Welcome to a new weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports. This column will run every Sunday. Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email, email@example.com or twitter, @kyle_bauer
FINALLY. After years of having to stay up late for playoff series against (takes deep breath) Calgary, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver and Edmonton (exhales), the Red Wings appear to be moving to a new Eastern bloc of NHL realignment.
Former NHL goon turned supreme Sportsnet analyst/reporter, Nick Kypreos reported last night that a formal vote of approval will be submitted by the NHL players union in a matter of days. It’s all but a certainty; our late-night(mare)’s should be over.
This new division will be putting the Wings in with the Montreal Candiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sounds pretty awesome right? I freaking LOVE Eastern Conference hockey. If you watch as much NBC Sunday afternoon hockey as I do, you’ve become familiar with the likes of goaltender Ryan Miller and leading scorer Thomas Vanek of the Sabres and former Plymouth Whaler turned young sniper Tyler Seguin of the Bruins. Then it’s a given the first place Canadiens and/or Leafs will be on if you’re watching CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada.
The Eastern Conference teams are often featured on national broadcasts. If you pay attention to the entire league, you see the balance of skill and power the East consistently brings.
I feel like I should be absolutely giddy about this, I mean I should, we all should. Yet, I’m not. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me that arises from time to time but there will be things to miss about playing the Western Conference. I’ve compiled a list that’s not long, but it’s from the heart.
1. The Chicago Blackhawks- For as long as professional hockey in Detroit has existed, the Blackhawks have been near by to cause trouble. The two teams first met November 24, 1926. Sure, the Wings hold a nearly 100 win advantage all-time (363-264-84) but the Blackhawks gave the Wings playoff fits through various periods in the 60’s, 80’s and 90’s with a 35-39 all-time playoff record. The two have always been in the same division and have played more regular season games against each other than any two teams in league history.
This has also left a lot of blood on the ice. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, the two teams seemingly swapped enforcers to pound on each other. Jim Cummins, Stu Grimson, Chris Chelios and Bob Probert fought for both sides in this rivalry. I grew up on my cousins crackley VHS tapes of the “Bash Brothers” (Probert and Joey Kocur) taking turns vs. Al Secord in the mid-80’s.
For all you slappies who demanded the “bigger” rivalry against the Maple Leafs, you’ll surely miss the Blackhawks more. They are now a premiere franchise and have produced several incredible games against Detroit over the past six years–not including a bland 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. You all might think getting games back against the Maple Leafs is worth leaving behind the Blackhawks, but it’s not. Not unlike the Hawks a decade ago, the Leafs are currently a worthless franchise. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2004–TWO LOCKOUTS AGO. Sure, they’re looking like a playoff team this season, but certainly not a legit Stanley Cup contender like the Blackhawks. While I believe the Red Wings current roster is in its twilight, I still enjoy Datsyuk and Zetterberg vs. Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews. I find no satisfaction and excitement from beating the Leafs Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel–though I do find plenty of satisfaction from dejected Leaf fan.
2. The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will become the new Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators- Is there any franchise is all of sports more unbearably boring to watch than the Blue Jackets? The Wings seemingly play them 41 times a season. With the Jackets being placed in the new Atlantic division, Detroit will go from playing them six times a season to an anticipated three games, as reported by ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun.
So we will no longer have several games against Columbus and the “Boot Scoot’n Boogie” Predators. No more agonizing 2-1 shootout paint-dryers against pesky, stagnant, defensive-minded forever-expansion teams. No more camera shots of Predators coach Barry Trotz egg-shaped body wobbling behind the bench with his chronically constipated face.
This is great, awesome, so refreshing! Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut every game that would’ve been at Columbus’ historic Nationwide Arena will instead will be at Blockbuster Colesium or ummm oh wait, that’s not it…..um the Office Depot Dome–where the hell do the Panthers play?! Well, whatever corporation their cookie-cutter arena is named after, we’ll soon find out when the Wings play them seemingly every night–actually just four times per the reports but that’ll seem like four games too many.
Sure, the Panthers were a playoff team that took the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to a game-7 overtime, but they’re still incredibly difficult to watch. Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell are their “star” players (YAWWWWWN). In a lot of ways, the Panthers and Jackets are the same franchise–the biggest being they’re both very forgettable teams. We weren’t allowed to forget the Jackets and now we won’t be able to forget the Panthers because we will seemingly see them once a month.
The Lightning will be easier to watch than the Panthers, especially with Brett Hull 2.0 (Steven Stamkos) loading up lasers from the left wing, receiving passes from the ageless Martin St.Louis. Despite Stamkos and St.Louis, Steve Yzerman being the general manager and a recent deep playoff run, I have no interest in watching this team.
