Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lidstrom's Stealth Perfection Irreplaceable

When Nick Lidstrom first suited up for the Red Wings in 1991, George Bush was president---the first Bush. The Tigers' first baseman was Fielder---the first Fielder. Joe Dumars was hard at work at the Palace---as a player. The Lions were having a season that would find them in the NFC Championship Game.
It was a long time ago.
In 1991, we had no idea that this Swedish defenseman, an NHL rookie, would grow up to be the greatest blueliner of his time---and maybe of all time.
It wasn't like when Bobby Orr burst onto the scene in the 1960s. With Orr, greatness seemed inevitable. Orr was unlike anything we'd seen before. Before Orr, no defenseman made an end-to-end rush. No defenseman could skate like Orr. No defenseman could pass like Orr.
NHL defensemen before Bobby Orr treated the rink as if there was a force field beyond the center red line. They were among the worst skaters and were often placed on defense because of that lack of ability. Being a defenseman was like being the kid deposited into right field during a game of pickup baseball. Or the street football player who was told on every play to "go long."
The NHL defensemen of the Original Six era scored exactly one goal each, every season. They had more bruises on their body from blocking shots than they had points. They had names like Doug Harvey and Leo Boivin and Moose Vasko. They were so heavy on their skates they created divots on the ice.
So when Orr arrived, it was like when the electric guitar first screeched on the nation's 45s.
A guitar can do that?
A defenseman can skate? Shoot? Pass?
Nick Lidstrom snuck up on us. He didn't do anything in a flashy way. He didn't wow us. He didn't reinvent the position, like Orr did.
All he did was play it perfectly---for 20 seasons.
That's the irony of Lidstrom's career, which came to an end in one of those press conferences in the bowels of an arena where the athlete toiled. The end came, as it always does, with the athlete wearing Armani instead of Nike and speaking into a single microphone instead of the cluster that is thrust at him in the locker room after the game.
When the news broke yesterday that there was a press conference called for today involving Lidstrom and GM Ken Holland, didn't we all feel like we were told that the coach wanted to see us, and that we'd better bring our playbook?
We all knew. We tried to theorize that there was some reason, any other reason, for the presser.
But we all knew.

The irony is that Lidstrom was the Perfect Defenseman yet he managed to do so in a manner that rarely stood out.
When you ask a hockey person about what they liked most about Orr there is quite a menu.
When you ask a football fan about Barry Sanders and what they liked most, you might as well have a seat.
Back to the Red Wings: ask someone who watched Steve Yzerman play in Detroit for 22 years about Stevie's characteristics and the superlatives will flow: toughness; determined; focused; warrior; leader; heart and soul.
But ask the same folks about Lidstrom and there'll be yammering and stammering before the person finally blurts out "Perfect!"
Yes, that sums it up, but how can someone play his position perfectly yet leave so few words for us to use to describe the perfection?
It was clear that when we paid to see Barry Sanders, we paid to see him juke, twist, stop and start and split into two in order to avoid a tackle.
We paid to see Cecil Fielder hit a baseball over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium---or strike out mightily trying.
We paid to see Yzerman play on one leg, gut through a horrific eye injury, and grind his way over, around and past the Colorado Avalanche.
But what did we pay to see Lidstrom do?
Using a hockey stick like a skilled surgeon would wield a scalpel? Never being out of position? Seeing the rink like Bobby Fischer would see a chess board? Playing the angles like Minnesota Fats played the cushions?
Lidstrom did all of that, but it wasn't "pay to see it" stuff. 
Perfect isn't exciting. We're more enthralled by the imperfect with style and panache.
Lidstrom had neither style nor panache. He appeared to blend in, until you bothered to stop and recall a time when he made a mistake---and couldn't think of one.
So what now, with the announcement of Lidstrom's retirement this morning?
Well, the Red Wings can go out and sign free agent Ryan Suter. But frankly, they could sign three Suters and I'm not sure it would be an upgrade. And that's no knock on Suter, any more than saying three Ford Mustangs aren't an upgrade over a Lamborghini.
First, when discussing the Red Wings without Lidstrom, please refrain from using the R-word.
You don't replace Nick Lidstrom. Let's get that straight right now.
All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They're a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.
But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who's playing for the Cup right now.
The sun will rise tomorrow. It's just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom's career today.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pistons' Monroe Reminds Detroit's Basketball Yoda of Reed, Lanier

Under normal circumstances, I would dismiss the comparisons of a second-year NBA big man to the likes of Hall of Famers Bob Lanier and Willis Reed as so much horsepucky, figuring it to be spewed by an over-exuberant fan who might never have seen Lanier or Reed play a single minute.

I might roll my eyes and lightly smirk at the notion of the Pistons’ Greg Monroe, after just two NBA seasons, having anything more in common with Lanier and Reed other than all three of them are left-handed.

Unless the one making the comparison is Ray Scott.

If you’d ever like to go NBA brain-picking, you could do a whole lot worse than to talk to Scott, who some around town remember as a one time NBA Coach of the Year with the Pistons, but who fewer remember as being one of the best and most consistent big men of his time, playing for the Pistons in the 1960s. Today Scott, 73, is as close to a basketball Yoda as you’ll find in this town.

