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