I “hate-watched” their Eastern Conference final seven-game series against the Bruins in 2011. The Bruins balanced style of play captivated me while the Lightning had 80-year-old Dwayne Roloson in net and Sean Bergenheim scoring their goals–this was not doing it for me.
They’ll not only be tough for Wings fans to frequently watch but have just enough talent to be a consistently tough opponent for Detroit. Essentially, they’ll take the role of the Predators on the schedule.
3. The Red Wings will initially struggle- I kind of segued into this with my last sentence on the Lightning; at times difficult to watch, always tough to beat. That’s objectively the case for the Senators, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Panthers, Devils, Bruins and Rangers. While all the aforementioned teams can dull the game down, players like the Habs Max Pacioretty, Rangers Marian Gaborik and Bruins Brad Marchand have the potential to blow it up any second they’re on the ice. Then you have Flyers, Penguins, Islanders and Sabres who can score at will. The powerful duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be a frequently reality come next season.
The Eastern Conference has superior talent. I don’t believe the Red Wings are ready for that at this pivotal point in their franchise. As the Red Wings try to find their stride between the old of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall to the new of Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar and Brian Lashoff, there could be more than a couple sub-par transition seasons. It would be nice for the Wings to have some padding against dogs like the Avalanche and Flames to smooth through this unstable territory.
Last season they were a mediocre 10-7-1 against the East. I don’t see next year’s team–which will be nearly identical barring significant trade or injury–being better than the 2011-12 squad. Meanwhile the Penguins remain “The Pens”, the Bruins and Canadiens are emerging as powers and I’m inclined to believe the Capitals, Rangers, Flyers and even the Islanders (yes, believe me, the Islanders!) are going to get steady footing once again.
The East is a more skilled, bigger, more physical gauntlet that will not be kind to the smaller, slower Wings on the elderly side. Sure, the legs will be saved on travel but I assure you the first couple seasons in the East may yield Detroit from making their annual playoff appearance. As an NHL fan above all, I welcome seeing quality hockey most nights and watching the Wings play the best of the best but you have to realize this will likely put some tarnish on the Winged-Wheel brass.
4. Significantly smaller chance of late-night Hockey Night In Canada games- A lot of you will hate me for daring to suggest the Wings will initially struggle in the East, but you might think I’m even more of a dweeb for this beef.
It’s been a guarantee that under normal scheduling circumstances, the Wings will at least visit either Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver on a Saturday night during the regular season. I always enjoy Detroit on HNIC and being in the same division as the Senators, Maple Leafs and Canadiens, we will actually see them on ol’ channel 9 a lot more often. Yet, we won’t likely see them on the back end of the double header.
While the Wings have some dark playoff memories in the Flames Saddledome and Oilers Rexall Place, I can’t deny the charm of watching the Wings play in those old barns. The intimacy of both venues is something professional sports arena’s all over the world have long forgot about. Sadly the days are numbered for both arena’s so I suppose it’s a moot-point, but I always soaked in a valid excuse to spend my late Saturday night’s inside on the couch with a ginger ale, watching Detroit play on Canada’s biggest stage. This makes me the ultimate hockey dork, but damn, it’s who I am. I will miss this.
5. The Wings are in the lame division of the East realignment- This shows off how much I really want to see the Wings play the best of the best. Despite the Capitals, Flyers and Rangers struggles so far this season, I’m still confident that the new Atlantic division will be the most competitive and exciting in the NHL. I want the Wings square in that mix.
While you all loathe Crosby and the Pens, you still have to love those rare instances when the teams squared off post 2008 Stanley Cup. I love them too. One of the best NHL games I ever attended was November 11, 2008 when the Pens visited Detroit for the first time since the finals. It was a back-and-forth game that saw Darren McCarty’s last career goal and a hat trick from Jordan Staal that propelled Pittsburgh back from three goal third period deficit to an overtime 7-6 win. It was insanity. It was the type of wide-open hockey I enjoy seeing.
I want Crosby and Malkin, Gaborik, Ovechkin, the Flyers Claude Giroux and the Islanders John Tavares filling up that little magnet schedule you get with your Hot ‘N Ready. While it may be even more difficult for the Wings to muddle through a star loaded schedule, it will mean better hockey on my television and world-class talent coming into the Joe’ frequently and consistently.
Ultimately I’m in favor of this realignment proposal. I want the best hockey all the time. This current schedule with the Wild, Coyotes, Stars, Avalanche, Predators and Blue Jackets is so stale it could be used a blunt weapon. This will be blissful for me as a hockey fan, but we must remember, this is far from a golden ticket for you Wings fans. Hopefully you’ll take these five (at least four?) reasons as a reminder that hockey will get more interesting around here but it likely won’t equate to more success in “Hockeytown”.
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer