Hall of Fame legend Red Kelly had his number raised to the rafters of Little Caesar’s Arena on Friday night.
It’s too bad that the eight-time Stanley Cup winner didn’t lace up the skates. Either the Red Wings or Leafs could have used the nonagenarian in their lineup, based on the lack of intensity in the snoozefest that Detroit ended up winning in overtime.
The result was an embarrassment for a Leafs squad that should have been rested throughout their All-Star / bye-week sabbatical, and that was expected to be bolstered by the presence of their new blue line acquisition, Jake Muzzin.
Respectfully, the 27th place Red Wings shouldn’t have posed much of a challenge to their Atlantic Division rivals, 17 points superior to them in the standings at the time of the opening faceoff.
It was an overtime loss that felt like a regulation defeat.
This isn’t reactionary commentary as a result of one bad game that any team – whether basement dwellers or Cup contenders – can have on a given night.
A concerning weakness, namely the lack of a physical presence on the forward unit, has been exploited over the past dozen games during which the Leafs have posted an unflattering 4-7-1 record.
The boys in blue and white are consistently being knocked off the puck when challenged against the likes of the Nashville Predators and the Boston Bruins.
And how about last night’s first period play in which Jacob de la Rose was allowed to run roughshod over Frederik Andersen in the netminder’s crease? Any pushback? On the contrary, please carry on, sir. We hope you weren’t inconvenienced by crashing into our team’s most valuable player.
Indeed there are many parallels between this year’s offensively-gifted, yet one-dimensional Leafs roster and the entertaining, yet playoff underachieving, squad that starred in Motown nearly a quarter-century ago: the 1995-96 Red Wings.
The powerhouse wearers of the winged wheel posted a record 62 wins that year, falling just one point shy of equaling the mark of 132 points set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.
An accomplished coach, Scotty Bowman was behind the bench. The current-day Leafs have Mike Babcock, the sole member of the IIHF Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, World Championship) in that capacity.
Detroit had a powerful centre and right wing combination in Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. In a way, they remind us of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
On defence the Wings employed Nicklas Lidstrom a 25-year-old who was on the verge of Norris Trophy stardom. There’s your Morgan Rielly.
Also on the blue line was a rearguard who could create offense, but was also much maligned because of his deficiencies in his own zone. We’ll say Paul Coffey equals Jake Gardiner, for purposes of this comparison.
It’s an analogy that has its imperfections, and there is no suggestion here that Matthews and Marner, upon their eventual retirements, are going to be in the next iteration of the NHL’s next “Top 100” list, or that Rielly will go on to win seven Norris Trophies and one Conn Smythe Award. This column isn’t a crystal ball.
But there is an intriguing element of symmetry between the two squads. The 1995-96 Red Wings, for all their record-breaking talent, ran their needle to empty, come April and May. When they faced their nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche in the post-season, Detroit had little to no response for Claude Lemieux ending Kris Draper’s season with a dirty hit.
How did the Red Wings turn their fortunes around? They consummated the trade that filled their need for more toughness, less finesse.
At the start of the 1996-97 campaign, Detroit acquired the man who, coincidentally, has been entrusted with bringing a championship to the present-day Leafs: Brendan Shanahan.
In jettisoning Coffey, Keith Primeau and a first round pick to the Hartford Whalers for Shanahan and Brian Glynn, the Wings proclaimed that the team wasn’t satisfied with the Presidents’ Trophy or the all-time wins record.
They wanted Lord Stanley.
And hockey’s most coveted trophy did visit Motown four times in the next eleven years, Shanahan hoisting the mug in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
Red Wings fans with long memories can vividly recall the statement game in which the Red Wings evolved from playoff pretenders to contenders. It occurred towards the end of the regular season, on March 26, 1997 when Detroit hosted their “Blood Feud” rivals, Colorado.
Darren McCarty pummeled Claude Lemieux in retaliation for the latter’s cheap shot on Draper ten months earlier.
Patrick Roy tried to come to Lemieux’s defense, only to be clotheslined at centre ice by, who else, Shanahan.
By complementing their All-Star snipers with grit and sandpaper, the Wings had finally assembled a roster that could withstand the physical grind of battling their archrivals. Championship glory ensued.
The Red Wings of then, the Leafs of today. Different eras. Different teams.
Yet the principle is the same. All the offensive prowess in the world, no matter how many times the lamp is lit over 82 games, will be negated by a stronger, physical team in the post-season.
Is Scarborough native Wayne Simmonds available to his hometown team? That’s a query for another column.
The point is, a player of his prototype, should be the next item on Kyle Dubas’s shopping list.
Much like Shanahan helped end a championship drought in Motown over 22 years ago, he has hired the staff to end the streak of futility here in Toronto.
Detroit’s power forward acquisition in ’96, Shanahan. Toronto’s counterpart, present-day, TBD.
And hopefully, one last item on the comparison checklist: parade on Woodward Avenue equals parade on Bay Street.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.