The Top Shelf: Gone Camping

(Ed. note: “The Top Shelf” is our newest attempt at staying relevant in all of the happenings around the hockey interwebz. Why “The Top Shelf”? Because it’s one of those great hockey cliches that also happens to be the only kind of booze we sip here at TPL. While there won’t be a regular posting schedule for it, we’ll be using it as our standard platform for sharing all the happenings we find entertaining or relevant, without blowing out an entire post. Have something you want included? Mail us, fool.)

Salute Your Shorts :: Since it’s Mid-August, that means all the youngsters packed their bags and headed to Brendan Shanahan’s Crazy Camp of Rule Changes and Other Oddities. Back for the second year in a row is the brightly colored goal verification line – this time sporting a shade of lime green as opposed to last year’s yellow – alongside updated ideas like the 3-on-3 overtime and the “Max Pacioretty Memorial” curved glass near the benches. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the return of “icing on the penalty kill” that was decried by every GM in the league, as well as college hockey coaches across the country. Nevertheless, the league continues to sees importance in exploring ways to add value to the powerplay in an attempt to jack up scoring and keep play moving. Wysh over at Puck Daddy presents an interesting counter-point though:

If there’s one thing to know about NHL coaches, it’s that they’re adaptable creatures. Create rules that restrict something, and they’ll find a way around them. Or have you not noticed variations of the trap in 2011?

One theory on penalty kill icing — coaches will simply instruct their killers to ice the puck with regularity.

It’ll give them a breather. It’ll break up the other team’s momentum (and it’s not like the shorthanded team needs to create any of its own, being that they’re in a defensive mode). And as long as your best defensive center is a better face-off man than their best offensive center, there’s a chance your team comes out unscathed.

This would be the hockey’s equivalent to a filibuster in Congress. “I don’t agree with this, so let’s waste everyone’s time until I get my point across.” It would probably be worse than the last two minutes of an NBA game. That said, it’s not the worst idea in the world from a coaching standpoint…if you hate hockey fans and want an arena full of booing.

Meanwhile, Wysh started the Camp Shanahan fun last week with some new proposals to beef up power play scoring, including the “two-minute major” which…yeah:

Welcome to the Atom Bomb.

This is truly the nuclear option for the NHL and its power plays, fundamentally changing minor penalties by having every penalty served in its entirety. Score in the first 15 seconds of a power play? Congrats, sirs; now you’ve got 1:45 to score a few more.

It’s the hockey equivalent of those air-blown money grabbing machines.

It’s also a throwback to when power plays were really dangerous: Back in the 1950s, when the penalties were served in full and the Montreal Canadiens were scoring so often with their Hall of Fame unit that goal judges would just keep the goal lamp lit for two minutes.

Wysh goes on to talk about how this could be beneficial with penalty calls being on the decline over the past few years, but it was his reference to a quote from SI.com’s Michael Farber that really got me thinking critically:

“Maybe it further discourages penalties and increases the amount of five-on-five play, worth considering given the special-teams fests now on display many nights.”

This is stupid. I understand the “more goals = more entertainment value” argument, but I also know that there’s nothing worse to the casual fan than flipping through the channels and stumbling onto an 8-1 blowout. And while Farber’s point may be somewhat outdated with the recent drop in called penalties, his point about not wanting to see a special teams fest still holds true, which is exactly what you open the doors to if this rule were to take effect. Sure, teams would likely even the “penalties called” ratio over the course of a game in terms of 5-on-4 play, but can you imagine a 90 second 5-on-3 that has to be served in its entirety? The game could be over in those 90 seconds. Sure, you get your scoring, but at what cost to the fans that potentially have to suffer through a game that was ended by the whistle of the referee? And can you imagine the outrage if the call that put the team on the 5-on-3 advantage was of the borderline variety? No thank you.

I Went to the Fights and a Hockey Game Broke Out :: There’s been plenty of chatter this week about the New York Islanders scheduling a viewing party tonight to coincide with MSG re-airing the brawl filled attempt at a hockey game last February 11th (greatest day of the year, BTW) against the Penguins, but Stu Hackel over at SI.com reports that the party has taken a turn toward “tame”:

SI.com has learned that the party will go on, but the Islanders and MSG Network have agreed to switch the game to a victory over the Sabres in which Michael Grabner’s hat trick goal was the winner.

The Feb. 11 game, which featured 15 fighting majors, 14 game misconducts and 346 minutes in penalties, resulted in two Islanders receiving suspensions and the team being fined $100,000. It was a post-lockout lowpoint for the NHL. The Penguins, and most people  around hockey, consider it an embarrassment  (Penguins owner Mario Lemieux called the game “embarassing” and “unacceptable.”) With Zdeno Chara’s vicious hit on Max Pacioretty a few weeks later, it ranks as one of last season’s worst incidents. While the concept of celebrating it was admired in some places, others reacted negatively, ranging from mild rebuke to near-apoplectic outrage.

“We do not approve of the use, based on what we know,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Kevin Allen of USA Today.

