NASHVILLE — One element was noticeably lacking when the Detroit Red Wings lost in five games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year to the Nashville Predators.
Namely, it was grit.
When Predators captain Shea Weber slammed the head of the Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg into the boards at the conclusion of Game 1, it fell to aging veteran Todd Bertuzzi to respond in Game 2 by challenging Weber to a fight. Truly, he was about the only one on the team capable of doing so.
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So what did the Red Wings do on the first day of NHL free agency last year? They signed one of Nashville’s grittiest players, fan favorite Jordin Tootoo, to a three-year, $5.7-million deal.
On Tuesday, Tootoo made his first trip back to play against the team with which he spent his first eight seasons. Fresh insights were all around. He said after inking his deal, there were no meetings with coach Mike Babcock or general manager Ken Holland.
“I think I know my role pretty well,” he said. “My foundation is being physical out there and creating room for my linemates and myself and creating opportunities. This game is about mistakes and capitalizing on those. For me, it’s just about keeping my feet moving and being physical.”
On a Detroit team that entered the day in the uncharacteristic spot of fourth place in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference (though, in truth, only three points out of fourth), Tootoo finds himself one of only six Detroit forwards who is a plus player.
Babcock described Tootoo as a “physical guy on the forecheck” and then threw a compliment in the direction of the Predators and coach Barry Trotz, the only coach Nashville has had since it entered the league in 1998.
“He’s been excellent for us,” Babcock said. “Obviously, (he has) been in the program that they taught, knows how to play and I’ve known him a long time right back from junior and he’s a competitive guy. Seems to be enjoying himself and we’re enjoying having him.”
Babcock was alluding to his final year of coaching the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs in 1999-2000 when Tootoo was playing his first season of major junior in the same league for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
In Nashville, they have known Tootoo since he was a fourth-round draft pick in 2001. He left as the organization’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 725. Now, they know what he will bring to a rival – a facet of the game in which the Red Wings might have lacked for a few seasons.
“Toots is a guy that brings the bang, he brings energy,” Trotz said. “He likes the big hits. That’s probably something they’ve missed a little bit. He’s more in a Darren McCarty mold where you get that ‘Grind Line’ physicality. He obviously was popular here. Still is. He’ll be popular in Detroit so he brings a lot of that to the table.”
Amazingly, it’s been since 2003-04 since McCarty played more than half of a regular season with Detroit. Kris Draper’s last full regular season was 2009-10, which was Kirk Maltby’s final season in Detroit. That Grind Line trio was hard to play against.
Incidentally, the last time the Red Wings went to the Cup final was 2009, losing to Pittsburgh in seven games.
In the years following the dissolution of Detroit’s final incarnation of the Grind Line (there were others prior to McCarty, Draper and Maltby), Detroit was able to succeed with finesse and high-end skill over grit. That approach seems to have diminishing returns in the culmination of last season’s first-round playoff exit.
Tootoo was in no mood to offer insights on that particular topic on Tuesday morning.
“Last year’s over and done with,” he said. “This is a whole new season.”
Especially with the loss of seven-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement, Detroit is in the midst of changing its identity. Tootoo gives the Wings more crash, more bang, less finesse.
“It’s great to have Toots as a teammate,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said on Tuesday morning, “but I’m sure it’s not so much fun to play against him. You have to be ready for him.”