot more than an improved Fairley and a couple of nice FA pickups to turn things around in Detroit. Modern NFL offenses are predicated on identifying weaknesses in the defensive front and attacking them at every opportunity. The goal is get the ball into open areas and allow some hyper-athletic, basketball player in pads to "make plays in space" for big yardage and backbreaking touchdowns. If the Lions field a unit with 9 players who can match the offense athletically, the Quarterback will simply focus everything on the 2 defenders who aren't quite up to snuff. This is the harsh new reality facing defensive coordinators like Gunther Cunningham; so far, he's found few solutions amongst aging stars and talentless try-hards he's been asked to work with. For a man who once fashioned defensive juggernauts with dominant athletes like Derrick ThomasNeil Smith and Dale Carter (in his prime), building with the league's scraps in Detroit must be almost unbearable. Frankly, Cunningham gets a bad rap in Lions land; he's still one of the greatest defensive minds in football, but nobody can paint the Mona Lisa with a box of broken crayons.

Fortunately for both Gunther and fans, it appears as though general manager Martin Mayhew is finally starting to realize what any moron with functioning eyes knew three seasons ago: that the Lions desperately need more size and talent on the defensive side of the ball. After years of zigging while the rest of the NFL zagged, the Lions have finally jumped on the "bigger, longer, faster" train of thought that has dominated the modern NFL draft. This year, Detroit used 3 of it's first 4 draft picks on defenders with lean, muscular bodies, long arms and blazing speed. More importantly however, all 3 players have the one quality the Lions have always seemed to lack on defense; the potential to grow into dominant athletes with proper weight training and NFL coaching. In fact, in each and every case the Lions passed on a more polished defender who had less impressive "measurables"; an approach that suggest there has been a drastic shift in Detroit's draft policy this season. Amongst the "Lions can do no right" crowd, this strategy has caused much hand-wringing and repeated declarations of the phrase "boom or bust"; a surprisingly worthless prediction since it essentially applies to every rookie who's ever been selected in the NFL draft. The simple truth is that projecting the future development of college kids remains an inexact science and "low risk" players can fail at this level for any number of reasons. In the NFL, safety is an illusion and athletic talent is king; especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Lions most promising rookie and, most recent first round draft pick is 6'5", 271lb rush end, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah. Frankly, the story of Ansah's rise from Ghanaian basketball hopeful to the number 5 overall pick in the NFL draft, is the stuff of legends. Of more importance to Lions fans however, will be whether or not Ansah's lack of football experience will outweigh his considerable athletic gifts; incredibly, Ziggy only began playing football in 2010 after failing to make BYU's basketball team for a second time. He played special teams at BYU as a junior before finding his way into all 13 games during his senior season; 9 as a starter. On the plus side, Ziggy flashed impressive versatility during his final year at BYU. He lined up at defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker at various points in the season; registering 63 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and breaking up an eye-opening 9 passes. On the downside, Ansah only had 4.5 sacks last season and due to his late start in football; has no real track record of success in the pass rushing role the Lions clearly envision him performing. One thing that is certain is that Ziggy is a bona fied  athletic freak; it's a rare 270lb man who can run the 40 yard dash in 4.63 seconds. That's the kind of speed that kills plays 5 yards into the backfield and while Ziggy is still rawer than a plate full of sushi; by all accounts he's already one of the hardest working athletes in America. At this point, the Lions are doing their best to temper expectations but it's no secret that they expect Ziggy to be an impact defender immediately this fall.

Although Ansah may be Detroit's most talented rookie, when all is said and done it's entirely possible that Darius Slay will be the team's most important freshman in 2013-14. That is because Slay plays cornerback; a position the Lions have struggled to properly address for nigh on an eternity. With all due respect to Dwight Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green; Slay's combination of size, speed and his SEC pedigree, already make him the frontrunner to start opposite Chris Houston this fall. Darius checks in at 6'0", 192lbs and as the picture to the right clearly illustrates, he was practically born to play corner at the NFL level. He has long arms, big hands and narrow hips; pretty much the ideal build for harassing wide receivers and pulling down jump balls in a crowd. Additionally, Slay is an astute cover man who excels at using his length to attack the hands and arms of opposing receivers; forcing them to drop otherwise catchable balls. As if that weren't enough, Darius is also a genuine speed merchant. At the NFL's pre-draft combine he ran the 40 yard dash in an astounding 4.36 seconds; despite suffering from at least one torn meniscus in his knees! He's a capable and willing tackler, had strong enough hands to pull down 5 interceptions as a senior and can even work on special teams as a defensive gunner or return man. The catch with Slay is that he lacks elite footwork, may have benefited from playing opposite a better corner and of course, came to Detroit with the aforementioned knee problems that likely caused him to slip into the second round. Fortunately for the Lions however; these injury concerns appear to be greatly exaggerated and thus far Slay has shown the kind of mental attributes that suggest he's exactly the type of player his highlight reels say he might be. The keys for Slay this offseason will be adding a few pounds of muscle to his frame and absorbing enough of the Lions defensive scheme to give coach Schwartz the confidence to start him on the outside. That would allow Detroit to slide Bentley in at nickback and hold veteran Ron Bartell in reserve at all 3 spots; a situation that makes the most sense for the Lions from a pure talent perspective at a minimum. Although nothing is written in stone yet, my guess would be that if Darius Slay is healthy and motivated; he will easily win the starting job at some point during the preseason.

Finally, in the 4th round the Lions actually did add a player I consider a true "boom or bust" prospect in 6'7", 266lb defensive end Devin Taylor. This is because despite being possessed of a body that many defensive linemen would kill for; Taylor hasn't actually accomplished anything of note as a football player. His career high of 7.5 sacks in 2010 isn't much to write home about and the fact that he only registered 3 QB take downs in his senior season is downright disturbing. It isn't like Devin was attracting a lot of double teams during this time either; opposing offenses have had to contend with the likes of Melvin Ingram and Jadaveon Clowney during Taylor's time at South Carolina. Frankly, looking at Taylor's stat sheet the impression you get is that he's simply a big stiff that never learned how to actually play football. Then you notice his 4.72 second 40 yard dash, watch his highlight reels and wonder if they somehow got his stats mixed up with a former walk on. Ultimately, the key to solving the riddle that is Devin Taylor likely lies in exposing him to an NFL level strength and development program; while simultaneously addressing his terrible mechanics through proper coaching. When you watch Taylor on film, the first thing you notice is that he often stands straight up immediately upon the snap of the ball. As any highschool defensive line coach will tell you; this is basically a terrible idea because it not only costs you precious moments of reaction time, but it also makes it much easier for smaller players to block or contain you. Additionally, despite his fantastic measurements; a casual examination of Devin in football pads makes it clear that he's still far too skinny to dominate the way his height should allow him to. While I would certainly advise against getting your hopes up, if Taylor gains 25-30lbs, and if coaches can do something about his atrocious pad level issue; he might look a little bit like a certain "freak of nature" who has become intimately familiar to Lions fans. Or, he could spend 4 years getting knocked flat on his backside by players with better mechanics; while constantly frustrating Lions fans who're aware of his raw talent. To his credit Devin has been described as a hard worker with a tireless motor, so he's got at least some chance of realizing his vast potential. When your future outlook varies between a "less athletic Julius Peppers" and a "human blocking sled" however; you're going down in my book as a boom or bust prospect.