Frankly, it’s disappointing to see the Islanders and MSG pull back the reigns on this. Sure, the game will long be remembered for Trevor Gillies cheapshot punch-up of Eric Tangradi, but taking the game off the air is nothing more than caving to a league that’s incredibly sensitive about the image it projects to prospective and casual fans. Meanwhile, Darren McCarty and Claude Lemieux regularly stage book signings and promotional tours based on the bad blood of a rivalry over a decade old, and if the Wings decided to host a viewing party for “The Brawl In Hockeytown” I hardly expect there would be a peep out of the league protesting it. Instead of allowing a suffering fanbase the chance to rally around a defiant moment in franchise history, everybody in Long Island can now get drunk while watching Michael Grabner notch a hat trick in a largely meaningless game. In a way, it’s fitting for the Islanders. Personally? I’d rather watch Brent Johnson drop Rick DiPietro with one punch again. Way more entertaining, right Rick?

On second thought, I’d rather watch the ice babe take down DiPi. Better step up your game this year Brent.

Why go to the park and fly a kite, when you can just pop a pill? :: Seinfeld references aside, friend of the blog Justin Bourne has a very serious and well-written piece over at Puck Daddy on the culture of prescription pill use in hockey, and if you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you get on that:

I sat in my hospital bed the night before and had the chance to speak with (OK, mumble at) my girlfriend on the phone after the accident, at what really should have been my lowest of low points. There was a chance I might look different, my hockey season was likely over (and having turned 26 the day the puck hit my face, I didn’t have many years to play around with), and my jaw would have to be clamped shut for nearly two months.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I would never play another shift of pro hockey again.

Instead, I was PUMPED when I talked to her, because apparently morphine is a hell of a drug (to steal a line from Rick James). I was going to catch up on my reading and get box sets of TV shows on DVD and watch ’em all and make awesome smoothies with berries and ice cream and peanut butter and have more time to hang out with her and … and … and then it would start to wear off.

Another hit, and more excitement coursed through my veins. Maybe I’ll start a blog!

That that stuff can warp your mind in that way is incredible. And scary.

I’m completely comfortable saying that I was morphine and drug free when I decided to start blogging, but I can’t speak for Disch and Petrella. I assume they were on something good when they asked me to come over and start writing here. At any rate, Petrella’s got a follow-up to Bourne’s piece on the site this morning, and, again, I  suggest that you give it a look. It’s a very serious subject among athletes everywhere, and increased awareness and support can only be a good thing.

Somebody likes us. Or feels bad for us. :: Apparently, TPL has been nominated as one of the “Most Valuable Blogs” as part of CBS Detroit’s “2011 Most Valuable Blogger” competition. If you nominated us and are reading this right now: Thanks. If you didn’t nominate us and are still reading this, click the shiny button below and go throw a vote of confidence in our corner.

The good news for you is that we won’t be asking you to incessantly click on the voting button – see “Operation: Curly Fries” – since there’s only one vote per day. The bad news is this means Malik is probably steamrolling us, looking back over his shoulder, and then putting it in reverse to roll us again. Love you buddy.

Meanwhile, my Mom is in full campaign mode on Facebook (so says the fiance), so don’t let her down. Otherwise, her and the rest of the TPL Moms will guilt-trip you just like your mothers did all through your formative years.

And finally… :: Howe and Yzerman are in NHL 12 as “Legends.” I still can’t wrap my head around the video of Yzerman in a Bolts jersey next to Stamkos, but “The Dark Knight” soundtrack-type music is sweet and you better believe “Pegi 16” is going to get some kind of play on the site this year. The Wings national TV schedule is out, which means Petrella’s due for a “Wings Wings Tuesday” post. Oh wait, there it is. The Grand Rapids Griffins are also going to play some hockey this year. Steve Kampfer (GO BLUE!) is bringing the Stanley Cup to Ann Arbor next Thursday. Feel free to drop it off at JLA, Steve.

When Dr. Feelgood Rides the Bus

First things first, if you haven’t already read Justin Bourne’s latest at Puck Daddy about painkillers in hockey, do so immediately. He raises a lot of excellent points and was the inspiration for this follow-up.

I saw a lot of things playing hockey. Most were wonderful. Some were scary, bordering on horrifying. And others were sad and a little disappointing. I won’t claim to be perfect, or that I am without vices of my own, but I generally steered clear of trouble (to the point where my parents recently admitted that they sorta hoped I’d do something “bad” or “reckless” once in a while, since apparently volunteering to get hit by guys twice my size going 30mph or lay my body in front of frozen rubber moving 100mph isn’t quite reckless enough). When it came to things like drugs and alcohol, I was — and continue to be — as far removed from that world as you can be.

I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner from time to time. Or sit down for a beer with my father-in-law. And that’s about the extent of it. I can count on a single finger how many times I’ve been fall-down drunk where I needed help functioning. It’s a horrible feeling, and I can’t understand why people volunteer to feel that way often.

During a painful off-season that has seen the hockey world lose two young and promising men in Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, you begin to reflect on some of the memories of your own playing days and frighteningly piece together eerie similarities. Painkillers have been at least partly to blame for one of those deaths, and we’re not quite sure about the other one just yet.

