Why is Darren Helm still in Detroit?

Sports

The Detroit Red Wings‘ most recent Stanley Cup championship was 13 years ago, even if their multiyear residency in the NHL’s basement makes that memory feel protractedly distant.

There were 23 players who appeared for Detroit in the 2008 playoffs. Twenty of them are retired, with three having been subsequently enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Pavel Datsyuk, 42, is playing in the KHL. Only two of those Red Wings are still playing in today’s NHL, and both still with Detroit: centers Valtteri Filppula and Darren Helm.

Filppula bounced around after leaving Detroit as a free agent in 2013, skating with three other teams before returning for the 2019-20 season.

Not Helm. He’s been a Detroit lifer.

Darren Helm has seen the best of times: As a rookie, he raised the Stanley Cup as a Red Wing and returned to the Final the following season.

Darren Helm has seen the worst of times: As a veteran, he’s watched the franchise strip its roster down to the skate laces for a rebuild that’s in its fourth season.

“Those first two years, you were like, ‘This is going to be easy.’ Good team every year. Making the long playoff run,” he told me this week. “But you quickly find out that’s not how it is.”

Rare is the NHL depth forward who carves out a place on a team for 14 seasons. Rarer is the player who begins at the top of the mountain and then witnesses his team slide down into the abyss.

I asked him a question that I was sure he’d been asked on more than a few occasions, by teammates and friends and maybe even family: What the heck are you still doing with the Red Wings? Specifically, these Red Wings?

“It’s been a little rough. A little rocky,” Helm said. “There weren’t any times when I was like, ‘I wish I wasn’t here’ or ‘I wish I was somewhere else.’ There were obviously times when I wished we were winning a bit more. But I love Detroit.”

That love began burgeoning in the 2007-08 season. “High-end character and unbelievable speed,” said Dallas GM Jim Nill, who had drafted Helm in the fifth round in 2005 while with the Red Wings.

Helm played mostly in the AHL but spent seven games in the NHL before joining the Red Wings for the playoffs, walking into a locker room with names like Lidstrom, Hasek, Chelios, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Rafalski, Osgood and Franzen adorning the lockers.

“It was definitely intimidating,” Helm said. “Not their personalities, just what they’d done. They were all very welcoming guys. Made it easy for me to jump into the lineup. But you look at that team, that roster, there were so many unbelievable players.”

It did help to have an advocate in the room, someone who could vouch for him. Like for so many other Red Wings in the past decade, Darren McCarty had his back.

They had played in AHL Grand Rapids together; Helm as a rookie, and McCarty as a 36-year-old nearing the end of his journey. McCarty saw Helm as the second coming of his “Grind Line” mate Kris Draper, with dynamic defense and slightly less dynamic offense.

“Here’s the joke: ‘It’s Draper or Helm, in on a breakaway! … Annnnnnnd we’re going to go to commercial now,'” McCarty said with a laugh. “But the best thing about Darren Helm? Eyes wide open, ears wide open and his mouth shut.”

Helm played well in those Red Wings trips to the Cup Final, absorbing all the lessons he could from veteran teammates. But his biggest lesson was learning how fleeting success can become.

“I was just so naive. Just not understanding the full circumstances of what was happening. I just wanted to work as hard as I could and not let those guys down,” he said. “A big part of my success was not really knowing what was at stake. I understood going for the Stanley Cup was a big deal. But I didn’t really realize what the magnitude of it was. Now, having been in the league, I realize how hard it was to win.”

The last time Helm was in the playoffs was 2016. He signed a five-year contract extension soon after. “I thought we hit a little bit of a bump in the road, but that things were going to turn around; we’d get back on the path we originally had been on,” Helm said. “But obviously that’s not how it worked. And that surprised me a little bit, for sure.”

The Red Wings have been the worst team in hockey (.411 points percentage) for the entirety of Helm’s five-year, $19.25 million contract. Other Detroit veterans have been jettisoned for cost savings and to acquire a treasure chest of draft picks for the rebuild. But Helm remained, and he is now playing out the final year of his contract.

When he would think about wallowing in the misery of competing for an annual fiasco, Helm would turn his thoughts to his father. Now retired, he worked in a meat-processing plant in Manitoba.

“He didn’t like his job,” Helm said. “He wasn’t having fun most days, but he still got up early and worked hard. It taught me a lesson: Even when things aren’t going well, you get up and work hard and do your responsibilities. My dad just instilled that hard work ethic into my brain at a young age. Whether it’s good or bad, I feel like I owe it to myself and this organization, for what they’ve done for me.”