In the final analysis, it's still far too early to tell if the Lions have strengthened their defense enough to make the team serious playoff contenders in 2013-14. If I had to guess, I'd say that Detroit's roster has too many depth issues to field a top 10 defensive unit this upcoming season. Injuries are simply a fact of life in the NFL and while the Lions have certainly upgraded their starting talent; the jury is still very much out on the quality of Detroit's backups. Despite this, it is certainly heartening to see Martin Mayhew go out and get the team multiple athletes with the potential to physically dominate opposing offenses. Both Detroit's draft and the team's actions in free agency imply that the Lions are finally trying to build a defense the right way; with talent, athleticism and size. Perhaps, after years of attempting to outsmart the rest of the NFL, the Lions are finally learning to copy the ideas and strategies that have made other franchises so sucessful. That would be a welcome change for a Lions fanbase that has waited long enough for signs that "next year", finally will be different.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go "pour out a forty" for Jim "the Hatchet" David and all of the other smurf-sized, try-hards the Lions won't be employing anymore.

- Sportsball Chic


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fortunate Sons

For more than twenty years now, the legacy of the Detroit Red Wings has been one of highly skilled play. When you ask opposing fans what they remember about the teams Detroit iced during this era, they will wax poetically about the sublime versatility of a Steve Yzerman or the effortless dominance of a Nicklas Lidstrom. Perhaps they will recall Sergei Fedorov and the Russian 5; or the year Detroit built a team so powerful that it often deployed 600+ goal scorers "Lucky" Luc Robataille and Brett Hull, on the 3rd and 4th lines. If they're feeling snarky, they might bring up Paul Coffey and the 1995 Cup Finals team that was bullied off the ice in 4 games by New Jersey. Younger fans might harken to Monty Babcock's Flying Circus; Datsyuk's dangles and Zetterberg's wicked wrist shot fueling a whole new generation of awed onlookers. Even this upcoming season, I suspect the story will be something about "Pavel Datsyuk and the Swedish National team" now that we've added Daniel Alfredsson. This is the image forever burned in the minds of those who watch the club from afar, and while I'm certain the Wings are proud of this image; it simply isn't the truth, or a least the whole truth. The road to Stanley Cup glory in Hockeytown is paved the same as any other; by blood, sweat, tears and the relentless desire of downright nasty men who excel at playing "ugly" hockey. Those who live and die with this organization know that the Red Wings are at their finest when they combine skill, determination and a barely concealed threat of violent reprisal, into one, brutally efficient symphony of destruction.

In this regard; as a Red Wings fan I will always hold a special place in my heart for the most belligerent warriors who don the winged wheel. This goes beyond simple "goonery"; not since the Bruise Brothers of the late 1980's have the Red Wings attempted to thug their way to victory on the ice. No, here in Detroit we admire players who play on the edge but reserve our love for those who excel while doing so. You can't turn a mule into a Clydesdale; winning ugly requires the kind of players who can hurt you on the scoreboard and on the way to the penalty box. I mention this now because, this week the hallowed Hockey Hall of Fame has opened it's doors for Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan; two former Wings who's games contained almost equal parts skill and sandpaper. The call to immortality is complicated for both men; Chelios because of his longstanding feud with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Shanahan due to his current role with the league front office. Despite the potentially awkward speeches, both players are indisputably deserving selections in a 2013 HHoF class that also includes legendary defenders Scott Neidermeyer and Geraldine Heaney (women's/international hockey), plus builder Fred Shero. For Chelios, the elevation comes during his first year of eligibility; an absolutely stacked 2012 class forced Shanahan to wait until his 2nd crack to reach the Hall.

At this point, entire fields of digital trees have been slaughtered explaining what this means for hockey as a whole, so I won't repeat those efforts here. I'm sure fans from Montreal, Chicago, St. Louis, Hartford and New York have many fond memories of both players and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to celebrate this occasion with all hockey fans. For Wings Nation however, this moment offers an opportunity to reflect on the effects both men had on the organization; both in bringing championships to Hockeytown and in helping to establish the very DNA of what has become the Wings culture of winning these past two decades. 

In many ways, Chelios and Shanahan will be defined in Red Wings history by their time together as teammates and similarities as players. Both men arrived in Motown with multiple teams behind them; both men would go on to battle for other franchises before hanging up their skates. One of the more interesting connections between the two in my mind, is that they may have helped established Detroit's current trend of pillaging team leaders from other franchises. Chelios was as co-captain of the Canadians during his final season in Montreal before serving as the captain of the Blackhawks from 1995, until he was traded to Detroit in 1999. By comparison, Shanahan's record as a leader before coming to Detroit was less impressive, but by no means inconsequential; he was an alternate-captain in Saint Louis before donning the full C during his one, ill-fated season in Hartford. Before arriving in Detroit, both men had displayed the necessary skills to blend seamlessly with the generational talents already on the team. Despite this, both players were acquired at least in part to sharpen the team's edge and make the Wings more difficult to play against. Both Chelios and Shanahan were also highly coveted trade targets, who cost the Red Wings first round draft picks and established players, who had perhaps worn out their welcome in Hockeytown already. Despite these costs; both players provided excellent returns on the organization's investment. Shanahan played for 9 seasons in Detroit, winning 3 Stanley Cups and representing the Wings in 5 All-Star games. Chelios suited up in Motown for parts of an astonishing 10 seasons, earning himself 2 Stanley Cup rings, appearing in 4 All-Star games and ultimately landing with Detroit's front office as the Executive Advisor to Ken Holland; a position that previously served as a springboard for Steve Yzerman to land the General Manager's job in Tampa.

Perhaps the most telling similarity however is that both Shanahan and Chelios were chosen multiple times to represent their countries at the highest levels of international hockey. This serves as a lasting rebuke to those who would suggest either player underachieved in Hockeytown; his luster dimmed when surrounded by a galaxy of other, greater stars. The truth as always is that success in Detroit has never been about statistics; like Steve Yzerman before them, both men committed to playing a strong team game, at the expense of individual numbers. For a Detroit squad that could score with any one of four rotating lines, that meant doing the team's dirty work in the corners; often at both ends of the ice.This made the Red Wings better, earned both men some impressive jewelery, and helped establish a tradition of responsible, defensive play carried on by current stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Make no mistake however; you don't make the team for powerhouse nations like Canada and the United States because you can hustle on the back-check. When called upon; both Chelios and Shanahan could flash the kind of elite talent that makes hockey men who're desperate for a medal, stand up and take notice. Between the two of them; Shanahan and Chelios have made 6 trips to the Olympics, 5 tournaments for the Canada Cup or World Cup of Hockey and 2 appearances at the IIHF World Championships. Chelios won gold at the 1996 World Cup and Silver at the 2002 Olympic Games. Shanahan managed 3 gold medals; at the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1994 World Hockey Championships and at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also settled for silver in the 1996 World Cup; the same event that provided Chelios with his only gold medal.

Of course, despite the inevitable entwinement of their legacies; both men enter the Hall as heroes of Red Wings lore on their own merits and with their own stories to tell. For Chelios, the journey to Detroit would take 15 long years and span the full heights and depths a life in pro hockey has to offer. His first season in the NHL was way back in 1983 with Montreal; where he would go on to win a Stanley Cup, 2 Norris trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and play until his reported affinity for the city's nightlife inspired the Canadians to trade him to Chicago in the summer of 1990. Chelios would then toil in the Windy City for 9 more seasons while, ironically becoming a hated rival of those same "soft" Red Wings teams that could never get over the hump in the early 90's. Although Chelios was a proud warrior who'd enjoyed another Norris trophy and some playoff success with the Blackhawks, eventually the systemic demolition of the team under owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz took it's toll. In a somewhat shocking turn of events, Chelios agreed to waive his partial no-trade clause to facilitate a move to his sworn enemies in Hockeytown. The Red Wings were coming off back to back Cup victories in 1999, and despite arriving in Detroit at the ripe old age of 37; it was hoped that Chelios could help replace some of the defensive acumen and grit the team had lost when tragedy befell Vladimir Konstantinov in the summer of 1997. The rest is, as they say; history. Although Chelios and the Wings would fail to "3-peat" in 1999, Chris would finally taste champagne from Lord Stanley's mug again in 2002; along with Brendan Shanahan and the rest of his Red Wing teammates, of course. Perhaps more stunningly however; Chelios would continue to play with Detroit long enough to win another championship in 2008 at the record breaking age of 45. Despite the ravages of time, Chelios always managed to represent his franchise, and his country with passion, skill and a surprisingly charming personality, fueled by his tremendous sense of humor. Although Chelios is a Chicago native, played only 10 of his 26 NHL seasons in Hockeytown and isn't required to choose a team to represent when entering the Hall; it says right here that Chris Chelios will die a Detroit Red Wing and there isn't anything, anyone in la belle province or the state of Illinois can do about that.

