Upper Body Injury… with the Detroit Red Wings

As any serious Los Angeles Kings fan knows, a game at Staples Center against the Detroit Red Wings can end up feeling like you are in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena… apparently there are a lot of passionate Detroit fans that happen to live in Los Angeles. Besides one glorious moment in 2001… the Detroit Red Wings have pretty much owned the Los Angeles Kings during the first decade of this millennium. The team that faces the Kings tonight at Staples is not so much a different Red Wings team than years past, but in 9th place in the Western Conference… this team is in a position it’s not used to being in. Wings stars Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary return to the lineup tonight… great. Just in freakin’ time.

uncle_mike

It’s time for another installment of “Upper Body Injury.”You can check out past Q’s and A’s with other bloggers here and here but this week The Royal Half is taking on Kyle over at Babcock’s Death Stare. If you want to see my answers to Kyle’s questions, just head over here. Besides having one of the coolest names and banner of any hockey site in the world, Kyle is an incredibly knowledgeable Red Wings fan with a passion for prospects. To see what this Michigan native thinks about living his entire life with the Red Wings as a playoff team… or why Dave Lewis was the worst substitute teacher ever… or if for once the Red Wings would prefer to be a #8 seed… check it out after the jump!

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1) Give my LA Kings readers some sense of what it’s like to be a fan of a franchise that has made the playoffs for 18 straight seasons.

Well, being 20 years old, it’s really all I know.

We realize it’s freakish. Especially over the past few seasons, I’ve been learning to appreciate every minute of it. The generation before mine was not so lucky — remember that this team went 42 years in between Cups, and 12 years of that was still in the Original Six era. Dead Things, all that jazz, you’d like to think eventually patience and faith will pay off, but look at Detroit’s NFL franchise for evidence to refute that. There was a time when the game’s only highlight was watching Bob Probert tear someone apart.

You do get spoiled, there’s no doubt about it. Until this season, it had really been a while since the playoffs have been at all in question, so I believe you start to watch the regular season a bit differently. You find different things to worry about. After Detroit developed a nasty little habit of falling apart in the first round (hello Los Angeles 2001; we still don’t like Adam Deadmarsh), you start to focus on the things that successful playoff teams do, and worry about those things. You realize that things like “resting your stars” just don’t fly on a team that’s had so many players who have been there and done that.

While 50 wins a season are just unbelievably nice, Wings fans don’t care — they just want a motivated team going into the playoffs. One that didn’t coast through the second half of the second and find a team like LA ’01 or Edmonton ’06 that had to win all of their games to even GET to the playoffs, and are therefore used to playing the do or die hockey that playoff hockey promises. The Wings have been able to do that in recent years, obviously. But it makes for watching the regular season a little differently, and I’ve been told more than a few times by non-Wings fans to “shut up” because “you’re still going to win the President’s Trophy.” That’s just not the goal, though.

I suppose the only thing that could possibly bother me about it is the apathy. It’s no secret the state of Michigan is struggling, and that’s still what I blame for the Wings no longer selling out every night. But the fans who do go… are silent. I could get some good reading done. It’s actually been better in recent weeks, but over the past two seasons, the Joe has not been the most hostile of atmospheres. I still say the Wings fan base is as knowledgeable as you’ll find everywhere, but the “this is nice, but let’s wait until the playoffs” attitude you see at the Joe just bugs me — when I know for a fact that there’s 29 other franchises out there who would kill to trade for Detroit’s success, and I’d kill to be screaming at every one of those games if things like “college” didn’t keep me so far away from the rink. That only applies to the regular season though, because I went to a handful of playoff games lats season and came home deafer after each one of them.

2) Why did Dave Lewis fail taking over for Legend Scotty Bowman and why has Mike Babcock been so successful?

Lewis was really the victim of circumstance. He worked alongside the greatest coach of all time in Scotty, successful, but almost unapproachable in how intimidating he was. He was the coach, and you were the players, that’s just how it was. Dave Lewis was known as more of the “buddy” — the guy the players would talk to when Scotty was too harsh. He connected with the players, he knew their families well, he was a great guy. Unfortunately, those qualities aren’t always great in a head coach. Lewis just didn’t command respect. Scotty leaves, and you’ve got Yzerman, Shanahan, Fedorov, Chelios, Maltby, Draper, etc., who have known and liked Lewis for years.

It’s like a substitute teacher. That mean ol’ Miss Murphy is sick again, so Dave Lewis comes in to throw in a video and take a nap while you talk to your friends. You goof off and get in trouble — what’s the sub gonna do about it? All he’s ever done is write a note for your regular teacher. Something like that. Credit to Lewis — because you have to know your hockey for Scotty Bowman to pick you as his right hand man for as long as he did. He had his role as an assistant coach in that system, but none of that played in his favor when he took over as the head coach. He just didn’t have control of the room, and while the on-ice product was talented, they just didn’t have that motivator to take them deep in the playoffs.

Babcock works because, well, he’s Mike Babcock, and he chews Big Red. Laced with glass. Just look at the banner on my page if you want to know why he commands respect in the ways that Lewis couldn’t. Babcock is big on sports psychology. At times it’s downright funny how blunt he is to the media and during interviews. “Why’d the Wings lose tonight?” “Well the puck went in our net, I can say that much.” Sounds obvious. Anyone could tell you that. But there’s a lot more going on upstairs, and all the stuff he tells the media, all the personnel decisions he makes, are just layered in reasons. Some that I’ll never understand. Like why Brad May is in the lineup.

3) Is Jimmy Howard really the future for the Red Wings in goal?