Both were tough guys, and it remains to be seen if chronic traumatic encephalopathy played a part in their deaths, as it may have with legendary fighter Bob Probert. And while I agree with many of my fellow bloggers that it might be inappropriate timing to breach the subject of fighting’s place in the game at the moment, it is a subject that’s going to have to be discussed. Personally, I’ve always thought that fighting does have a place in the sport, and that the guys that do it are among the more noble of athletes. But if what they do is, quite literally, killing young men, it may be time to take a closer look. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Today’s problem is drug use in our game. Despite Boogaard’s death, you can’t convince me that drug use is rampant in hockey or that it’s a problem among our players. In fact, I’d bet my house on the exact opposite. Compared to basketball and football (and even baseball, if you count steroids), I’d wager that hockey is the cleanest of all of the major sports. But while we may think of our heroes as saints, they are human after all and many will indulge in what will squarely be viewed as a dark side from this day forward.

As early as 14, I remember kids taking mild painkillers before games, and without any existing injury, to take the edge off of the inevitable body checks they were about to receive. I politely refused when offered, preferring instead to feel every bone in my body as they throbbed after big collisions (that kind of pain lets you know you’re alive is what it does).

Bourne is absolutely right about a couple of main points: A) You will, under no circumstances, make it through a season without getting hurt. That is an absolute fact and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can go an entire game unscathed, let alone a season or a career. And B) There will very likely be a time during your hockey days that an Advil won’t cut it. The painkillers that are being used (legally, even) can do some wonderful things to dull the agony, and when used responsibly help lots of Americans get through their daily tribulations.

But that kind of medication scares the hell out of me. While I wouldn’t say that I have a very addictive personality (in that respect), nor does substance abuse run in my family, I could sense the danger in getting accustomed to the kind of nirvana that it promised. Soon enough, as Bourne says, that little bit becomes a little more and a little more until you can’t feel normal without it. And therein lies the rub.

I had my knee operated on in 2009 following years of pain that I had become, more or less, used to. At first, my knee troubles were dismissed as growing pains… and then a type of juvenile arthritis… and then a degenerative muscle disorder… until finally, at the ripe age of 27, it was determined that, yes, in fact, there was a pretty big problem under there. I had a benign cyst growing under my kneecap, one that likely started as an overcompensating immune system attempted to repair an injury to one of the internal ligaments. The cyst had wrapped itself around the joint and the ligaments within it, causing my entire left leg to be solid as a rock at all times, which in turn made walking down stairs difficult. While I may have put my body through a lot by 27, it certainly wasn’t enough to have difficulty walking and I finally went for a fifth (or sixth, I lost count) opinion. The New York Knicks orthopedic surgeon found the mass (which was hidden from traditional MRIs) and said he needed to go in there and scoop it out. Should be as good as new in a week. Liar.

While the surgery went well and I was assured that anything potentially damaging had been removed, I’m not sure I was properly prepared for the brand of pain that was coming my way when the anesthetic wore off. Anesthetic, by the way, that I begged them not to use. In the past, I’d had difficulty awakening from general anesthesia. First, at the dentist, and then after a necessary procedure in college. Instead, I asked, can you just give me the local anesthetic and I’ll sit here quietly staring at the ceiling tiles? The surgeon and anesthesiologist both assured me that I wanted no part of being awake during the knee operation, and promised they’d give me the lightest dose imaginable.

Still, I woke up much later than they said I would, and perhaps that’s where my fear of painkillers in general comes from. They sent me on my way, sans crutches but with a prescription for Oxycodone. This was one of those times mentioned above where a painkiller would become necessary, as the haze wears off in the hours and days following surgery. However, I refused to fill that prescription, instead opting to “soldier through” the pain and do what I could with an Aleve here and there.

I’m not going to pretend I was a man about it, or that I made the right call. Because that kind of pain is just a shade under unbearable, where you briefly consider asking your wife to hit you with a sledgehammer so you’ll feel nothing instead of excruciating agony. I’m not going to be shy here: I cried like a little girl when the anesthetic finally wore all the way off around 1 in the morning. It hurt so bad I could hear and taste it. That may sound ridiculous, but trust me… it’s an awful existence twelve hours after surgery.

Did Derek Boogaard have that kind of agony in May? Was Rick Rypien recovering from something last week? Did the kids on my high school hockey team think that popping Vicodin on a normal day would make them invincible? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but what I do have are more anecdotes that only lead to further questions.

At one point, I had a teammate that would drop acid before games, when he knew we wouldn’t be tested, for one of two reasons. It either made him a better hockey player when he couldn’t feel his legs, or he was a complete fucking lunatic. The things he did when he was inebriated like that were borderline scary… and he was on my side of the scary. I don’t know what happened to him, as we’ve lost touch over the years, but if you were to tell me that he was in prison or dead, I’d be sad for the loss, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

In college, again as Bourne says, it wasn’t uncommon for one guy to pass another a pill before (or, more likely, after) a game. I’m not sure how many of them were pre-med (oh wait, yes I am: zero), but something tells me they weren’t in a position to be distributing on a bus. Again, like high school, I would politely decline and wonder if I was the weird one for not indulging.

That prescription I didn’t fill following my knee surgery? I would later have a teammate (from a men’s league, mind you) offer me a pretty penny if I did get it filled and hand them over to him. I pretended like I lost the slip, apologized and it was never brought up again.