Whereas Chelios arrived in Detroit as a 37 year old champion trying to revitalize his career with a winning organization; Shanahan came to Motown in the prime of his life and carrying the hopes of a beleaguered franchise that hadn't won a Stanley Cup since 1955. Despite being only 27 years of age at the time, Shanahan had already developed something of a reputation as a talented malcontent who never seemed to be happy where he was. To be fair, much of this criticism was undeserved; it wasn't Brendan's fault that he was the most famous example of the NHL's archaic, ineffective free agency model in the 1980's. By that same measure, despite Mike Keenan's insistence that Shanahan "wasn't half the player he thinks he is" during his time in St Louis; it has since been revealed that the trade to Hartford was the result of ownership's insistence that Keenan drastically cut the payroll of an expensive "also ran" squad that featured Brett Hull and Al McInnis. Naturally, it would also be absurd to hold Shanahan responsible for the fact that in both situations, he was effectively traded for a future Hall of Fame defenseman with generational talent. Of course, the one thing Shanahan was guilty of in his career, was having no desire to play for the moribund Hartford Whalers franchise. Unfortunately for Brendan, this occurred at a time when hockey's labor situation was changing rapidly; many die hard fans saw Shanahan's position as yet another symptom of a greedy millionaires club that had lost connection to classic, Canadian values. It certainly didn't help that Brendan was an active voice for the players during the 94-95 lockout. In light of his situation in Hartford, it wasn't difficult for the "old-time hockey" crowd to paint Shanahan as the villain behind all 3 transactions.

As if the cloud following Shanahan's career moves weren't enough, he also stepped into a highly charged situation the moment he got off the plane in Detroit. In 1995, the heavily-favored Wings suffered an embarrassing "upset" at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, when they were physically destroyed in a 4 game Finals sweep. The very next season, the Wings would again lose to a more physical team; this time it was Colorado in the Western Conference finals however. While the series was hotly contested, it will be forever remembered in Red Wings lore as the night Claude Lemieux tried to murder Chris Draper and in doing so, helped to create the Red Wing empire. In essence, Shanahan was Ken Holland's answer to the charge that the Red Wings weren't physical enough to win the ultimate prize; and what an answer he turned out to be. Detroit would immediately win back to back titles upon Shanahan's arrival and he would remain an elite scoring option in crunch time during the team's magical, 2002 Cup run. For nigh on a decade, Shanahan played primarily on the 1st line with superstars Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman; serving the roles of protectorgarbage man and rocket shot sniper with equal aplomb. Over the course of his 9 seasons in Detroit, Shanahan would register 40 or more goals 3 times, 30 or more goals another 4 times and never finish below 25 goals. Brendan would also register 8 seasons with 100 or more penalty minutes and help establish a tradition of gritty, two-way dominance that the Red Wings still struggle to replicate to this very day. Of course, towards the end of his career, even the man himself was no longer "Brendan fucking Shanahan" either; his last few seasons in Detroit were marked primarily by butt checks in the crease, shots from impossible angles and play that at times seemed to be attempting to remove the word "power" from the term "power forward". In the end however; Shanahan always seemed to find a way to cheat one more 30 goal season out of his aging body and his commitment to the franchise was never in question.
And so, today, Wings fans stand with the rest of the hockey world in awe and admiration at the impressive careers of two of the most talented players in NHL history. Although they were known for other reasons in other locales; they remain heroes in Detroit because they sacrificed everything they had for the goal of bringing championships to Hockeytown. On this proud day, many will choose to remember the highlight reels, the pretty passes and the goals each man created over the course of two remarkable careers. As for myself however, I choose to remember a bleeding Shanahan yapping at the Colorado bench during the height of the Wings/Avs rivalry. I choose to remember an exhausted Chelios absolutely destroying Travis Moen in the playoffs. I choose to remember when two men helped teach Detroit that Stanley Cup winners "ain't pretty, they just look that way." This is the true legacy of both Chelios and Shanahan in Detroit; this lesson is why the Wings hired a coach like Mike Babcock and why the team continues to surround it's talented core with gritty agitators who can also put the puck in the net. Oh, and there's just one more thing I'll remember; I choose to remember the ugliest Red Wing of all. In a fair world, we'd be sending 3 plow horses to the Hall of Fame right now; we miss you Vladdy and it just hasn't quite been the same without you.

- Sportsball Chic

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Shelter From the Storm

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, are certain to miss the future." - John F Kennedy

One of the few, irrefutable truths in life is that there is absolutely no such thing as a sure bet. Sure, certain events seem extremely probable; I will probably wake tomorrow, alive and well in my own bed. Until the day I don't of course. Probable however is not certain and to a degree the act of professional sport (and gambling on such) is based entirely on the principle that literally anything can happen, despite the odds. To borrow the often-repeated but undeniably true cliche; "that's why they play the games" folks. Of course, now that the NHL has moved into it's offseason there's really only one game in town; building and manipulating team rosters in preparation for the 2013-14 season. Although this game certainly moves at a much slower pace than hockey, it is no less ruthless and unpredictable than the matches fans pay good money to see. You can study, analyze and debate until you're short of breath but ultimately, nobody truly knows what's going to happen when the curtains rise on day 1 of NHL free agency; sometimes not even the players themselves. In the wee hours of the morning before the market officially opens, things can and do change in the blink of an eye. Hockey is a cold, merciless business in these moments, hard choices are made and promises are often broken. When an organization and a living legend decide to part ways; you can bet that such acts of skullduggery will be performed under the cover of darkness, while much of the hockey world sleeps.

Unfortunately, we may never know the entire truth behind what led Daniel Alfredsson to sign with the Detroit Red Wings on July 5th, 2013.  By virtually all public accounts, Alfie was desperately wanted back in Ottawa this season. His relationship with the fans and the city itself has always been fantastic. As recently as June 28th, Daniel was absolutely going to retire as a lifelong member of the Ottawa Senators. The story had changed slightly by July 4th; but all signs still pointed towards Alfredsson returning to the Senators for 2013-14. As nightfall came however; somehow the specter of Alfie's departure grew from an impossibility into an uneasy sense that something dramatic was about to happen the next day. First there were reports that Alfredsson was down to Ottawa, Boston and Detroit. Suddenly, a choice was in fact possible. Rather than merely entertaining calls from general managers while his contract was being negotiated, Alfie had become a piece that could be acquired on the market. Then, ESPN's Pierre Lebrun () reported on Twitter that Daniel had "stayed up late in Sweden, but now he's sleeping on it." This prompted followers of Swedish hockey to mention a video from that very afternoon; where Alfredsson says a contract with Ottawa is "not quite done" and that he hopes it will be completed "today or tomorrow." The next time we would hear Alfredsson's name would be just past 11 AM on Friday; when it was announced that he would sign a 1 year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, in less than an hour.