There are other reasons Helm has stuck around. Former GM Ken Holland, as was his wont, handed Helm a no-trade clause for the first three years of his contract. Helm’s wife and three daughters are settled into the community, and Helm expects to remain in Detroit after his NHL playing days are done.

But he’s thinking more about the next chapter of his career than the end.

“I want to continue to play. We’ll see what happens. It might be out of my control when it comes to free agency next year, but I’m going to work as hard as I can this year to make sure a couple of teams come looking,” he said.

For now, he’s one of a handful of veterans in the Detroit locker room, looking to impart whatever wisdom he can of his unique journey from raising the Cup to watching the Red Wings raise their draft lottery odds.

“I’m really hoping the young guys keep their confidence up as much as they can. It’s harder for a younger player to come into a team where you’re not successful. You can get pretty down on yourself,” he said.

Especially when you can remember what the Detroit Red Wings used to symbolize.

“You get spoiled when you win a Cup,” McCarty said. “[Helm] has got a unique story about how this played out. He combines the old and the new. Now he’s the guy who tells the stories about playing with those guys on the Cup team, who lets them know the right ways to play. To not quit.”

Jersey Foul of the Week

Nature is healing! Jersey Fouls have returned!

From Danielle Floyd comes this Arizona Coyotes Pavel Datsyuk sweater. Please recall his cap hit was traded to the Coyotes by the Red Wings in 2016, when Datsyuk was headed off to the KHL. Now, where do we fall on this one? Is it a Foul because he never played a game for Arizona? Is it not a Foul because he was technically part of the team, lingering on their salary cap?

According to Jersey Foul bylaws, Datsyuk was technically a member of the Coyotes, and his No. 13 had not been retired by the team. The ruling: Not a Foul.

Three Things About Tom Wilson‘s 7-Game Suspension

1. I made the mistake of reading the reactions to the Tom Wilson hit on Brandon Carlo before seeing the actual play, which is a bit like reading the reviews for an Adam Sandler movie before watching it. When the default setting for the critics is condemnation, you should know what to expect.

In the case of the Wilson hit, the expected detractors acted like an unfortunate hit along the boards was something akin to a machete attack on the ice. They acted like Wilson shouldn’t play another game this season or perhaps in subsequent ones. You know, a totally measured and normal response to a commonplace play, a response that is no way colored by a predisposition to vilify the player.

Let’s be clear: Tom Wilson should have been suspended for the hit on Carlo. It was a reckless play that resulted in an injury, from a player who has a significant history of such plays. The NHL felt the same way, which is why it opted to suspend for boarding when it became clear the hit didn’t fit the criteria for an illegal check to the head. It’s the first boarding suspension in recent memory that didn’t involve a hit from behind. That precedent doesn’t matter, considering it’s not a tenet of the rule itself. But more specifically, that precedent didn’t matter here, because the NHL was going to find a reason — any reason — to suspend Tom Wilson.

Louder, for the people in the back: The NHL wanted to suspend Tom Wilson. Just like it wanted to suspend the Washington Capitals‘ forward in November 2018, when it gave him 20 games. That was reduced to 14 games when the NHL Players’ Association appealed it, supporting one player in its membership who was suspended for the fourth time in 105 games for concussing another player in its membership. They couldn’t justify an appeal of a seven-game ban, so Wilson will serve his suspension.

But the next time you read a columnist bemoaning that the NHL “enables” players like Tom Wilson with miniscule suspensions, check to see the last time they put the blame on the players’ association for fighting to reduce those bans and, in the process, enable the repeat offenders.

2. Two brief lessons on the NHL Player Safety supplemental discipline process

First, it’s important to understand why this wasn’t a suspension north of 20 games. Wilson’s previous two suspensions — one in May 2018 and then another in October 2018 — were for open-ice head shots on Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues. This was a pattern of targeted, predatory plays. Had the hit on Carlo resembled them, this would have been 40 games. But it was a different kind of hit, and a different suspension altogether.

To put it in terms that were explained to me by a league source: Let’s say Wilson speared Carlo and injured him. A play worthy of a suspension, to be sure, but not part of an overall pattern of behavior. The Department of Player Safety’s mandate isn’t just to punish, but to change that behavior. The fact is that Wilson hadn’t delivered a predatory hit like that — at least one worthy of suspension — since November 2018. George Parros noted in 2019 that Wilson appeared to change the way he was hitting. The suspension was a wake-up call.

Second, there’s something else I learned about the length of suspensions during the Wilson debate: Section 18.1 of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement states that “players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation.” Player Safety interprets this to mean that a “repeat offender” would receive harsher supplemental discipline than a first-time offender would for the same play. Sort of a “suspended games above replacement,” if you will. Hence a first-time offender, such as the Wild’s Kevin Fiala, got three games for driving Matt Roy of the Kings into the boards, and Wilson gets seven games for a hit that was less emphatic and dangerous because of his rap sheet.