In light of the Boogaard news and the potential for it to have been repeated by Rypien, I don’t feel good about these stories. I don’t feel like I took a moral high road and that I was able to steer clear of peer pressure. I feel like I let teammates down by not helping if they needed it. They may not have all been abusing it, but we’ve all learned recently that it doesn’t take a whole lot to derail that train permanently. If any of us needed that kind of medical attention, we had doctors and trainers and managers nearby to help us. Something tells me the guys with their hands out in the back of the bus weren’t in the kind of pain that required what they were swallowing.

And all I can do now is hope that they live longer than Rypien’s 27. Or Boogaard’s 28. Or Probert’s 45.

And that no one ever has to wonder if they’d done enough to help a teammate.

A Pair of Schedules

Per dueling press releases, the NHL has released its national television schedule — which, by my count, has 26 Red Wings games in the States — and the AHL has released its full regular season schedule.

Since you don’t need another source spewing the schedule, especially considering the Wings’ official site has already made the coverage details available on the existing table, we thought we’d take a look at some different dates to mark on your calendar:

:: OPENING NIGHT. It’s October 7th and it’s against the Ottawa Senators. I, for one, expect Johan Franzen to score five goals, and point to Paul MacLean’s mustache.

:: WINGS WINGS TUESDAYS. If you’re not familiar with the age-old Petrella-household tradition, Wings Wings Tuesday is when a Red Wings game falls on a Tuesday and you can get discounted chicken wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. Depending on your market, they’re usually marked down to the 30-50 cent range for the delicious, delicious morsels of poultry happiness. This season, there are SIXTEEN(!) WWTs. To put that number in perspective, I gained nine pounds on Wings Wings Tuesdays last year… and there were only five. This year’s WWT Schedule is as follows

  • October 25 at Columbus
  • November 1 vs. Minnesota
  • November 8 vs. Colorado
  • November 15 at St. Louis
  • December 6 at St. Louis
  • December 13 at Pittsburgh
  • December 27 vs. St. Louis
  • January 3 at Dallas
  • January 10 at New York Islanders
  • January 17 at Dallas
  • January 31 at Calgary
  • February 14 vs. Dallas (order some fried pickles for your Valentine)
  • February 21 at Chicago
  • February 28 at Columbus
  • March 6 at Philadelphia
  • March 13 at Los Angeles

:: BACK-TO-BACKS. The Wings play 14 sets of back-to-back dates, the same amount as 2010-11 and one more than the Olympic-shortened 2009-10.

:: AFTERNOON DELIGHT. The Wings play five matinees this season, beginning November 19 against Los Angeles and culminating in the final game of the season against Chicago.

The Griffins schedule was also released today, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear there were only six teams in the AHL given the amount of times they play Rockford and Hamilton. They don’t play the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins this year, which means I won’t get to sit in my father-in-law’s seats four inches from the glass and check out the future of the Red Wings. Which is too bad, because I love me some minor hockey.

All Friday games (of which there are sixteen this season) feature $1 Beer and $1 Hot Dog promotions. That flash of light you just saw out of the corner of your eye was Larry Murphy searching for a map of Western Michigan.

Time to Flip the Investment?

Investments can be a tricky thing, especially those of the long-term variety. In order to succeed in an ever-changing and fluctuating market, copious amounts of research must be combined with a critical eye in order to make an educated decision about the risk and reward over a fixed period of time. Once a comfortable level of confidence is reached, the investment can be made and the waiting game begins. Some investments pan out immediately and the fruits are reaped within a matter of days or months. Other investments take time to mature, steadily growing over multiple years with rewards coming more evenly. Other investments start strong, level off and then ultimately under-perform over the long term. Then, of course, there are those investments that turn into nothing more than a major flop and a waste of money.

This is basic economics and I’m sure many of you have a well-rounded understanding of how these investments work. This is also the same process that guys like Ken Holland and Jim Nill go through when evaluating contracts for young players with tons of “potential” and “upside.” But let’s not kid ourselves. Those words mean nothing more than “chance” and “risk”, just with a better PR spin. It’s part of the game and it’s an understanding that everyone attached to the league or an organization shares.

Which brings us to one of the Wings’ more interesting investments over the last couple of years: Johan Franzen’s 11 year contract extension, circa 2009.

Let’s take a trip in the TPL time machine, all the way back to 2006. Franzen, fresh off of his rookie season, inks a three year deal with the Wings, worth a very reasonable $2.825 million over the life of the deal. A solid investment in potential? You betcha, and Ken Holland confirms the reasoning:

“Johan had a very good rookie season in the NHL,” Wings GM Ken Holland said in a statement. “He was a big part of our penalty killing, provided us with a physical presence and played very well in the playoffs. Moving into his second NHL season and beyond, we’re hopeful he can gain some confidence and increase his contribution in the scoring department as well.”

Franzen would do exactly that, continuing a solid upward trend in points over the next three seasons. His game was physical. His play was clutch. And for a guy making just over $1 million in ’08-’09, 34 goals and 59 points in the regular season was exactly what the Wings were hoping for when they inked that deal three years prior. He was fulfilling his “upside.” He was fleshing out his “potential.” A new contract was coming before the playoffs and everyone knew it.

Fast forward then to April 11th, 2009, when Franzen inked an 11 year, front-loaded extension worth just shy of $4 million per season. Cue Ken Holland:

“His production over the past year and a half, both regular season and playoffs, has been remarkable and we feel, at 29 years old, that he is just now entering the prime of his career,” said general manager Ken Holland.