The question of course becomes, did Alfredsson lie? At this point both he and Senator's manager Bryan Murray are saying that Alfie left the Senators for competitive reasons. Daniel has apparently long admired the Wings' commitment to fielding a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup every season and the presence of multiple members of the Swedish national team on the Detroit roster was not inconsequential. Although Alfie is one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of skates for his country; he'll also be 41 years old when the Soichi Winter Olympics begin in February. For the first time in a long time, Alfredsson knows that his NHL regular season will serve as an extended tryout for his nation's Olympic team. What better way is there to prove you're the right fit with current stars like Henrick Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall than to play with them night in and night out during the NHL season? While I personally have no doubt that Alfredsson believes these things; something rings hollow about them as a rational for leaving his home of 17 seasons and the only franchise he's ever played for. The simple truth is that both Ottawa and Detroit were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season. With the return to full health of star players like Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, the continued development of Kyle Turris, the addition of Bobby Ryan and the re-emergence of  Craig Anderson as an elite goaltender; the Senators are likely to be serious challengers for the division title in 2013-14. Although Detroit's roster is arguably slightly deeper, the Wings are by no means favorites to finish ahead of Ottawa in a division that also contains Boston, Montreal and Toronto. If upgrading his chances to win a Cup was so important to Alfredsson, why wouldn't he go to the Bruins instead? Boston is making tweaks to a core that just represented the East in the Stanley Cup final; aside from Chicago it's hard to imagine a better place to try and snipe a cup ring next season. Finally, while it's certainly true that Detroit employs more elite Swedish players, it's not like scouts from his homeland have no reason to watch Senators games. They will find time to observe Karlsson at a very minimum; the same as they found time to see Alfie play in Ottawa before past Olympic tournaments. In short, while the move to Detroit may upgrade Alfredsson's professional life; the gains have been small and arguably not worth uprooting one's family or destroying a legacy for.

Additionally, once you examine all of the facts, it's hard to say that the reason for Alfredsson leaving Ottawa was financial. While it's certainly possible that Senator's management fumbled the opening offer phase of negotiations by presenting Daniel with an insulting 1 year, $4M contract; by all accounts they recovered nicely. Reports indicated that late in the process the Senators were offering Alfie a literal "blank check" to create his own 1 year deal. While the salary cap and a desire not to look like a pillaging raider would have prevented him from getting too outrageous; Alfredsson could easily have beat the Wings' 5.5 million dollar offer and stayed right where he was for what will likely be his final NHL season. For most hockey players, an extra half million dollars or so would have been more than enough to sooth whatever hurt feelings management's initial offer inspired. Unfortunately for the Senators, it would appear that Alfredsson is not most hockey players and it's certainly fair to say that his relationship with the franchise has been strained at times. In 1997 Alfredsson staged a holdout during contract negotiations that got so acrimonious that then GM Pierre Gauthier suggested the team would never be able to resign Daniel. Rumor has it that when the deal was finally signed, Alfredsson was actively looking for an International League squad to sign up for while he waited out the Senators 5 year, $16M offer. Of course, Alfredsson and the team did eventually see eye to eye and Daniel would go on to a long and glorious career in Ottawa; peaking perhaps with the captain leading his team to the 2007 Stanley Cup final. 

The very next season, Alfredsson would sign a 4 year contract extension that was designed to take him to his eventual retirement with the Senators. Although the dollars were spread out across 4 years; a closer look at the numbers makes it clear that Alfredsson was really signing a 3 year contract with a 4th year at $1M thrown in to keep his salary cap charge lower. When Daniel decided to come back for another season last year, talks began to renegotiate the final year of his deal. Ultimately however, these negotiations fell through and Alfie was forced to play out the final season of his contract as written. While, obviously I wasn't in the negotiation room; I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Alfredsson felt that he was worth considerably more than $1M to the Sens last season. It also seems fair to suggest that given his popularity, years of service and general refusal to complain about playing for way less than market value; Alfredsson was expecting to be rewarded with painless contract negotiations this offseason. When management offered not only a single year, but only 4 million dollars; was that the moment that Daniel Alfredsson decided to think about life after the Ottawa Senators? Is it possible that the dispute wasn't about money, so much as respect and that by the time Melnyk broke out the check-book; Alfie had already decided that he was moving on?

Sadly, there is no definitive answer to these questions, and given Alfredsson's apparent willingness to shoulder all the blame and declare his actions the result of pure selfishness; that seems unlikely to change any time soon. Frankly, this isn't the first time Alfredsson has made public statements that reflect poorly on his image and by the end of his tenure in Ottawa, his slightest actions were being viewed as signs that he had quit or was about to quit on the franchise, by both fans and media. When a man can't skate with his children, throw a waterbottle or keep a puck for his mantle without an entire city going on suicide watch, perhaps it's time for a change of scenery; for the mental health of everyone involved if nothing else. Still, after years of admiring him from afar, it's hard for me to picture Alfie as the dishonest villain he appears to be in this scenario. I can't help but keep going back to that interview in Sweden, where Alfredsson seemed genuinely optimistic about resigning with the Senators either "today or tomorrow". In fact, that interview represents the last time I've heard Alfie sound genuine at all; his Red Wing teleconference and subsequent statements have been awfully terse and devoid of emotion. Regardless of what it was, something drastically changed about Alfredsson's outlook in Ottawa over the past 72 hours and in the end it was enough to drive him to Detroit.

One thing that is certain in the whole mess is that Ottawa's loss is the Red Wing's gain. Detroit entered free agency looking for a highly skilled, two-way forward capable of playing powerplay, penalty kill and scoring line minutes immediately. Unfortunately, this need came with the caveat that said forward would have to agree to a short term contract; to avoid clogging up the pipeline of a team rebuilding on the fly in the salary cap era. Detroit could offer some degree of money, but Ken Holland was never prepared to offer significant term and that had put the Wings out of the running for a number of the highest profile, mercenary forwards available in free agency; including their own. By signing Stephen Weiss to a 5 year, $4.9M contract, the Wings revealed that they were prepared to pay for a true, 2nd line center. The same was not true for a player who projects as winger in Mike Babcock's system however; or Holland likely would have kept Filppula instead. In the end, the pairing was a perfect match. Alfredsson brings the exact skill set the Wings' required to improve their team this season, while simultaneously not desiring a contract long enough to keep prospects like Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Calle Jarnkrok trapped in the minors any longer than is necessary. Although there are some concerns about Alfie's age and durability; the simple truth is that any forward both skilled enough and willing to accept Holland's terms was going to come with some wear on his tires. Although it's a matter of personal opinion; I believe that Daniel's leadership, previous relationship with Henrik Zetterberg and familiarity with Mike Babcock's system makes him a better choice than similar 1-year rentals like Jaromir Jagr, or Jarome Iginla.

In the final analysis, it will be months before we can truly judge the success or failure of Alfredsson's gambit; the Red Wings are trying to thrive in a new conference, while Alfie is hoping to rejuvenate his career in Motown and perhaps collect a medal with Sweden along the way. Alfredsson will be relied on to bring talent, determination and more than a little scoring punch to a toothless Wings attack, that was ultimately responsible for losing an otherwise winnable series against Chicago last season. As if that weren't enough; both the team and the player know that none of this will matter in the slightest if the Red Wings don't advanced deep into the playoffs. By his own admission, Alfie came to Detroit because the organization is committed to winning a Stanley Cup; a statement that will no doubt galvanize the Senators and Bruins at least to prove him wrong. Frankly, considering Alfredsson's fame, his sudden "heel turn", and the long term success of the Wings' franchise; it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that the whole world will be watching Motown for any sign of failure this season. At this point, only a fool would accuse Daniel of choosing "the easy path"; he's all in on a roller coaster ride straight into the mouth of hockey hell and he isn't coming back out unless he can help lead the Wings to Stanley Cup redemption. Welcome to Detroit Mr. Alfredsson; don't mind the swirling lightning, "we'll give ya, shelter from the storm."