He’s part of it, for sure. Detroit’s had success in the past two years splitting two goalies in the regular season, or at the very least, having some sort of a reliable backup. I don’t think under current management they’ll ever have a goalie playing 60-70 games in the regular season. Just no need. Plus, they don’t go after the kind of caliber goalie that can handle that workload. They save money there, and spend it on two more solid defensemen. While I don’t personally think Howard will ever be an elite starting goaltender, he’s starting to win over more and more people as he’s proving he’s not just an NHL goaltender, but a reliable one.

Howard’s been the future for a while. They babied him for four years in the minors, always telling him he was the guy, but never really giving him much of a taste. Even this year, when he was all but guaranteed a spot, they invited Dan Cloutier to camp late in the offseason. Or maybe that was just a joke I’m not aware of. Either way, he was there. There’s always been issues with consistency. He was always a good AHL goaltender, but not too many fans truly believed that this guy could start 50 games for the Wings for the next ten years.

After most of the fanbase (not me though, needs to be on record) gave up on him after his first two starts, Howard went on an insane run this past month. Now fans are talking about whether or not it’s even worth it to let Osgood “get into playoff form” when Detroit can’t really “afford” a loss in the same way they could last year. He’s clearly outperforming Osgood. Even after a rough outing against Anaheim (few weak goals, tons of bad rebounds) he’s still getting the start against Los Angeles. Osgood’s not going to have too many more opportunities to win that job back, and I think that’s what Mike Babcock’s trying to drive home by starting Jimmy again.

But not all of the Wings’ eggs are in his basket. They’ve got a Swede (naturally, right?) in Grand Rapids right now that was an AHL All-Star as a rookie after winning the award for the top goaltender in Sweden, Daniel Larsson. They also spent a first rounder in 2008 to land the top ranked goalie in Thomas McCollum, also now in the AHL. Both have struggled in recent weeks, but seem to be on the right track. Larsson’s probably ready for an NHL taste to prove that he can step in whenever it is that Osgood retires. McCollum will probably get milked for four years in the AHL to squeeze out every possible minute he can, so he’s as ready as can be. The Wings have made this commitment to produce a goaltender from within and stop relying on free agents. Hopefully between the three of them, they can get at least a solid tandem, if not an elite talent.

4) How do you think this years team has responded to the injuries the Wings have suffered? Are the Red Wings built for a “changing of the guard” after their elite players retire or will they have a few bad seasons as they rebuild?

Individually, there’s a lot to be happy with. It seems Detroit gets an unlikely hero almost every night (when they win, anyway), with a few players really stepping up to prove they belong in Detroit long-term. As a team, though, there have been a few ugly losses and I believe even with the problems they’ve run into, they should be in a playoff spot. I think what’s happening could be a blessing in disguise. Everyone was wondering how Detroit could replace the scoring they lost in the offseason. They’re getting a chance to find out first hand, because some unlikely players have been giving second line minutes and powerplay time because there has been so many injuries. No one’s stepped up and had just an off the wall year, but Detroit has a better idea now of who might be worth sliding up on the depth chart later on in the year when the team’s a little healthier.

The changing of the guard though — that’s something that makes a Wings’ fan chuckle. The media was all about asking that question back when Yzerman and Shanahan were getting old, especially in 2002 with that old lineup. I think the guard changed — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen are all locked up long term. The only issues now are the goaltending thing, and finding a stable of defensemen to replace all that Nick Lidstrom does. Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are in their primes and look like they could easily handle more minutes. There’s a couple of youngsters in Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl that have high end potential as well, and a few more projects still in the system. That’s the big issue. Other than that, the old guys are Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, who are already gradually being phased out by the likes of Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, and Justin Abdelkader. And Homer, who’s also irreplaceable — though they do have some scoring prospects coming up. Lidstrom is the issue, but how do you replace a legend, really?

By the time Lidstrom retires, Zetterberg and Datsyuk will be entering their mid-30s (hopefully). So again, the media will probably be asking the same question. As long as Kenny Holland’s in charge, there’s no rebuild. Youth has been slowly injected into Detroit over a period of time, and the cupboard is anything but bare. This team scouts well and has a plan in place — there’s no longer any “we win this year or we’re toast” cough cough Chicago cough. We’ve got five rookies in the lineup this season, and four of them have been extremely impressive. There’s still a lot to look forward to.

5) Are the Red Wings more dangerous to Western Conference teams in the playoffs as a #1 seed or a #8 seed?

Hopefully both. I’d settle for either.

There’s good arguments both ways. I’d like to think fans of San Jose and Chicago are sweating the idea of winning their division and potentially pulling a healthy Detroit team in the first round. San Jose has had some bad luck in the early rounds and the last thing they need is another first round opponent who’s not really a true #8 seed. And no matter how cocky Chicago is after their ever-so-impressive TWO regular season wins against Detroit, I’m sure a few of them will remember the beatdown Detroit issued last season, and wouldn’t want to see that in the first round.

But that’s not what I want. I want the team to climb as high as they can in the West. The team was all kinds of banged up last postseason and, obivously, some of that has carried into this season. If we could land another cozy first round opponent like Columbus last season, that would be great. Either way, so long as the hockey gods are done breathing their wrath on Detroit, there is no reason that Detroit cannot take another long playoff run once they get their full lineup back.

The Royal Half has been a Los Angeles Kings fan since 1988 and a Half-Season Ticket Holder since 2002. He has seen the following goaltenders play in person for the Los Angeles Kings… Kelly Hrudey, Grant Fuhr, Byron Dafoe, Jamie Storr, Stephane Fiset, Felix Potvin, Cristobal Huet, Roman Cechmanek, Mathieu Garon, Adam Hauser, Jason LaBarbera, Barry Brust, Sean Burke, Dan Cloutier, Yutaka Fukufuji, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Erik Ersberg, Jonathan Bernier, Jonathan Quick, Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones.You can follow The Royal Half on Twitter @TheRoyalHalf.