Scott was a leaping, rebounding, and scoring big man out of Portland University, but he was really a Philadelphia kid. The Pistons nabbed him fourth overall in the 1961 draft, and for most of the decade Scott produced double-doubles (points and rebounds) every night like a Pez dispenser.

One year for the Pistons, Scott averaged 13.5 boards a game, snatching basketballs away from the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Jerry Lucas while the rest of his teammates fought gamely but usually ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

That was Pistons basketball in Scott’s day—the losses piled up like dishes in the kitchen of a diner during the lunch rush.

So when Ray Scott says Greg Monroe reminds him of Willis Reed and Bob Lanier, you ought to listen, because Ray played against the former and coached the latter.

Ray was waxing the art of big man play in the NBA last week on “The Knee Jerks,” the weekly podcast I co-host with Big Al Beaton. Ray, always the gentleman, was on hand to help us celebrate our third anniversary of doing the show.

It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.

“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.

For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.

Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.

It was already galling to hear Ray make the comparisons to Reed and Lanier—until you thought of how many nights Scott and Reed jostled under the boards at Cobo Arena or Madison Square Garden, leaning against one another, waving a hand in each other’s face. And then you just had to think of all the practice sessions with Scott the coach and Lanier the player from 1972-76, when Ray coached the Pistons and Lanier was depositing those 10-foot hook shots over the likes of Kareem and Nate Thurmond and Dave Cowens.

Monroe survived a drama-filled rookie season with the Pistons in 2010-11 under the disrespected coach John Kuester. The 6’10” center/power forward didn’t get off the bench much in the first couple weeks of the season, but by the end of it, Monroe was starting and showing the tender skills that made him attractive to president Joe Dumars.

Year two was when Monroe took his giant leap for mankind.

The numbers shot up, from 9.4 points/7.5 rebounds per game to 15.4/9.7. Even the free throw percentage went way up, from .622 to .739. The confidence soared with the numbers. The team didn’t exactly soar with Monroe, but a 21-21 finish after a 4-20 start was something to build on for next season.

Entering Year three, it’s not crazy talk to call Greg Monroe one of the Pistons’ leaders—on and off the court.

Ah, but there is one area in which Monroe gets dogged a little—a criticism that has followed him like a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe.

It’s whispered that he’s not as tough as an NBA big man should be. That there’s a mean streak that Monroe simply doesn’t possess.

Scott, on our show, said that Reed was “as mean as a snake.” Lanier, the coach said, had a toughness that was different than Reed’s but manifested itself in how Bob played through pain and through the turmoil that sometimes beset the Pistons in the 1970s.

It’s unclear, this early in Monroe’s career, whether he’ll develop that nasty edge that is required to be a beast to play against on a nightly basis. Scott, for example, used “easy going” in describing Monroe.

But the strides made in Year Two, combined with the flashes that rookie point guard Brandon Knight showed, makes one wonder if the Pistons have themselves an inside-outside combo in the making not seen since—dare we say it—Scott was coaching Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.

“I like the way (Monroe) goes about his business,” Scott told us this week. “He is easy going but he works very hard and that’s how you show great improvement, as he did this past season.”

Reed’s watershed moment was in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, when he limped onto the Madison Square Garden floor on one leg thanks to a torn thigh muscle, gamely starting against the Los Angeles Lakers and nailing a couple of mid-range jumpers. He only played a few minutes, but his mere presence inspired his teammates to a blowout win for the championship.

Lanier came into the NBA on one leg as well. The St. Bonaventure grad had his leg in traction when the Pistons drafted him in the first round in 1970, the after effects of a nasty knee injury suffered in the 1970 NCAA Tournament.

“Bob had to work hard on a day-to-day basis just on conditioning alone,” Scott recalled.

For 10 seasons Lanier battled his brittle knees, Pistons upheaval and bemusing coaches before being liberated via a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1980. Unlike Reed, however, Lanier never achieved his ultimate goal of an NBA championship, though he came close with the Bucks a couple of times.

Greg Monroe’s greatest moment as a Piston has yet to be realized. Wondering what it might be is enough to warm the cockles of a fan’s heart.

So there you have it. Greg Monroe, just two years into his NBA career, reminds Detroit’s basketball Yoda of a pair of Hall of Fame centers.

Ray Scott is about the only fellow in town who can get away with such hogwash.

Because he’s probably right.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Brodeur Still Chasing the Cup at Age 40

In your world or mine, a 40-year-old goalie nine years removed from his last Stanley Cup is probably wearing a suit and gabbing in between periods for one of the TV networks.

Or he might be coaching kid netminders somewhere, imparting words of wisdom about how positioning is everything and teaching the art of being stingy with rebounds.

Not in Martin Brodeur’s world.

In Marty’s World, the 40-year-old goalie is leading in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and already being credited with saving not only pucks, but his team’s bacon.

OK, so Marty Brodeur isn’t 40—yet. He turns it on Sunday.

Not that you’d know it with the way he’s playing these days.

