Love him or hate him, new Detroit Red Wings’ forward Jordin Tootoo has always possessed an uncanny talent for making a big impact on the game.
Yes, at times it might have been a very noisy, annoying impact, considering the prevalence of yowling train whistles which followed his on-ice arrival in Nashville. No worries Red Wings’ fans, that trend probably won’t be continuing in Hockeytown, USA. The nickname “Tootoo train” will likely be continued more as a badge of honor in Detroit and used less as a tactic to sell cheesy novelty items.
The most important trend that will continue though, is Tootoo’s ability to be hockey’s best current agitator. He’s gritty, he’s testy, and he’s got no problem mixing it up for the betterment of his team. Tootoo will make the big hit, take a punch, start a fight, or finish a fight. The Red Wings have been missing a player like that since Dallas Drake retired after the 2008 season.
Since then, what has been the critique of the Red Wings come playoff time? They’re not tough enough, nor are they hard enough to play against top to bottom. There’s been nobody on the lower lines, sans Justin Abdelkader, willing to mix it up, score a dirty goal or force the opposition to think twice about physically testing Detroit’s top-line superstars. As a result, teams like Phoenix, San Jose and Nashville have been able to outmuscle the Red Wings and get inside their heads, which quickly zaps their will in a long series.
Finally, the days of that should be over once again. Tootoo’s not always a major scoring threat, but he’s a constant threat to drop the gloves, be a motormouth and play the Dino Ciccerelli role. Every championship team has a player like that who makes a difference, even though his name might not be the one drawing most of the attention. Be it Darren McCarty, Joey Kocur, Kirk Maltby or Drake, every one of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup teams have had a spark plug that the opposition just seems to hate. Their less successful teams haven’t found the proper balance between being abrasive and finesse.
A player like Tootoo impacts the whole game. His hits can change momentum on a dime. His willingness to fight and stand up for teammates can galvanize a team, and his goals, ever sporadic as they may be, can be the unexpected contribution which makes an offense look much better. As far as a low risk, high reward signing goes, Ken Holland knocked the ball out of the park by snapping up Tootoo. Red Wings’ fans should know that, being they’ve likely loathed his every move for the past six seasons.
Secretly, though, many would probably admit he’s just what the Red Wings have been missing lately. Think for a moment about Mike Babcock being able to pair Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Tootoo together. The speed, grittiness and determination of that line would be off the charts. Call them the “sandpaper” line, because they’d be that abrasive to the opposition. The potential success for such a grouping is a very exciting prospect to consider.
In March of 2012, Tootoo took on the Blackhawks’ Brandon Bollig early in the first period. The fight was a mismatch across the board. Bollig was taller and outweighed Tootoo. Still, that didn’t stop the spark plug from trying to ignite something in a critical contest. After Bollig landed a major punch, Tootoo immediatly got back up and skated to the locker room to the delight of his teammates. He never returned thanks to injury, but the will of his team suddenly appeared. The Predators went on to paste Chicago 6-1, stopping their five game winning streak. That night, Tootoo set the tone early.
Detroit’s got that type of effort to look forward to, which should make their Red Wings a much tougher team to play against across the board in 2013. As trump cards go, Tootoo might be the best one in hockey thanks to all these rough and tumble intangibles. Now, he’s a member of the home team.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax