DETROIT – The Red Wings’ bottom six got a little grittier Sunday evening.
By agreeing to a three-year contract with former Nashville agitator Jordin Tootoo, the Wings grind lines instantly added a spark and energy that team officials believe was lacking last season.
The 29-year-old Tootoo has played his entire eight-season NHL career in a Predators’ uniform, and became one of the most recognizable pro athletes in Nashville for his thunderous hits and on-ice fights.
“Obviously we’ve played against him,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “He’s hard, he’s physical, and we think he can help the bottom six by providing some energy and physicality along with Darren Helm. We’re trying to get some more edge with the bottom six and he’ll do that.”
It was a very busy first day of the NHL free agency period for the Red Wings’ front office as they signed or agreed to terms with four unrestricted free agents on Sunday, including goalie Jonas Gustavsson and forwards Mikael Samuelsson and Damien Brunner.
Logging 486 games with the Predators, Tootoo compiled 46 goals and 79 assists, and is coming off his best NHL season, setting personal bests for games played (77), assists (24), points (30), and average ice-time (13:09).
Despite his solid season, Tootoo seemed to fall out of favor with the Predators, who added three forwards – Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov – at the NHL’s trade deadline.
But in Detroit, Tootoo believes he can provide a unique component to the Red Wings’ lineup.
“I think I bring a special element to the game that no other player does,” Tootoo said. “For me, my foundation is being a physical presence out there, but at the same time I know that I can contribute offensively. It’s all about opportunities, and for me I know it’s not going to be given. I have to work every day to become a better professional both on and off the ice, and at this point in my career I believe I’m in the prime and I’m ready to take on challenges that arise.”
In recent years, the Wings and Predators have built a heated rivalry, and in April, for the first time in its franchise, Nashville eliminated Detroit in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And Tootoo always seemed to be at the forefront of the rivalry
While adjusting to his new surroundings will be a challenge, Tootoo is elated for the opportunity to play for an Original Six franchise that has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the last 21 seasons.
“That’s part of the competitiveness of our nature,” he said. “We play the game to win and obviously you don’t get the opportunity to play in the best league that often, and for me what a great honor it is to have a team like Detroit have interest in me. I know a lot about them, we’ve had a great rivalry against them, so I’m excited to be a Red Wing, but at the same time, what has gone on in the past has to go and this is a new chapter in my life.”
Red Wings’ fans know all about Tootoo, who was the Predators’ fourth-round draft pick in 2001, and is the first Inuit player in NHL history and one of the most popular players in Predators’ franchise history. He was often serenaded at Bridgestone Arena by fans blowing whistles whenever he skated onto the ice, but loathed for his ability to get under the skin of opposing players.
“First and foremost I want to say thanks to (Nashville GM) David Poile for giving me every opportunity to play in the best league,” Tootoo said. “I’ve been there for nine years and it’s been a tremendous experience and they’ve treated me with the upmost respect.
“But the bottom line is that I was at a point in my life where I made a lot of changes and I felt that this was a change to be had for me to kind of move on to a new location. I mean, the fans down there, that’s all I know, so it’s going to be a little different feeling, a little mixed emotions, but I had to do what was best for me and go where I thought would give me the best opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.”
While Tootoo knows plenty about the Wings, having played against the Predators’ Central Division rivals for the last eight seasons, it’s center Darren Helm that the 5-foot-9 knows best.
“I know Darren pretty good, we’ve know each other pretty good for a number of years,” Tootoo said. “I had a summer home in Winnipeg for a few years so we trained together and skated together so that’s how I got to know him pretty good. I haven’t talked to him, but Kirk Maltby sent me a text congratulating me and welcoming me to the organization.”
In December 2010, Tootoo entered the NHL and NHLPA’s joint substance abuse program for alcoholism. He returned three months later and collected six points in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Last season, Tootoo was the Nashville chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
It won’t take long for Tootoo to view the Wings-Predators rivalry from the other side, as the divisional foes will open the season at Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 12.
Whether or not another former Predator – and current unrestricted free agent defenseman Ryan Suter – will join Tootoo in Detroit, time will tell.
“That,” Totoo said, “would be a sight to see, for sure.”
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