Just three games into the 2013-14 season, concerns about how and when the Red Wings will improve their power play are already surfacing.
Ansar Khan at Mlive.com noted the Red Wings are looking to be “harder on the puck.”
Helen St. James at the Detroit Free Press has also accurately described Detroit’s power-play woes as a “tired and irritating topic.”
Indeed, going back to the 2011-12 season, the Detroit Red Wings’ power play has sufficiently underwhelmed and belied their overall offensive potential.
This is a relatively new and unfamiliar source of frustration for the Red Wings.
Dating back to their most recent Stanley Cup championship in 2008, the Red Wings were never ranked lower than 9th on the power play through the 2010-11 season.
A Red Wings power play was once something to be feared; of late, it’s more often been something to forget about.
Some might point to the retirement of defenseman Brian Rafalski in the summer of 2011 or the long-dreaded retirement of his legendary partner, Nicklas Lidstrom, in 2012 as harbingers of Detroit’s power-play decline.
In fact, Detroit’s biggest loss relative to its ability to terrify when up a man did occur in 2012 but was represented by a Swede far less talented than Lidstrom.
I’m talking, of course, about Tomas Holmstrom.
The so-called “Swedish Demolition Man” was a savant when it came to playing in front of the net on the power play.
For nearly his entire 15-year career in Detroit, Holmstrom made his living just inches in front of the opposing team’s net, and he did so executing the same strategy again and again—get to the front of the net, anchor your stick to the ice, shove your rump in the goalie’s face and hang on.
It was a job few, if any players, are willing to do.
He endured endless whacks on the ankles from opposing goalies' sticks and countless kidney punches from defensemen desperate to get him out of the crease.
Try as they might, getting Holmstrom to abandon his post was about as likely as getting a chuckle out of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace.
However, Holmstrom wasn’t just an immovaable hunk of meat in front of the net; he also had some superbly honed deflection skills.
Holmstrom’s ability to accurately deflect rockets from the point was something he exhibited with uncanny reliability throughout his career.
Be they ankle-high shots diverted through the goalie’s five-hole or a waist-high blast plucked out of the air and into the top corner, Holmstrom was a master at the oft-overlooked art of puck deflection.
When the puck would whistle wide of the net or deflect off a defender’s shin pad, Holmstrom would use his 6-foot, 200-odd-pound frame to outmuscle opponents in the corner, dig out the puck and deliver it back to his teammates.
This was not glamorous work.
Screening goalies, deflecting shots and puck retrieval skills are rarely honed by those aspiring to dazzle at the NHL level.
Nevertheless, this is the craft that Holmstrom dedicated himself to, and it helped to bring his team four Stanley Cup championships during his tenure.
By the 2011-12 season, Holmstrom’s last in Detroit, the abuse he subjected himself to the 14 years prior had noticeably taken its toll.
He wasn’t quite as immovable in front of the net and proved more beatable along the boards than he was in years past. Perhaps not surprisingly, this season also marked the beginning of Detroit’s power-play impotency.
He finished the year with just 24 points and left little doubt at season’s end that his retirement was inevitable.
Since Holmstrom’s departure, several of his former teammates have tried to fill his legendary spot in front of the net with minimally effective results.
Be it Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen or Todd Bertuzzi, not one current Red Wing can do what Holmstrom did, and honestly, they shouldn’t even be trying.
While Cleary, Franzen or Bertuzzi provide a big body to station in front of an opposing goalie’s face, they have not made a career out of screening goalies or deflecting shots.
Cleary still has plenty of jam, but his special teams minutes are more effectively spent on the penalty kill than the power play.
Franzen should be using his size and soft hands to put shots on net rather than deflecting pucks into it.
Bertuzzi can still be effective as an offensive player, but he is much more dangerous when busting in from the blue line to the circles than positioned on top of the goal crease.
The Red Wings should not be looking to one of their veteran players to improve their power play—the answer to their problems can likely be found in one of their youngsters.
At 6’2” and 206 pounds, second-year center Joakim Andersson should be doing everything he can to convince the coaching staff to give him a shot at becoming the next Tomas Holmstrom.
Detroit has plenty of skill, puck-handling wizardry and back-end mobility to ice a potent power play.
What they don’t have is a guy willing to endure endless abuse and punishment in front of the net.
Until one of their players decides, much like Holmstrom did years ago, to do the job so few are willing to do, Detroit’s power play will likely continue to sputter along among the middle of the NHL pack.
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