July 31, 2010 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

A little love for Wings grinder Kirk Maltby, please

Kirk Maltby, 37, has never scored more than 20 goals in a season. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

This is what summertime is like, in the NHL.

Ken Holland is in Vernon, British Columbia, sandwiched between Okanagan and Kalamalka lakes. And you can bet his Blackberry is perpetually on. Kirk Maltby's agent, Anton Thun, is in his office in Markham, Ontario, near Toronto, working the phone.

Thun and Holland are missing each other, and that should be no surprise. Once a grinder, always a grinder and it looks like the process that could lead to Maltby playing a 15th year for the Red Wings is a matter of grinding it out, too.

"We are certainly still talking," Thun said. "It's been phone tag. At this point, Kirk's preference is clearly to play for the Wings."

Asked if he has talked to other teams, Thun said, simply, "Kirk wants to play with the Wings, and we think something will work out, eventually."

The only surprise, perhaps, is that there is less buzz in Hockeytown about the possibility of one of several Red Wings, all-time, to win four Stanley Cups walking out the door. Patrick Eaves, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader, three restricted free agents, have garnered significantly more media attention in the offseason than Maltby. From my point of view, it seems utterly unfair.

Are those three players more important to the Wings' plans going forward? Yes. But should Kirk Maltby walk out of Joe Louis Arena and into the sunset with such spare notice? No, emphatically.

"Malts" has never scored 20 goals, and there is a lot of talk about the fact that at 37 -- he will turn 38 three days before Christmas -- he has slowed. But Maltby has as many of Lord Stanley's cups for the Red Wings as Gordie Howe and one more, as a player, than Steve Yzerman.

And make no mistake; Maltby was a big part of all four.

There was a time when Maltby and Kris Draper paired as the premier, shutdown penalty killers in the NHL. In the mid-to-late 1990s, they were often so impenetrable that a short-handed goal often seemed more likely than a power-play goal.

Some highlights

Perhaps the ultimate example was a kill against the St. Louis Blues in the 2002 playoffs, when the Wings won the Cup.

In Game 5 of the conference semifinals, the Wings were ahead, 1-0. But the Blues threatened to turn the tide to take their second game of the series. With the Wings short-handed, Maltby lost his stick. The crowd at The Joe groaned. Then, No. 18 threw himself down in front of pucks continually, blocking three of the next four shots the Blues fired. As he made it to the bench, a winded, worn-out rag doll, the crowd was on its feet, exulting.

When the game was over, the stats were typical Maltby: no goals, no assists, second star.

In the playoffs in 1997, with the Wings seeking their first Cup in 42 years for the glory-starved denizens of Hockeytown, Maltby sparked the team with five goals. It was a huge dividend from the fourth line.

In the second game of the Finals, against Philadelphia, with the score tied 2-2 and the Flyers lurching toward scoring and tying the series, Maltby put down his head and fired a long slap shot behind Garth Snow for the winning goal. It was a rare case of grinder as sniper, and it lifted and settled a team that had been knocking on the door for the Stanley Cup for several years.

And remember early in the 2008 Finals against Pittsburgh when a flustered Sidney Crosby slashed at Maltby as the teams left the ice? Vintage Maltby: reducing a superior player to embarrassing, abject frustration.

Will he be back?

"We hope so," Thun said. "It is possible, and that's what we're working toward and the Red Wings are doing the same."

If not, there ought to be some sort of grand send-off, at some point, for one of the most successful careers in the history of the Red Wings in the only category that really counts: winning.

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