- Sportsball Chic

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Final Destination - Why Drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Will Get Joe Dumars Fired

"Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, walk the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead." - Walt Whitman

At the very best of times, the NBA's annual talent allocation draft is a shocking spectacle that highlights both the most virtuous, and the most base aspects of the proverbial "American dream". The atmosphere surrounding the event itself resembles nothing if not a midway carnival; only if said carnival were being broadcast into millions of homes on live national television. The cameras roll, the photographers flash and one by one this year's cluster of the finest athletes college and international basketball have to offer, are paraded before the hungry eyes of fans, media and general managers. In the moments between picks, an endless stream of retired players, stat geeks, draft gurus, talking heads and mythical beasts named Dick Vitale throw out catchphrases like "wingspan", "upside", "motor" and "stroke" to explain why absolutely nothing they predicted about the Draft is coming true in real time. There are surprise picks, brilliant acquisitions, draft day trades and desperation hires that will likely throw franchises into turmoil for years to come. One franchise, the Dallas Mavericks even did their level best this year to not to make a selection at all; preferring to move down for a much cheaper player so they can stockpile funds to take a run a Dwight Howard in the near future. The players themselves are merely pawns in this grotesque drama; invited to the party so a voracious public can witness their triumphs, anxieties, relief and failed attempts to appear happy when presented with crushing disappointment. They do so willingly; for marketing purposes and because the promise of many, very large paychecks awaits those who's names are called in the "lottery" portion of the draft. At the very center of the maelstrom sits ringmaster, David Stern; a man who truly has become untouchable at this point in his career. The commissioner won't be back next season but for this one final draft he stood in all his glory; his taunts, gestures and smirks never more reminiscent of a brazen main-street pimp who fears no reprisal.

Frankly, I would watch the NBA draft even if Detroit didn't have a franchise; the spectacle itself has become must see television. Of course, for better or for worse Detroit does have an NBA franchise and so like millions of Pistons' fans worldwide, I watched this year's NBA draft with precisely one question on my mind: "Would Trey Burke fall to Detroit at number 8?" After wasting countless hours of my life reading "draft rumors" that turned out to be entirely fictitious as usual, I was fairly certain that Burke was indeed going to last until pick 8. There was even an outside possibility that Detroit could flop picks with Minnesota and get Burke at 9; they were rumored to be interested in some shooting guard from Georgia I'd never even heard of during the NCAA season. For once in the team's miserable existence, the stars were aligning just right. Burke was predictably falling because he isn't very tall, he isn't a ridiculous athletic freak and the draft was full of promising "big men" in a league where size often trumps the ability to play basketball. In short, I was genuinely excited as I sat down to watch the draft and if you're a Pistons' fan, I don't need to tell you that this was a rare occasion indeed. What played out across my television over the next hour or so was dramatic, compelling, heartbreaking and infuriating all at once. That night, I watched a Pistons legend commit career suicide for the most noble of reasons; to make his basketball team better in the long term.

Truthfully, despite overwhelming fan discontent, it's entirely possible that Dumars is correct and that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is simply a better NBA prospect than Trey Burke. The scouting report on this kid reads like a how to manual for creating a threatening wing player at the pro level. He's 6'6", 240 lbs, has a sweet, pull up jump shot, excels in transition and has all the tools to become a very strong defender in the NBA. More than anything else, KCP is the kind of elite, scoring option at the shooting guard position that could eventually make Detroit one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the NBA. Unfortunately this scenario comes with two very relevant caveats; Caldwell-Pope must realize his vast potential and he's likely going to need a significant amount of time to do so. There's a difference between talent and skill; KCP has the necessary talent to become the next Paul Pierce, he is nowhere near the player he could be at this very moment. For starters, Kentavious isn't much of a ball handler; he has basically one move (grab ball, split defenders in the paint), relies almost entirely on mediocre footwork to create room for his magnificent shot and isn't very tough, or physical. He's also not much of a finisher at the rim, although he can throw down a highlight reel dunk with the best of them when he's completely unguarded. To put it bluntly; right now Caldwell-Pope is rawer than a sushi dinner and while he will immediately put some balls in the basket for the Pistons organization, it will be virtually impossible for him to justify his draft position in the short term. He needs time and quality coaching to develop properly and right now, neither commodity seems to be abundant in the Pistons' organization.

On the opposite end of the prospect spectrum, sits "hometown" hero; 20 year old point guard, Trey Burke. By virtually all accounts, Burke is as ready as a college point guard can be for the NBA. Fresh off a sweep of every major national player of the year award, a NCAA Finals appearance and one of the finest sophomore seasons in Michigan basketball history; there is no question that Trey's mental toughness is NBA-worthy. Burke simply does not wilt under pressure. Although he's very cognizant of the need to keep his teammates involved; when the chips are down Burke has absolutely no problem being the hammer that puts the nail in the opposing team's coffin. From a personality perspective, the kid is a born leader. He's calm, intelligent, thoughtful and mature beyond his years; while still possessing the passion and ruthless killer instinct necessary to succeed in the NBA. He's an elite passer, was easily the best pick and roll artist at the position in this draft, has a marvelous spot up jump shot (although it isn't as good as KCP's) and very, very rarely turns the ball over. Although he isn't the athlete that Caldwell-Pope is, it would be criminally unfair to describe Burke as "non-athletic"; he's quick, has an exceptional handle, possesses a number of shifty, open court moves and doesn't turn the ball over in transition either. Burke's problem near as I can tell is that no one thing about his game stands out all that much; he can pass, drive or pull up for jumpers on virtually any possession and as such is hard to classify in rigid, NBA point guard terms. Burke way well be the rare "combo-guard" who's called that because he can score or set up scoring with equal proficiency, but the term itself is still the kiss of death to many NBA general managers. Perhaps most importantly; Trey Burke isn't 6'6", 240lbs and he's much closer to his final destination as a prospect than a player in the mold of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

To be fair to Dumars, he isn't the only person in NBA circles who wasn't sold on Burke as a game-changing point guard; Trey fell from the number 2 prospect to the number 9 pick for a reason after all and many savvy basketball observers saw Burke as nothing more than a decent rotation player at the pro level. The smart money is saying that in a vacuum, Dumars got the better player because if both guys reach their maximum potential; KCP will be a bigger star than Trey Burke by a significant margin. Additionally, a certain argument can be made that Burke would have been a luxury pick for a Piston's team that already has point guards Rodney Stuckey, Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight but definitely lacks a credible shooting guard to speak of. The problem with these arguments however is that absolutely none of the Piston's current options at the position are actually good at playing point guard and Joe Dumars is most certainly not operating in a vacuum. For those still clinging to the "Brandon Knight can eventually become an elite point guard" fallacy it would do to remember that last season Knight finished 40th amongst all guards with a dismal 21.3% assist rate. To place that into perspective; Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings has never seen a contested jumper he didn't fall immediately in love with and even he managed to score a 29.1% assist rate. Even newly crowed "guard-whisperer", coach Mo Cheeks basically called Knight a combo guard during his introductory press conference. Calderon is washed up and likely won't remain on the team and Stuckey has shown literally nothing as PG in his 6 year career that would indicate he's the solution at the position going forward.

Arguably more important than Detroit's point guard situation however, is the general sense of impending doom surrounding Joe Dumar's tenure as the team's general manager. Although there was a time when Joe Dumars was considered one of the better GM's in basketball, the past 8 years have largely served to obliterate his reputation as an elite NBA personnel man. While Dumars may have brought the team a title in 2004 and a finals appearance in 2005; his ineptitude since has lead the team into mediocrity, before bottoming out into a hopeless franchise that perennially tests the very limits of the term "slow rebuilding process." In virtually any analysis of the NBA landscape, the Pistons are considered a bad team, more disturbingly however; management has allowed the franchise to become largely irrelevant. Attendance figures are abysmal, the team lacks marketable star players (although Andre Drummond has potential) and the franchise is not considered a desirable destination for coaches or marquee free agents. The Pistons are perpetually one media crisis away from being a laughingstock; which might actually be an improvement when you realize that fans in the region have by and large lost interest in waiting for the team to get it's sh*t together. Fanspundits and local media have been extremely critical of Dumars as far back as 2009; the calls for his removal as architect of the franchise have literally been overwhelming for years now. As the wait for signs that the team will eventually turn around grows, both Dumars and the team itself continue to lose popularity and by extension, ticket sales.