Franzen immediately rewarded the faith of the front office by posting 12 goals and 23 points in the playoffs, and everybody rejoiced in the fact that Franzen was likely a Wing4Lyfe…despite the fact that superstar Marian Hossa would eventually head out the door to Chicago for more money and the long-term deal that the Wings had already given “the Mule.” (Frankly, we could sit here and discuss which move turned out better for an entire post, but in the interest of letting long-term investments play out, we’ll reserve judgment for the time being.)

Unfortunately for Franzen, the next year started with a bust…of an ACL and 55 games on the sidelines. After rehab and returning to finish out the regular season, Franzen appeared to find his game in the playoffs with 6 goals and 18 points in 12 games. But let’s not forget that four of those goals came in a throw-away Game 4 against the Sharks, so while the numbers look good, they deserve a heaping spoonful of context. That said, Franzen did post 21 points in 27 regular season games after injury, which combined with his playoff performance, was enough to keep optimism high around the Mule.

Everything up to this point, however, has been nothing more than context around the failure of a season Franzen had this past year. Yes, I said it: FAILURE. Yes, I realize that Franzen led the team in goals, but (paging “context” to the post, please) I also realize that he only outscored Dan Cleary by two goals, and if you drop his five goal outburst against Ottawa from the stats, his 23 goals tied the output of Pavel Datsyuk…who only played 56 games last year. While that might not seem like much, remember that Datsyuk made $6.7 million last season and still put up more total points than the Mule, who made a cool $5 million last year (to be fair, his cap hit was only $3.954 million.) Now am I saying that Franzen and Datsyuk should be on the same level in terms of skill and output? No, I’m not. But the money being paid Franzen seems to say otherwise.

The fact is that Franzen’s production disappointed last season, and it’s fair to raise an eyebrow and start wondering what was going on. When you combine that with questionable effort and a perceived lack of interest from game-to-game, it begins to become troublesome. To this day, I still cringe when I re-read the “I don’t like the regular season” comment. Oh you don’t? Well the Wings are giving you almost $4 million reasons why you should, so maybe it’s time to re-think that stance. Attitude like that has no place in the organization, and frankly I’m surprised that nobody called him out on it. Maybe they did, who knows, but I won’t believe it until I start seeing the on-ice product reflect it.

OK, OK. I’ve bagged on The Mule enough and that’s not the point of this post. Maybe the Mule was still lingering from his ACL tear or maybe his mind was too preoccupied with the birth of his first child. Stress lives with everyone, and there’s no way Johan Franzen doesn’t deal with it too. He may be The Mule, but he’s also mortal.

Here’s the question though: If Franzen doesn’t meet expectations, is it time to cut ties?

Now hear me out. I know this isn’t the most popular opinion, but let’s play “what if” for a second and think this through. With a shake-up in the coaching staff, Mike Babcock has already said he’s expecting some new life to be infused into the team, and I guarantee you he’s hoping Johan Franzen is one of the guys to help bring a new dawn. At the same time, Franzen is entering his first season where folks are questioning his game, so he should already have the proverbial chip on his shoulder. We know he’s capable of producing points and being physical. Everything is lining up for The Mule to make it happen over the regular season.

So what if we get to the All Star Break and Franzen’s tallied 20 points and continues to look disinterested? What if we hit the trade deadline and Franzen’s mind is elsewhere and his point production isn’t trending into the 60-70 point range?

I know exactly what I’m doing: Trade. To a bottom-feeder. Petrella and I have talked this topic through for months now, and the fact remains that if Franzen doesn’t look like he gives a damn and his production doesn’t either, why not sell while his stock is still reasonably high to a team looking for a presence like his? Franzen is easily worth a lottery first round pick should the Wings want to go that route, and with a knack for finding talent late in the draft, I’m sure Ken Holland and Co. would love the opportunity to snatch up a premier prospect with one of the Top 5 picks. Yes, Franzen is a popular guy and yes, there would be trepidation about moving him, but from where I sit, a young kid with boatloads of potential is worth dropping  a player who may or may not care about his on-ice product every given night and the albatross of a contract that runs into the next decade that he carries with him.

Will it happen? Probably not. I’m sure the Wings still have all the faith in the world that The Mule will pan out into the player they believe he can be. And there’s also a very good chance he’ll find his game this year and silence the critics. At the end of the day, though, the future of Franzen in Motown is on his own shoulders and he can write his own script for his career. I just know what I would do if he struggles again this season, and I’m sure it’s the unpopular opinion in a sea of Franzen supporters.

So I’ll pose the question to you: What should the Wings do with Johan Franzen should he fail to meet expectations by the deadline?

Photo credit: New York Post

Brett Lebda, that’s who.

Sad Lebda is Sad

Well, that was odd.

On July 7, 2010, former Red Wing defenseman Brett Lebda was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs to a two-year deal worth an astronomical $2.9M (or, if you prefer, 45% of an Ericsson annually). Almost immediately, and by fans not in Toronto, the deal was panned as one of the worst in recent memory. It brought about Jeff Finger-level LOLs. It wasn’t Brett Lebda’s fault — he took what was offered, just like you and I would.

