Wings should be formidable once again
They were going to call the show "Dynasty," but, well, for the second year in a row the dynasty-hungry Red Wings were dumped by a less-talented, harder-working team with a goaltender playing out of his mind.
The Red Wings' season-ending six-game series loss to the upstart Calgary Flames was a monumental disappointment and eclipsed, perhaps unfairly, some significant developments in Hockeytown.
After being swept in the first round by Anaheim in 2003, enigmatic netminder Dominik Hasek announced he was ready to return to the NHL after a one-year hiatus. But Hasek played only 14 games before folding his tent due to groin injuries. Incumbent starter Curtis Joseph was also injured, leaving Manny Legace to mind the store for much of the season.
Devastated by injuries to other key personnel like Derian Hatcher (he played just 15 regular-season games), Chris Chelios and Henrik Zetterberg (a broken leg cost him six weeks), the Wings still soared to the Presidents' Trophy during the regular season.
General manager Ken Holland spoke to ESPN.com this week about the fine line that separates the good from the Cup.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
Holland: We're a team in transition. We're a team that wants to compete for the Stanley Cup every year, but at the same time we're trying to look to the future.
A couple of things happened last offseason. We brought Dominik Hasek back, and I think that everybody had such good feelings about what he did in '02 and he had the fire burning again. And we negotiated long and hard with Sergei Fedorov, but at the end things fell apart and Sergei moved on to Anaheim. And I thought that was really instrumental in the development of Pavel Datsyuk and the emergence of Kris Draper as an offensive force.
We had a lot of great stories around our team. We lost about 400 man-games to injury and still won the Presidents' Trophy. Manny Legace finally got his chance as a starter at age 30. He played and won big games for us. He got some wonderful experience, and I still think that at the age of 30 he's got some good years ahead of him. Then in the playoffs, obviously we got beat by a team on a mission, and they're a team that wanted it. For the second time in a row, we lost to the team that went on to the Stanley Cup final.
My mindset, obviously, was to trade Curtis Joseph at the beginning of the year. As it turned out, Curtis was sensational for us in the Calgary series. The only thing I could be critical of Curtis is that he couldn't score a goal for us. We just couldn't score and actually that's two years in a row that's happened to us in the playoffs. We made a few more mistakes in a six-game series, and they were able to capitalize on them.
We had so many injuries during the regular season my hope was that we were going to get healthy at the right time because we had shown such good depth. There was a point in time in December where we had 10 regulars out of our lineup for a couple of weeks. But by the end of the Calgary series, we'd lost Yzerman with an eye injury, Chelios with a knee, (Robert) Lang was playing with a broken finger, and Hull had a broken toe.
Of course we were very, very disappointed in our finish. But the league is so close now. To expect to go to the final every year or every other year, or to rattle off final four appearances every year, it doesn't happen.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides, in your estimation, and had the biggest impact on your team?
Holland: Obviously Pavel Datsyuk. This is something I talked to Pavel about in our end-of-year meeting: He made some plays to get on ESPN and highlight reels, but in the second half of the year, he was starting to get the other team's best checkers on him every night. He still played well in the second half of the season, and I also thought he competed very, very hard in the playoffs. But you have to figure out ways to get free and free yourself up to make a quick pass or a quick move or a quick shot.
Pavel's 26 now. I don't think he's even in his prime yet. He's a very, very smart player. He's got tremendous quickness and great hands. I think he's going to figure out ways to free himself up.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Holland: I think we had a number of people. We basically played all of last year without Derian Hatcher because of his knee injury, and obviously we signed him because he's a unique player, because of his combination of strength and toughness and his ability to pass the puck. I thought his timing was a little off in the series against Nashville. But when you miss the entire season, you're not thinking and moving at the same tempo as guys that have played the whole season. But against Calgary, I thought he was a real force. He played a lot of important minutes in the Calgary series.
I also think, on defense, Jiri Fischer. Back in '02, he and Chelios were a tremendous second pair for us. But a year ago in November, he was out for the year with a knee injury and last season came along and he was all excited. He was trying to accomplish a lot in a short time period and that leads to mistakes. He lost his confidence to the point that our coach didn't dress him for the sixth game in Calgary.
But he's 24. He's a person who's very proud. I think going through last year is really going to help him in the long term, facing adversity. I think it will make him more knowledgeable.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Holland: The only guy is Niklas Kronwall. He was with us for about 20 games last season. Nik is ready to play regularly for us. I think it's possible, early on in the season maybe, he'll play on a pair with Chris Chelios.
With our lineup we really don't have a lot of opportunities. Some of our best kids are still a ways away. Jiri Hudler had a real good rookie year in Grand Rapids. Pretty good for a 19-year-old that could have played in junior last year. He needs to play. I don't know that being the 13th forward in Detroit is going to do him all that much good.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Holland: Two years in a row now we haven't been able to score goals in the playoffs. A lot of that has to do with the other team's goaltending and the other team's play. I thought Anaheim was very well organized and Calgary was very well organized. It's tough to get chances. Since we play a puck-possession style of game and have good perimeter scoring, we need to get some more inside scoring during the regular season so it becomes more a part of our team's makeup -- going to the net and going to areas they haven't gone to in the past. Sometimes you've got to get ugly goals.
ESPN.com: What is your favorite moment from last season?
Holland: I would say the thing I'll remember from last year is not a moment as much as an accomplishment, winning the Presidents' Trophy with all the man-games we lost to injury. And the play of the two players we talked about before, Pavel Datsyuk and Kris Draper.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Holland: Obviously losing to Calgary -- watching the goal, the split-second when the overtime goal went in by Martin Gelinas in Game 6. It's almost a moment frozen in time for me. You're there and everybody's worked very hard to get there and in that moment you're out.
ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Holland:The thing I enjoy when I can is golf. I've always been very, very competitive. In a real tough match you've got to create the big moment, make the big play. I still love being in the middle of the action.
We have a summer place in British Columbia. During the season your family often gets put on hold. So, because we're on Pacific time, I like to work the phones in the morning and in the afternoon hang out with my children and my wife.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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