In the final analysis, this is the true cost of drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ahead of Trey Burke. In one fell swoop Dumars could have provided hope and laid the groundwork for the return of thousands of Pistons' fans desperate for some sign, any sign that this year's team would be different. Drafting Burke would have instantly made the Pistons relevant again; both in the state of Michigan and nationally because of Burke's sky-high profile during his NCAA career. Even with absolutely no improvement as a prospect or quality coaching at the NBA level, Burke would have given the Pistons an instant upgrade on their halfcourt offense and made Drummond and Greg Monroe better players from the season opening tip-off. Dumars could have bought himself a tremendous amount of goodwill and hopefully by extension, time to finally turn his colossal shipwreck into a legitimate playoff contender again. Instead, Joe went with his basketball gut and took the more dominant athlete with the higher potential to develop into an elite weapon at the NBA level. It was a brave decision, rooted in Dumar's unshakeable belief in selecting the "best available player" during draft night, regardless of whom the media or fans expect him to select. Joe has always been a cantankerous fellow and he's shown virtually no interest in "moving the needle" even as the franchise wasted into a trivial bottom feeder. This will likely then prove his undoing when KCP begins his long development process, the team plays another season without an actual point guard and fans continue to stay away in droves. For a guy who's been clinging on to his job like shipwreck survivor clings to a life ring; Dumars has shown precious little understanding of just how precarious his employment situation has now become. Tom Gores has made it abundantly clear that he is not a patient man; he requires some, significant signs that Joe can turn this franchise around both on the court and at the box office or he will terminate Dumars and find someone who will do so. As it stands right now, the current Detroit roster doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of saving Joe's job; this team is going to continue to lose and they'll do so while playing boring, ugly basketball in a nearly empty arena.

Perhaps, one day 3 or 4 years from now; the world will look back on this moment and realize that Joe Dumars ultimately saved the Pistons' franchise during the 2013 draft. There is no question that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the necessary talent to make this entire discussion an amusing historical afterthought when the talking heads have all had their say. Conversely, there is also no guarantee that KCP will amount to anything in the NBA, prospects with better physical gifts than his have flamed out before; often with a frightening degree of regularity. The simple truth however is that even when (if) Caldwell-Pope turns into Paul Pierce version 2.0; he will likely do so for another general manager unless Maurice Cheeks can somehow work a miracle with one of the 8 worst rosters in the league. I don't want to be a pessimist, but I would strongly advise against betting the farm on that happening ladies and gentlemen. No, what we witnessed on Thursday night was a suicide, plain and simple. Stubborn to the end, Dumars has decided to go out fighting for his beliefs as a talent evaluator and roster manager. In one, short hour, Dumars manged to lose gigantic portions of the fanbase; without the Pistons ever taking the floor as the notably crummy basketball team they will almost certainly be in 2013-14! When the bell tolls for Joe next offseason, it says right here that very few who follow this franchise will be moved to weep at his passing.

The sad part however, is that long after Joe Dumars walks the plank; it will be Pistons' fans who have to live with the consequences of passing on Trey Burke. I'm no NBA scout but something tells me that this kid has the heart to carve himself a place in basketball history. The problem is, he'll do it for Utah instead of Detroit and that's a damn shame folks.
- Sportsball Chic


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 4: One is a Lonely Number

(Editor's Note: This article is the 4th and final part of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. Part 1 of the series looks at blueliners, Part 2 discusses the present forward situation and Part 3 looks a forward prospects in the Wings farm system.) 

For a man who is himself a retired NHL goalkeeper; Ken Holland's tenure as general manager has seen the Red Wings change netminders almost as fast as some people change socks. In the time period between Holland's ascension to the GM's chair and the Wings' last cup win in 2008, the team went through no less than 5 starting keepers; 7 if you count return visits from Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood after leaving the team. If you're doing the math at home, that works out to changing your starting goalie roughly once every 1.5 years; and that's not even counting the fact that Holland began his managing career by swapping Mike Vernon out for Chris Osgood to begin the team's 97 Cup defense. Naturally, not all of the turnover was by design; at various points over the years Hasek retired, Osgood was released, Joseph was simply terrible, Hasek un-retired, Manny Legace broke down mentally and finally Hasek eventually got too old to steal his job back, so he retired again. Regardless of why, for years it seemed the Wings went into almost every offseason "an elite goaltender away from being the Stanley Cup favorite" and so, Holland was forced to constantly tinker with the position as the previous rental wore out or proved ineffective. Additionally, with the imposition of the salary cap in 2005; market realities dictated that Holland rely on cheaper goaltenders to keep his stunning array of core skill players together as long as possible. While these decisions were rarely popular at the time, few would argue with the results in retrospect; back to back finals appearances and a 2008 Stanley Cup victory have a funny way of altering memories only 5 seasons later. Fortunately for everyone involved, the arrival of Jimmy Howard in 2009 seems to have provided Holland with the necessary stability to end his goalie-swapping ways. Howard has served as the goaltender of note in each of the Red Wings' past 4 seasons, and a recent 6 year contract extension suggests that he will remain so in the near future.

The arrival of Howard also signified another significant change in the Wings' goaltending philosophy; the shift towards larger, more physically imposing netminders. To be fair, this is hardly a "Red Wing" thing so much as a league wide philosophical shift at the position. Although Howard is only 6' tall, he's bullishly strong at 2'18 lbs and his aggressive, challenging style stands in stark contrast to the acrobatic smurfs of seasons past. When you look at the rest of the expanded roster however, it's clear that the Red Wings' days of "mighty mite" goalies are definitively over. While the Wings' haven't gone "super big" at the position, current backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson is 6'3", while promising prospects Petr Mrazek and Jake Paterson are 6'1"; Holland's latest college free agent prize Jared Coreau actually checks in at a staggering 6'4" and 208lbs! Don't be fooled into thinking these men are merely lumbering trashcans who eat up space either; Detroit's stable of netminders are extremely athletic, with excellent lateral motion and the ability to rip off highlight reel saves. Although Holland's past history says he'll hoard anyone with NHL level talent, it seems clear that when drafting their own goaltending prospects the organization definitely believes that bigger and stronger is ultimately better.   

The Fire Inside: As regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I have grown to love and cherish Detroit starting netminder Jimmy Howard. In just 4 short seasons, Wings fans have watched Howard grow from slow developing prospect, to inconsistent battler and finally, into an elite, game-changing goaltender capable of swinging a playoff series by himself. Although many will point to his age (29) and slow development as indicators that Howard is not a great goalie; it is precisely this seasoning that has turned Howard into the excellent keeper he is today. Early in his career, Jimmy thrived primarily on heart, aggression and pure force of will. During his first season in Detroit, Howard attacked shooters with ferocity, making most of his saves at the top of the crease or even further out and frequently pushing and shoving with forwards on his doorstep. This endeared him to the Red Wings faithful but lead to some early struggles with consistency as the league's better forwards learned to use this aggression against him. For a time then, Howard actively worked on playing further back in his net and although the results were less than stellar (2010-11), it also allowed Howard to improve on the "reflex" saves and develop his now tremendous lateral movement skills. As Jimmy began to reintegrate his aggressive impulses, the result was a goalkeeper with all the necessary tools to dominate at the NHL level; although it would take until the 2013 season and playoffs for Howard to finally achieve the perfect balance between these tools. In short, Jimmy Howard has been playing professional hockey for 8 long years; carefully ironing out his deficiencies one by one until the player that remains is far greater than the sum of his talents would suggest he ever could be.