Brodeur has his New Jersey Devils in front of the favored Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The latest win was an overtime thriller on Thursday night in Jersey. Brodeur was key in killing off two Flyers power plays in the extra session, enabling the Devils to stay alive long enough to pop in the winning goal with less than three minutes to play in the fourth period.

Brodeur is 17 years removed from the first of his three Cups, which he won over the heavily favored Red Wings in a four-game sweep—a series in which New Jersey employed their infamous trap, and Brodeur’s goaltending allowed the mighty Wings just seven goals scored in four games.

Marty was 23 back then, and at the time, he was almost more recognized for being the son of Denis Brodeur, a world-class hockey photographer whose work—mostly shot at the Montreal Forum—can be found in coffee table books the world over.

You know how many goalies have come and gone from the NHL since 1995?

I don’t, either, but it’s too many to keep track of.

Brodeur is closing in on playing in his 200th playoff game. Through Thursday’s contest, he’s logged close to 12,000 minutes between the pipes in the postseason alone. That’s 200 hours, or over eight full days of kicking, sprawling, butterflying, stretching, reaching and smothering—when the stakes have been the highest.

And here’s the thing: Marty Brodeur looks, pretty much, the same today as he did when he broke into the NHL in the 1991-92 season as a 19-year-old.

Still has the boyish, baby face. Still has the bright eyes. Still has most of his hair.

And judging by his numbers for this season, Brodeur still has the cat-like quickness, the reliable glove and the uncanny knack for placing his body between the shooter and the net, just in time.

Brodeur had 31 wins, a 2.41 GAA, three shutouts and a fine .908 save percentage in his 19th NHL season.

Oh, and about those shutouts.

There was a time, when talking about the seemingly unbreakable records in pro sports, you tossed Terry Sawchuk’s 103 shutouts into the mix. Given the relatively short careers of the modern-day goalie, Sawchuk’s shutout mark appeared untouchable.

For a while.

Then this baby-faced kid from Montreal won another Stanley Cup in 2000, then another in 2003, and all of a sudden, it was like you blinked and the 23-year-old, first-time Cup winner was a grizzled, three-time champion hoarding shutouts like a squirrel does nuts.

Closer and closer, Brodeur edged toward Sawchuk, who was widely regarded as the greatest goalie in NHL history.

For a while.

Then Brodeur passed Sawchuk, in 2009, and now, it’s Marty who may never be caught when it comes to pitching shutouts.

Sawchuk was once in a class all his own, in many people’s eyes, when it came to NHL goaltending excellence. Today, it’s maybe even money: Sawchuk or Brodeur? Brodeur or Sawchuk?

This will hit a nerve in Detroit.

It’s a double whammy because Red Wings fans—if you talk to them about it—are still stinging from the Devils’ sweep of their team in the ’95 finals. I think they rue that series more than the seven-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.

So you have that image of the 1995 Devils. Then you suggest that Marty Brodeur is, overall, a better goalie than Red Wings great Sawchuk, and you might as well be telling a six-year-old that there is no Santa Claus.

Yet here Brodeur is, playing some of his best hockey, leading another playoff series that his team is not even supposed to be competitive in, and you start to scurry to the record books.

What is the longest gap between first and last Stanley Cups won by a goalie?

If Brodeur’s Devils survive the Flyers and two more series after that, it will be 17 years between Cup No. 1 and this one for Marty.

I know that’s one too many "ifs" for some people’s liking, but would you feel comfortable betting against Brodeur right now?

And I’ll save you the scurrying; the 17 years would set an NHL record.

The New Jersey Devils, when Brodeur joined them, were, as Wayne Gretzky once famously called them, a Mickey Mouse organization.

The Devils have a lineage laced with infamy. While other franchises were taking slap shots, the Devils’ forefathers were engaging in slapstick.

The family tree begins in 1974 with the advent of the expansion Kansas City Scouts. They were awful, as most expansion teams of the 1970s were. The Scouts lasted two seasons before moving to Colorado and calling themselves the Rockies—some 17 years before the baseball team swiped that name.

The Colorado Rockies were lousy, too. Even the bombastic Don Cherry was brought in to coach them, and it was like Mike Ditka coaching the New Orleans Saints.

The Rockies moved east to New Jersey in 1982.

The New Jersey Devils were about as bad as the Scouts and the Rockies. They tripped over themselves for over 10 years before finally getting it right, personnel-wise.

Just about the same time that Marty Brodeur arrived to be the Devils’ goalie.

Funny, but in the 19 years that Brodeur has manned the net for Jersey, the Devils have missed the playoffs only twice.

If you think that’s a coincidence, then I have some swamp land in—where else—New Jersey to sell you.

The high-scoring Flyers, who play a video-game style of hockey and win games by scores like 8-3, were supposed to run roughshod over the 2012 Devils in this series—even in the playoffs, where if goal-scoring were a commodity, it’d be gold.

But, the Devils are leading the Flyers. They have another game in New Jersey to play before the series shifts to Philadelphia. By that time, the Flyers might trail, three games to one.

And Marty Brodeur will be a little closer to another Stanley Cup.

Not bad for 40 years old, eh?

Marty is no longer known as Denis’ kid; rather, Denis is Marty’s dad.