Just a few days shy of a year later, having already fallen out of favor in Toronto and essentially becoming their expensive version of Jakub Kindl, he was traded to Nashville with Robert Slaney, a guy that split last season between the AHL and ECHL, for very useful former Predator Cory Franson and the concussed Matthew Lombardi. Again, not Brett Lebda’s fault — he was relied upon to be something that he wasn’t capable of being and couldn’t live up to extraordinary expectations.

39 days later, and without even having a jersey number assigned to him in Music City, he was bought out and was again in search of employment. Per the CBA, the Predators will pay him 2/3 of his remaining salary over the next two years. Which means he’ll get nearly a million dollars NOT to play in Nashville, no matter what kind of contract he signs with another team — or, even, another league. That’s not Brett Lebda’s fault, either — he wasn’t even given a chance to redeem himself or prove his detractors wrong.

It may be chic to make fun of Brett Lebda, and point out all of the boneheaded things he’s done in six NHL seasons. Such as:

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda went -3 in a game that his team won 9-3?

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda got in his only NHL fight… and was given a misconduct for not having his jersey tied down?

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda got lit up and interviewed a sportscaster whose name he couldn’t remember?

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda scored his only goal of the season, and that’s all that was needed to yank Alex Auld?

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda gathered his bestest bros and ate Lucky Charms…like a boss?

:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda was a speedy 5-foot-9 Midwesterner born in 1982 who played collegiate hockey, went undrafted and was forced to look to other industries for employment? Oh wait, sorry.

And maybe that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Brett Lebda. For me, personally, he was “one of us” that made it. His hard work and hockey skill allowed him to beat the odds and avoid becoming a shoe salesman. Or an accountant.

Or a casting director.

The fact is, he’s accomplished more in 400+ NHL games than 99% of us could ever dream. And all he needed was a chance.

Like so many of us, he toiled in a suburban Michigan high school and made sacrifices so that he could spend as much time as possible on the ice. He stayed semi-local, and chose to play hockey and go to school in Indiana, at the venerable Notre Dame, despite only a handful of NHLers coming from the program. He played all four seasons for the Irish after not having been drafted in 2000. Or 2001. Or ever.

It wasn’t until after graduation in 2004 that the Detroit Red Wings offered him a shot as a free agent. The rest, as they say, is history.

He earned a contract, turned pro and joined the Griffins (since the lockout wouldn’t allow him to hop directly to the Red Wings). When NHL hockey resumed in 2005-06, guess who found himself on the opening night roster for his once-hometown Detroit Red Wings? Brett Lebda, that’s who.

Guess who scored a goal in his first NHL game — the first NHL game in over a year. Brett Lebda did.

Guess who helped pick up the slack following a terrifying incident with fellow blueliner Jiri Fischer. Brett Lebda did.

Guess who was trusted enough to play in all of the post-season games in his rookie year? Brett Lebda was.

Guess who had the chance to be mentored by childhood hero Chris Chelios? Brett Lebda.

Guess who has more Stanley Cup rings on his hand than Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perrault, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Pat LaFontaine, and Mike Gartner combined? Brett Lebda, that’s who.

While that last one might be a tad unfair because Brett Lebda is by no means a better hockey player than those fine gentlemen, it’s important to remember he’s not nearly as bad as it’s become trendy to pretend he is. Was he overpaid when he jumped north of the border? Yeah, probably. But imagine being Brett Lebda… or me… or any of us who had an eerily similar upbringing. Would you jump at the chance to play for another Original Six team and get a hefty paycheck for the privilege? You bet your ass you would.

So here’s hoping Mr. Lebda lands on his feet, if for no other reason than to continue to give us speedy 5-foot-9 Midwesterners a little bit of hope as we stare at the walls of our cubicles or offices or audition rooms daydreaming we’re at morning skate. The closest I ever got to beginning a list of accolades like his was an invitation to attend Toronto St. Michael’s Majors camp in 1997 when they came back from quasi-extinction (an invitation I didn’t take because I was terrified) and a modest (at best) collegiate stat line that features more penalty minutes than goals scored. Brett Lebda is one of us that made good and plugged away until it happened and that, friends, deserves our respect.

Fabian Brunnström To Try-out With Wings

From the department of “interesting” news, our friends over at Puck Daddy are reporting that the Red Wings have signed former Swedish Elite League  –  and Dallas Stars/Toronto Maple Leafs – forward Fabian Brunnström to a try-out contract. The source of the report – Aftonbladet’s Tomas Ros – notes that Brunnström turned down contracts to play for HV71 Jonkoping and Farjestads BK in an attempt to find his way back to an NHL roster this season.

For those who have a solid long-term memory, you’ll recall that Ken Holland did his best to bring Brunnström to the Wings back in 2008, ultimately watching the Dallas Stars win that race. While his start was hot – a hat trick against the Nashville Predators in his NHL debut – Brunnström quickly did his best Johan Franzen “meteoric return to Earth” impression and currently holds 19 goals and 21 assists in 99 games played.

What does it mean for both parties? For the Wings, it’s a low-risk shot at a player with lots of hypothetical “upside” who may be ready to do the work required to eventually make it to the big club and potentially adds some depth to the roster. For Brunnström, it’s the chance to show he’s matured to the point where he can be considered an NHL player, although he’ll likely find himself AHL bound instead. As a point-of-procedure, should Brunnström get a full contract from the Wings, he would have to clear waivers to be sent down to Grand Rapids.

