Wings' evolution couldn't have happened with Stevie Y, Shanny

Updated: May 17, 2007, 1:10 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM -- It is almost sacrilege to suggest, but it is nonetheless patently clear that this Detroit Red Wings team is far better team now that icons and legends Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan are gone.

This is not to diminish in any way the contributions both these players made to the Red Wings. Both are Hall of Fame material -- Yzerman a first-ballot Hall of Famer to be sure. Both were crucial elements of three Stanley Cup teams between 1997 and 2002. Yzerman was the playoff MVP in 1998.

Each was, in their own way, a significant part of the team's identity through the 1990s, a time when the Red Wings were the toast of the Motor City and the envy of other NHL franchises.

But the truth of the matter is, in the past two or three years, their presence stunted the team's growth and contributed to early exits and unfulfilled promise in Detroit. The Wings didn't lose because of them -- but they couldn't win with them. Not at the end.

Life without Pronger

Anaheim GM Brian Burke praised the Red Wings' handling of the Holmstrom situation in Game 3.

"The Red Wings did the honorable thing [Tuesday]," Burke said. "They put him back in the game. Same thing we would have done. There are teams in this league that would have put him in an ambulance and sent him somewhere for the night. Detroit did the right thing and Mike Babcock said the right things.

"Now our challenge is to find a way to win Game 4 without Chris Pronger. He's a great player. We're happy to have him on our team. We view this as a poor decision, but again, we respect the process."

Look for Ric Jackman to take Pronger's place in the Ducks' lineup. Jackman was a healthy scratch the last three games and, before that, missed 10 games with back spasms.

-- Scott Burnside

It was natural for players like Yzerman and Shanahan, warriors both, to want not just to contribute, but to lead and produce like leaders.

In recent playoff years, Yzerman, while taking a slightly diminished role in terms of ice time and place of prominence on the ice, was still the team's undisputed leader. And so, when he was brought down with injury as he was a number of times in his final playoff seasons, he tried to soldier on but could not.

It wasn't so much Yzerman's physical limitations that were so debilitating for both he and the team, but the mental hurdles his continued presence presented to the team. During the three Cup-winning years, it was Yzerman who represented the possibilities, who delivered the goods. A blocked shot here. A power-play goal there. A key pass at the right time.

When he could no longer deliver those moments at will in the years after the Wings' last Cup win in 2002, his presence still pointed to that faint hope and indeed he was often their best playoff performer -- an indictment of the team in itself.

Shanahan was, in some ways, the perfect foil to Yzerman during the glory years in Detroit. Loquacious and witty, he became the voice of the team, a voice that resonated because of his ability to contribute on the ice.

But in recent seasons, and especially after the lockout, Shanahan's already modest foot speed made him less congruent with the style of game the Wings wanted to play. In short, outside the power play, Shanahan didn't particularly fit the up-tempo, puck-possession game the Wings wanted to play.

That's not to say they wouldn't have taken him back after last season when he scored 40 goals. They would have. But he went to the Rangers, where he was an important dressing room element with a team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade. That he struggled to score at even strength was problematic, but did not diminish his other virtues there.

People talk about a leadership vacuum when players like Yzerman and Shanahan depart, and that dynamic certainly exists for many teams.

In Philadelphia, for instance, the Flyers are still searching for someone to become the leader and force that former captain Keith Primeau was before injury forced his premature retirement.

But in Detroit, there was almost a reverse vacuum this season.

With Shanahan in New York and Yzerman upstairs in his new suits as a Red Wings vice president, the dressing room door swung wide open on a team that needed to rediscover itself and forge a new identity.

Steve Yzerman
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesSteve Yzerman's departure helped the Red Wings rediscover their team identity.

It goes without saying, after taking a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals, they found out they were pretty darn good. In some ways, this Detroit team is reminiscent of the Edmonton Oilers, who found out how good they were when they won their fifth Stanley Cup after Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in the summer of 1989.

"I'm not surprised one bit," Wings coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. "I knew there was going to be a time for people to engage, to get comfortable to do what they do."

He wasn't worried about new captain Nicklas Lidstrom or the ageless Chris Chelios, but the players who had to get used to the new landscape, like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

"They are the guys. They're the guys driving the bus up front. That's the facts. Before, you could always wait for someone else. Now, you can't."

Zetterberg, already a talent, has emerged as not just a prolific offensive presence, but also a leader on and off the ice. Datsyuk landed the big contract this season and has likewise emerged as one of the most dynamic players in the league.

Up and down the lineup, the Red Wings have found contributors and character players that have filled the overflowing void left by Shanahan and Yzerman. Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson, Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen have all become different players this season.

Whether those players were or would have been stunted by the powerful presence that each of the veteran stars brought to the proceedings is hard to say. Certainly, no one in the Red Wings dressing room will go on the record to suggest anything that smacks of disrespect.

But the proof is on the ice and in the headlines.

This is a vastly different Detroit team from the teams that were bounced in the first round (2003 and 2006) or the second round (2004). There is an esprit de corps that is different. It is almost as though, in losing two great players, an entire team was allowed to step forward.

"It's definitely a different team than five or six years ago when we won the Cup," said Wings goalie Dominik Hasek, who was part of that last Cup-winning effort in 2002. "We had so many Hall of Famers, such an experienced team. But this team, I have to say, it's a great mixture of players and personalities.

"There are some very experienced guys who have won already a few Cups … And there are guys that are becoming or are already stars and they've never won the Cup. So, I think we've got a great mixture of players and are hungry to be successful again."

No one has personified this new identity this spring more than Tomas Holmstrom.

"Who's tougher than Homer?" asked Babcock. "Homer to me is what our team's about. You can do what you want. You can cross check him. You can smack him. You do whatever you want. He's going to keep coming. We plan on doing the same thing."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.