From a purely technically standpoint, there's a lot to love about Howard's game between the pipes at this point in his career. As previously mentioned Jimmy's strength and aggressive positioning serve to make him a much larger object in the net than his decidedly average, 6' height would otherwise allow. Howard is an absolute master of cutting down angles and dropping forward on his knees rather than rocking backward as he closes in on the puck carrier. This allows him to present his chest, shoulders and active stick directly at the shooter while still giving him a wide, solid base with which to absorb contact and continue tracking the puck. Howard's hand placement is an equally important element of this play style; by keeping his gloves forward and angled to intercept rising shots, Howard prevents shooters from punishing him for challenging them so brazenly. It certainly doesn't hurt that Howard has one of the quickest trappers in the NHL; although he often fails to completely capture the puck, a quick search on Youtube will reveal that he is extremely difficult to beat on the glove side. Like most aggressive keepers, Jimmy is also an exceptional skater. Unlike other mobile goalies however, he eschews the modern upright "pro fly" stance for an extremely wide, low base (pictured right) more typical of a classic smaller, more acrobatic keeper. This allows Howard to tempt shooters with a gaping five hole while still giving him the necessary balance to actively close the door in a heartbeat when they try to put the puck there. Howard's noticeably loose leg pads aid in this endeavor tremendously but it's his ability to get back up and down again once he sets that make his play style so effective. Although the end result often resembles a chicken with it's head cut off ; Howard consistently finds a way to keep pucks out of the net and he isn't the first goalie in NHL history to excel with a hyper-frenetic playstyle.

If Howard has a downside at this point in his career it's likely his inconsistent rebound control, decidedly average blocker hand and periodic tendency to submit an absolute clunker of a game with little or no warning. One of the reasons Howard makes so many highlight reel saves is because he still hasn't mastered deflecting pucks into the corners off of his leg pads and watching his aggressive play style on film, it's seems fair to ask if he ever will. Although Howard is much better at freezing pucks shot into the middle of the net than he was as a youngster; his unique leg pad positioning seems to cause shots taken low and away to bounce directly back to the hashmarks more often than my heart can take. For now, Howard is usually quick enough to recover and clean his own trash but as he ages, it could become a career ending issue if he doesn't learn to put the puck in the corner more often. Jimmy's blocker issues are mostly a function of modern goaltending conventions; like most pro-fly or hybrid goaltenders, Howard uses a shorter goal stick that leaves extra space high on the blocker side. More space unsurprisingly leads to more goals, and Howard can't compensate as quickly on the stick side as he can with his glove. The upside is, it's easier for Howard to use his stick during lateral movements and as a point of support when he's going up and down to make saves. Finally, while teammates and coaches are forever praising Jimmy's ability to shrug off a bad goal, at times the eye test simply doesn't bear this out. In fact it's quite the opposite, many times during the past 4 years an early soft goal has lead to Howard breaking down mentally and submitting a very mediocre performance. While thankfully these meltdowns rarely occur in important games and for the most part Howard is a very good keeper; it's certainly fair to say that when he's bad, he's remarkably bad. The simple truth is that after 4 NHL seasons, Howard's positives vastly outweigh his negatives as a goalkeeper and as such the Red Wings are prepared to go forward with Jimmy in the nets for the foreseeable future. He's talented, reliable and consistently displays the kind of leadership and commitment a franchise goaltender must provide for a Stanley Cup contender. Although I don't like the play the goalie ranking game; Howard's past two regular seasons have firmly entrenched him amongst the NHL's top 10 netminders. His ability to dominate in the 2013 playoffs however suggested that Howard might be on the verge of breaking into the elite top 4 or 5 goalies in the league; at this point it's all a question of maintaining his current level of play for a full season and beyond.

A Riddle of Monstrous Proportions: While Howard's development and contract have resolved Detroit's starting goalie situation, the back-up picture is decidedly more murky. For the present moment, reserve keeper duties will fall to 6'3", hyper athletic Swedish netminder Jonas Gustavsson. That is of course, assuming he can stay healthy; last season, injuries limited Gustavsson to a parts of a mere 7 games and opened the door for management to get a brief look at promising prospect Petr Mrazek. What's more, Gustavsson's performance when he actually was available to play really didn't do him any favors in that regard; his 2.92 goals against average was decent, but a 0.879 save percentage is completely unacceptable in the modern NHL. The frustrating part is that Jonas actually has a tremendous amount of natural talent; his long legs, ridiculous lateral movement and active glove hand make him a danger to stop shots other keepers would have no business even touching. From a technical standpoint, Jonas is a pure "Allaire"-style butterfly goaltender, but his unusually lanky frame serves to magnify his ability to eat up space within that system. Unfortunately, Gustavsson is also extremely inconsistent, seems to lose track of his position in relation to the net with some regularity and often plays so far back in his crease that his size becomes a non-factor. At this point it would be certainly fair for Wings' fans and management to ask "exactly who the heck is Jonas Gustavsson anyways?" Is he the freakishly talented athlete who spawned the nickname "Monster" and a plethora of loving Youtube tributes? Or is he just another Francois Allaire robot who's game has been exposed once NHL forwards learned to adjust to his "Gumby-esque"physique?    

Truthfully, while the 2013-14 season will likely answer some of these questions for Jonas Gustavsson, the end result is unlikely to benefit the Red Wings in the long term. Gustavsson is only 28 years old and he's in the last year of a 1.5 million a year contract. If he turns his career around next season, Jonas will be in line to receive both more money and more playing time; options that are unlikely to excite a front office that already has Howard and Mrazek. If however he gets hurt again or continues to flounder, there's virtually no incentive for Ken Holland to keep him around long term. In other words; enjoy the highlight reel saves while you can Wings' fans, because Gustavsson is as good as gone come 2014-15.

The Heir Apparent: Of course, the reason Ken Holland doesn't have to be overtly concerned with where Gustavsson will play in 2014-15 is because the Wings have a much more promising player waiting in Grand Rapids; Petr Mrazek. In fact, Mrazek has been so good that some Wings' fans have begun to rumble about Howard's 6 year contract; because it might block Mrazek's ascension to NHL stardom! While on the surface this may seem like wishful thinking on behalf of a spoiled fanbase; a careful examination of Petr's performance at every level of competition he's been exposed to, suggests otherwise. In just over a year Mrazek has lead his junior team to the OHL conference finals, backstopped his country to the quarterfinals of the 2012 World Junior Championships, played himself beyond the ECHL in 3 games, earned a 2 game, cup of coffee call up with the senior Wings and won the Calder Cup as the starting goaltender of the Grand Rapids Griffins. As impressive as those accomplishments are on the surface, the are only magnified by the strength of Petr's performances and the fact that he's burst onto the scene at such a young age; Mrazek is still only 21 years old. The really scary part however is how far he's come already, in such a short period of time. Mrazek was Detroit's 5th round draft pick in 2010, which gives you some idea of how meteoric his rise to stardom has truly been. He wasn't considered amongst the best keepers heading into the 2012 WJHC; he merely became a first team all-star and won the goaltender of the tournament award. Heading into this season he was supposed to compete with Thomas McCollum and Jordan Pierce for playing time; instead he made both men organizational afterthoughts and won himself an AHL championship in the process. At this point Mrazek has done nothing except display the kind of talent, potential and polish that will make it virtually impossible to keep him out of the NHL in the very near future.