Red Wings pass on Oslund, Rufenach

The Detroit Red Wings have opted not to sign a pair of prospects, thereby losing their exclusive rights. Right Winger Nick Oslund and Defenseman Bryan Rufenach are free to sign with another NHL club, or any professional team, now that Detroit has allowed their rights to lapse. Both players, however, have accepted amateur tryouts and will be in attendance at the NHL Prospects Camp hosted by the Red Wings.

Under the current CBA, teams that select amateur players that opt to play collegiate hockey have until their collegiate playing days are over (so, August 15th after their senior season) to sign them to a contract. Oslund has concluded his fourth year at St. Cloud State; Rufenach played four seasons for Clarkson.

Nick Oslund, a seventh round pick in 2006, is a 6’3″, 210 pound native of Minnesota. He served mostly as a gritty third and fourth line player in college and hasn’t forced the Red Wings to take notice of any progress to speak of. Bryan Rufenach, a seventh round pick in 2007, is a 6′, 187 pound Canadian that saw some improvement at Clarkson until dropping off a bit in his final season.

There’s no reason that the Wings can’t invite both players to their training camp in September — accepting an invitation would be up to the individuals. As you may recall, a few seasons ago the Red Wings declined to sign Zach Torquato, the player they selected the round before Rufenach. Torquato signed an amateur tryout contract with the Minnesota Wild and was actually in attendance at the Traverse City prospect tournament as a member of the Wild.

Rufenach played in a six games with the Toledo Walleye, the Red Wings’ ECHL affiliate, at the end of last season, scoring a goal and adding an assist. Both players were in attendance at the Wings’ strength and conditioning camp in July and will participate in the prospects tournament next month, however it would seem that neither are in the team’s plans moving forward — or, at least, not worth removing someone from the 50-man roster that each team must abide by.

Looking ahead to next summer, the Red Wings will be forced to make similar decisions regarding three unsigned draft picks: Julien Cayer (a fifth round pick in 2008 who was Rufenach’s teammate at Clarkson for the last three years), Brooks Macek (a sixth round pick in 2010 currently playing in the WHL), and Petr Mrazek (a fifth round pick that has turned out to be one of the savvier goaltending selections in recent years — almost a shoo-in for a contract).

There will be plenty of spots on the 50-man roster, however, as 13 players are unrestricted (Bertuzzi, Commodore, Conklin, Holmstrom, Hudler, Kronwall, Lidstrom, Stuart, Chris Conner, Garnet Exelby, Doug Janik, Jamie Johnson, and Chris Minard) — some of whom may retire — and four more are restricted (Abdelkader, Helm, Travis Ehrahrdt, and Thomas McCollum).

Tryout: Ramis Sadikov

When the Red Wings released the prospect tournament camp roster earlier today, there was one name that we weren’t terribly familiar with yet: undrafted goaltender Ramis Sadikov of the Erie Otters. Of the seven tryouts, he was the only one that wasn’t in attendance at the strength and conditioning camp in July.

So who is this kid that will be joining 2010 Draft Pick Petr Mrazek and fellow tryout Evan Mosher in guarding the Wings net in Traverse City?

For starter’s, he’s huge. The OHL’s official site has him listed at 6’4″ — which would make him the third tallest Red Wing (behind Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Commodore) should he earn a contract. Not only that, he’s listed between 220 and 230 — which puts him in Commodore and Todd Bertuzzi territory.

He turned 21 in February of this past season — a season that saw his workload increase from 25 games played to 58. In both seasons with Erie, he’s led the netminders in games played.

In 2010-11, his stat line is fairly impressive. He went 36-17-2 on a rather average Otters team. His 36 wins were good enough for second in the OHL (one place above Mrazek). His .912 save percentage was enough to earn 4th place in the league (a category that Mrazek led) and a 2.88 goals against average placed him sixth (one slot below Mrazek). He led the league in minutes played, with 3,295.

Despite playing two years in North America — a caveat that can turn the Russian National Team off — he was a member of two World Junior development rosters, and eventually made Team Russia in 2010 (but he only played in one game). He was cut from the eventual Gold Medal-winning team in 2011.

Although he was eligible to be drafted in both 2010 and 2011, no NHL team has bitten. However, he was drafted in the 2009 CHL Import Draft — going 36th overall to Erie. He was also selected in the first round of the 2009 KHL Draft, and his rights are held by SKA St. Petersburg (he was taken three slots above our own Tomas Tatar).

Finally, we learn that homeboy’s not afraid to drop the mitts and throw hands, as you can see in this video (fast forward to 1:15 if you’re impatient):

For more information about Sadikov and all of the Red Wings tryouts, visit The Left Wing Lock, where Sarah Lindenau is doing excellent work keeping up with the Traverse City news.