3. Finally, a suggestion for the NHL and the NHLPA when it comes to repeat offenders: redefine the 18-month probation. As it stands, a player is not considered a “repeat offender” for the purposes of higher financial penalties if they haven’t been suspended for 18 months. As we’ve learned all too well, 18 months might not mean 18 months’ worth of hockey. The standard shouldn’t be months. The standard should be games played. A simple but effective change.

Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Winnipeg Jets

Congrats to the Jets, who are the latest All-Canadian division team to dress up as The Juggernaut, after the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs took their turns earlier in the season. Enjoy this fleeting moment of adoration and what we assume is the free Tim Horton’s that comes with it.

Loser: Columbus Blue Jackets

The Jackets opened play Wednesday night in sixth place in the Central via points percentage, as the Dallas Stars moved ahead of them during Columbus’ 3-6-1 struggle. It’s a team with a complete identity crisis: Its offense is barely better than it was last season, but the defense is the worst it has been (3.22 GAA) in the past four seasons, by a mile. Things aren’t trending well there. Changes will have to be afoot.

Winner: Katerina Wu

The Pittsburgh Penguins hired Wu, 22, as a data scientist in the team’s hockey operations department. She reports to Sam Ventura, the Penguins’ director of hockey operations and hockey research. “In 2019, Wu attended Carnegie Mellon University’s Sports Analytics Camp, where she studied data science and researched real-world applications of sports analytics,” the team’s statement said. “There, she was paired with Ventura, [Nick Citrone] and the Pittsburgh Penguins for her capstone project, which introduced a new method for comparing and projecting player performance across different leagues.” And now she works for the Penguins. How cool is that?

Loser: Travis Howe

A forward for the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL, Howe was suspended for nine games. Why? Per ScoutingTheRefs.com: “Howe reportedly had a verbal altercation with Wheeling’s Tyler Drevitch during warm-ups. After the players left the ice, Howe entered the Nailers’ locker room, continuing the verbal exchange with players and team staff.” That’s generally frowned upon.

Winner: Darryl Sutter

There were only two coaching jobs Sutter would have left his farm to take. The Chicago Blackhawks, with whom he was a captain and a coach; and the Calgary Flames, with whom he will try to turn a porous defense on a team that’s barely in the top 10 in possession into a stout defensive team that’s a possession monster. Good luck to him, and we look forward to more charming news conferences.

Loser: Brad Treliving

Sutter is the fifth head coach under Treliving’s watch. That he had to make this move speaks volumes about the state of the Flames and the pressure building on a pricey roster, which indicates it’s likely the last hire he makes.

Winner: Jonathan Toews

Patrick Kane played his 1,000th NHL game this week, and Toews sent in this message. Toews sat out this season for personal reasons. Here’s hoping he’s back on the ice soon, and that all is going well with the Captain.

Puck Headlines

The five most disappointing teams of the NHL season. I don’t know if Dallas being a .500 team while missing Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin, and having its season interrupted three times (twice because of COVID-19, once because of winter storms in Texas) can be labeled as a disappointment. I also think if your expectations for Buffalo were anything but the bottom two in that division, that’s a “you” problem.

The obstacles for LGBTQ+ players in hockey. An interesting look at the issues, with enlightening stories. If there’s a gripe, it would be that it glosses over how the landscape for gay athletes in women’s hockey is so much different than that for the men’s game. I would like to have heard some lessons from their experiences at different levels.

Good profile of Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which goes into the Stanley Cup winning coach’s nontraditional path to the NHL. “Cooper had a tiny Maltese dog named Gretzky and he played pickup games on ‘Lake Orr,’ the man-made pond behind his condo.” ($)

Consider former KHL player Denis Kazionov and his family lucky: Their Porsche rammed through a third-floor wall of a Moscow parking garage, and would have fallen through had it not been stuck in said wall.

Has the Minnesota Wild‘s success meant a change in trade deadline tactics?

An Alberta man is facing nearly two dozen charges after he allegedly defrauded more than $1.7 million from several people by claiming he partnerships with NHL players. I mean, it’s Canada. … A guy tells you he knows NHL players, the percentages tell you he probably does, right?

Meet Pavel Barber and his sick dangles, which have gone viral. All of this sounds vaguely dirty, but it’s not.

A heartfelt farewell to Walter Gretzky from the great Michael Farber.

From Your Friends At ESPN

Great work here from Emily Kaplan on the mental strain on NHL players during this unprecedented season. “I have a hard time describing it, I don’t really know how to explain it. I just don’t feel like myself.”

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