When looking at Mrazek from a scouting standpoint, the first thing that stands out is his otherworldly quickness and athleticism. While Jimmy Howard's ability to recover quickly after dropping to his knees is impressive; he has absolutely nothing on a goalie gear wearing gymnast like Mrazek. Petr can and does routinely make the kind of highlight reel saves that change momentum and leave opposing forwards shaking their heads in disbelief. No less an authority than legendary junior hockey coach Brian Kilrea described Mrazek as the kind of player who "makes the impossible seem so easy" and he even managed to provoke Wings' coach Mike Babcock to some rare encouraging words during his time with the senior club last season. Despite his tremendous athletic gifts however, it would be a mistake to assume Petr is your typical lighting-bug keeper, getting by purely on his reflexes and agility; Mrazek's best asset may actually be his extremely well developed mental game. Mrazek is intense, focused and tremendously competitive when it comes to stopping the puck. He never gives up on a shot, works to find sight lines through screens and isn't afraid to pay the price physically to keep the puck out of his basket. He doesn't get rattled and has the necessary superhuman confidence to dominate shooters in breakaway or shootout situations. Finally, Mrazek plays the position with a rare level of passion and enthusiasm; watching him play it's very clear that he simply loves to play the game of hockey.

As far as downsides go, Mrazek doesn't have many to be honest; no prospect is perfect however and there are still minor holes you can poke in Petr's game. Although he's roughly the same height as Jimmy Howard, he's nowhere near as developed muscularly. Various prospect guides have him listed at 184lbs, and that might actually be fairly generous when you consider how much weight Mrazek probably loses in sweat over the course of a season, making all those highlight reel saves. This lack of strength and ballast means that Mrazek often plays "small" in the net and while he's still fairly aggressive; he doesn't have the physicality to stand his ground when surrounded by shooters. As far as playstyle goes, Mrazek is from the Dominik Hasek mold of goalkeeper; he doesn't have a style so much as a desperate, burning desire to stop the puck by any means possible. He tends to rely on his reflexes and instincts more than any sort of positioning or technique; which can at times leave him exposed to embarrassing goals when he "guesses" wrong. Much like Hasek; he also spends a great deal of time flopping around low on the ice, which can leave him vulnerable when elite forwards have the time and space to "roof" the puck into a high corner. Finally, while he's not a poor puck-handler by any stretch, Mrazek isn't as good as he thinks he is with the biscuit either; a scenario that will no doubt be familiar to Wings' fans who suffered through tense moments during the careers of similarly afflicted netminders Hasek and Chris Osgood.

Let's face it folks, none of Mrazek's faults will matter in the slightest if he can stop pucks at the NHL level like he's stopped them at every level he's competed at so far. Howard's entrenchment as a franchise netminder has afforded Holland the luxury of developing Petr slowly; but if he keeps playing like he has, there is absolutely no way he'll stay in Grand Rapids for the full 4 year "over-ripening" program other prospects have been forced to endure. In 3 short years time, Howard's 5.3 million dollar cap hit could look quite reasonable on the NHL trade market if Holland were to suddenly find himself blessed with a better, younger player in Mrazek. Of course, such a scenario is a long way off at this very moment but the simple truth is that the Wings' aren't necessarily married to Jimmy Howard for the next 6 years; if Petr Mrazek is the better goaltender the job will likely be his for the taking at some point down the road.

Farmhands With a Future: While it's tempting to assume that the Red Wings' future is already set between the pipes; a smart hockey follower knows that a team is only one injury or complete mental breakdown away from looking for a new goalie in the blink of an eye. In that regard it's important for an organization to have at least a few talented, young keepers, with some NHL potential in the farm system at all times. At this moment, the most talented goalie prospect in the Red Wing pipeline (besides Mrazek) is 19 year old junior; Jake Paterson. Although he's hardly hulking, the 6'1 goaltender is another example of a player who uses excellent positioning and a muscular body to "appear bigger than he is" and take away the entire bottom of the goal cage. He has good (not great) athleticism, notable mental resiliency and the necessary passion and desire to compete for every puck fired towards the goal. To be fair, Paterson is probably not an elite talent and while his positioning is solid, he could stand to work on his consistency and fundamentals. He does have a surprisingly fast glove hand however and he's already a very strong skater for a 19-year old goalie. He'll return to the OHL next season and with further seasoning, could be given a chance to win a spot on Team Canada for the 2014 WJHC tournament. Right now, Jake is viewed as more of a scrappy, battler type who could one day grow into an NHL, starting quality netminder. If he were to win the number 1 job for a nation as deep as Canada though, and then excel in the tournament itself; Paterson would put himself on the NHL map much the way Mrazek did in 2012.

Of course, Paterson is an awful long way away from getting his first taste of NHL action and as such; 21 year old college netminder Jared Coreau probably warrants more attention from Wings' fans in the here and now. The first thing scouts talk about when discussing Jared as a goaltending prospect is his ridiculous combination of size and athleticism. Simply put; a man as big and muscular as Coreau should not reasonably be as quick or agile as he is. In addition to his physical gifts, Jared is also blessed with tremendous confidence, a calm, steady playing demeanor and what appears to be a very strong work ethic. Coreau arrived at Northern Michigan as a skinny freshman with terrible technique and through hard work, he left a strapping, scholarly prospect with a legitimate NHL future. He's also tremendously tough; Coreau wordlessly played his past few seasons in college with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required offseason surgery to repair. The downside is that, like most college goaltenders; Jared's technique, positioning and fundamentals are simply not at an NHL level right now. Holland competed with 7 other NHL team's for Coreau's signature in 2013 and it's hard to believe Jared would have signed with the Wings if he didn't believe he had a real chance at eventually making the senior club. With former prospect Thomas McCollum rapidly playing himself out of the Wings' plans and veteran, system depth keeper Jordan Pierce likely to move on to medical school; Jared should easily establish himself as the backup netminder in Grand Rapids next year. In time and with proper development, Coreau could have the inside shot at Detroit's backup goalie position 3-4 years from now; especially if the team moves Howard to make room for Mrazek.

As those of you who've taken the time to read this entire series (thank you) are no doubt aware; the current and future roster situation in Detroit is an incredibly complicated matter, with multiple moving parts, salary cap options and fall back plans. After 16 seasons, this has become the hallmark of Ken Holland's management style. He hoards talent and manipulates his roster for both the short and long term success of the franchise. The Wings' are dedicated to making the conference finals every season; a long term rebuilding project fueled by multiple top 5 draft picks is simply not in Holland's game plan. Not now and frankly not ever. Right now, the Wings' are in year 2 of a 3 year plan to turn over 75% of the roster that Holland set into motion as many as 4 seasons ago. Although he's been careful not to tip his hand too early; Holland himself has admitted that injuries forced the team to bring up several prospects a little earlier than management had intended. Perhaps, in the final analysis this will be a good thing; although Holland's long term vision is legendary, he can be downright miserly when it comes to awarding NHL playing time to promising Wings' prospects. If last year's success can convince management and coach Babcock that the next wave of Wings' prospects can be trusted sooner; the team can avoid dipping heavily into an already overpriced free agent market in the coming future.

In the end, I believe that the key to understanding Ken Holland's management of the Red Wings roster is to view him as a shockingly honest man, who has two stated, but at times diametrically opposed goals. For the past several years, Holland has been shouting from the mountaintops that the Red Wing's future will be built through the draft, while simultaneously stating that the franchise was trying to make at least the conference finals every season. While these may appear to be the ravings of a madman in light of the NHL's new fiscal realities, it's important to remember that Holland never promised to strive for both goals with the same players. To oversimplify; Holland clearly intends to use retreads, reclamation projects and discount, veteran free agents to keep the team competitive in the short time. At the same time however, he's refusing to sign the kind of long term contracts that would clog up roster spots beyond his 3 year rebuilding window. In this way, the future of the team very much will be forged through the draft; but only if and when the Wings' young prospects can play well enough to keep management's conference finals expectations alive. Holland knows that the tightrope he's walking now is a difficult path, but if he's successful; the Wings will have forged the kind of dynasty the NHL hasn't seen since the Montreal Canadians tore up the back half of the 1970's. The funny part is; Holland probably already has a good idea of what he's going to do if none of this works out and the entire Wings' farm system flops like a Bisquick pancake. That's the Detroit general manager for you; a man who has plans within plans and the courage to make at least some of them a reality for the Red Wings.

- Sportsball Chic