Photo Credit: Janet Campbell

Red Wings release Prospect Camp roster and schedule

New tryout: Ramis Sadikov

Once again, the Red Wings will be hosting the 2011 NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City this September. Each summer, the tournament boasts some of the finest incoming hockey talent and the organization released the roster that will be representing the Winged Wheel in a press release a few moments ago:

FORWARDS
14 Gustav Nyquist
28 Tomas Jurco (@Jurky13)
49 Andrej Nestrasil
50 Brooks Macek (@MaceALace)
53 Louis-Marc Aubry
57 Landon Ferraro
58 Nick Oslund* (rights are set to expire in a few days — more on that later)
60 Trevor Parkes (@TParkes19)
63 Joakim Andersson
64 Adam Estoclet*
65 Mitchell Callahan (@Emcy2four)
70 Willie Coetzee
71 Marek Tverdon
72 Zach Franko*
74 Alan Quine (@Quiner26)

DEFENSEMEN
2 Brendan Smith (@bssmith7)
25 Brian Lashoff
56 Bryan Rufenach* (rights are set to expire, like Oslund, on August 15th)
61 Xavier Ouellet
62 Ryan Sproul (@sproully93)
67 Gleason Fournier (@GleasonFournier)
73 Richard Nedomlel
75 Artem Sergeev*

GOALTENDERS
34 Petr Mrazek
68 Evan Mosher*
76 Ramis Sadikov*

*-denotes free agent tryout.

Of the 26 participants on the Wings’ roster, seven will be considered “tryouts,” as they are not official property of the Red Wings as of the September 10th tournament start date. Goaltender Ramis Sadikov is the only tryout that was not part of the strength and conditioning camp in mid-July. The Russian-born netminder has played the past two seasons in the OHL for the Erie Otters.

In addition to Sadikov, Joakim Andersson and Andrej Nestrasil will join the Red Wings for the week. They were not present at strength camp last month, and were likely overseas for the off-season.

If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the tournament, which is four days of games and a day of practice in the middle, they’re available for purchase at CenterIce.org and run only $10 a day. Morning practices are free of charge. A full schedule of events follows:

Saturday, September 10

PRACTICE TIMES DAVID’S RINK HUNTINGTON RINK

8:30 – 9:15 AM                        Buffalo                                                   Minnesota

9:30 – 10:15 AM                     Carolina                                                Dallas

10:30 – 11:15 AM                   NY Rangers                                         St. Louis

11:30 – 12:15 PM                    Columbus                                             Detroit

GAME TIMES                           HOME                         VISITOR         RINK

3:30 PM                                  Minnesota       vs.       Buffalo             David’s

4:00 PM                                  Carolina           vs.       Dallas               Huntington

7:00 PM                                  NY Rangers    vs.       St. Louis         David’s

7:30 PM                                  Detroit              vs.       Columbus      Huntington

Sunday, September 11

PRACTICE TIMES DAVID’S RINK HUNTINGTON RINK

8:00 – 8:45 AM                    Buffalo                                                       Columbus

9:00 – 9:45 AM                    St. Louis                                                    Carolina

10:00 – 10:45 AM               Dallas                                                         NY Rangers

11:00 – 11:45 AM                Minnesota                                                Detroit

GAME TIMES                        HOME                          VISITOR            RINK

2:30 PM                                  Buffalo             vs.       Columbus         David’s

3:00 PM                                  St. Louis          vs.       Carolina            Huntington

6:00 PM                                  NY Rangers    vs.       Dallas                David’s

6:30 PM                                  Minnesota       vs.       Detroit               Huntington

Monday, September 12

PRACTICE TIMES DAVID’S RINK HUNTINGTON RINK

9:15 – 10:30 AM                  St. Louis                                                    Buffalo

10:45 – Noon                        Carolina                                                    Detroit

12:15 – 1:30 PM                   Columbus                                                 NY Rangers

1:45 – 3:00 PM                     Minnesota                                               Dallas

Tuesday, September 13

PRACTICE TIMES DAVID’S RINK HUNTINGTON RINK

8:30 – 9:15 AM                    NY Rangers                                             Carolina

9:30 – 10:15 AM                 Dallas                                                          St. Louis

10:30 – 11:15 AM               Columbus                                                 Minnesota

11:30 – 12:15 PM                Buffalo                                                       Detroit

GAME TIMES                       HOME                         VISITOR             RINK

3:00 PM                                  Carolina        vs.       NY Rangers      David’s

3:30 PM                                  Dallas              vs.       St. Louis            Huntington

6:30 PM                                  Columbus      vs.       Minnesota        David’s

7:00 PM                                  Detroit            vs.       Buffalo               Huntington

Wednesday, September 14

PRACTICE TIMES DAVID’S RINK HUNTINGTON RINK

10:00- 10:45 AM                 2nd Howe                                             2nd Gretzky

11:00 – 11:45 AM                  1st Gretzky                                          1st Howe

GAME TIMES                                                HOME                         VISITOR                     RINK

3:00 PM (7th Place Game)                 4th Howe         vs.       4th Gretzky                  David’s

3:30 PM (5th Place Game)                 3rd Howe         vs.       3rd Gretzky                  Huntington

6:30 PM (3rd Place Game)                 2nd Howe         vs.       2nd Gretzky                David’s

7:00 PM (Championship Game)        1st Howe          vs.       1st Gretzky                  Huntington

The divisions are as follows:

HOWE DIVISION
Detroit Red Wings prospects
Buffalo Sabres prospects
Columbus Blue Jackets prospects
Minnesota Wild prospects

GRETZKY DIVISION
St. Louis Blues prospects
Dallas Stars prospects
New York Rangers prospects
Carolina Hurricanes prospects