2008-09 Team Preview: Detroit Red Wings
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideA season after Anaheim won a Stanley Cup with good old-fashioned Canadian toughness (and a small dose of brutishness thrown in for good measure), the Detroit Red Wings won with skill and class that belied its own special brand of grit.
Who can forget skilled Russian forward Pavel Datsyuk leveling Pittsburgh power forward Ryan Malone late in the finals? It's hard to find a chink in the Red Wings' armor in the wake of their fourth Stanley Cup win since 1997, especially given that they are more than a little better with the additions of Marian Hossa and backup netminder Ty Conklin.
There is a question of how coach Mike Babcock will find room for all his players, but that's a nice problem to have as many are picking the Red Wings to become the first team to repeat as Cup champs since they did it in 1997-98. When asked about acquiring Hossa, GM Ken Holland said players want to play with the best and they're willing to make sacrifices to do so, whether it's in terms of ice time, role or compensation. Hossa proved that.
Last season, the Red Wings were third in goals per game and on the power play. With the addition of Hossa, there is nothing to suggest the Wings won't be at or near the top of both categories again this season, which should, in turn, keep them at or near the top of the NHL standings. Linemates Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were fourth and sixth, respectively, in scoring (a combined 189 points), and that was with Zetterberg missing seven games to injury. Both could top the 100-point mark in 2008-09.
Assuming Babcock keeps Datsyuk and Zetterberg with the human punching bag, Tomas Holmstrom (40 points in 59 games), at least part of the time, watch for Hossa to play with Jiri Hudler and scoring machine Johan Franzen -- who exploded with 27 goals, including eight game winners -- or Dan Cleary. Either way, Detroit's scoring depth just got a whole lot more impressive. Figure the inexhaustible Nicklas Lidstrom (Mr. Norris Trophy, if you will) for 70 points and Brian Rafalski with another 50 to 60, plus Niklas Kronwall emerging as a top two-way defenseman along with Brad Stuart, and this is a Red Wings team that can hurt you from top to bottom, right to left and inside out.
What makes the Red Wings so impressive is they can play run-and-gun or shut-down hockey with anyone in the league. They ranked first in defense, allowing just 2.18 goals per game, and were eighth on the penalty kill. Holland did a nice job in keeping Stuart, who came over at the trade deadline and had an outstanding postseason (he had five points and was plus-9 in the finals against Pittsburgh). Kronwall became a force last season, finally staying healthy and fulfilling the promise he showed when he was the AHL defenseman of the year during the lockout season of 2004-05. His physical presence early in the finals was a catalyst to the Red Wings' victory.
With Stuart, Kronwall, Rafalski and Lidstrom, who won his sixth Norris Trophy in 2007-08, the Red Wings boast the top four defenders of any team in the NHL. We still don't get the point of having Chris Chelios back for one more year. He turns 47 in January and already is going to miss three to six weeks (fractured shin). Plus, every second he's on the ice takes developmental time away from young defensemen such as Jonathan Ericsson, Derek Meech and Jakub Kindl. But when you're as close to an NHL dynasty as this league's got, you can do whatever you like, including having Father Time on your roster. Of course, defense is a team mentality and the Wings' success is as much thanks to the commitment of top players such as Zetterberg and Datsyuk to the defensive side of the puck as it is to the guys on the blue line.
All Chris Osgood did was come off the bench midway through the first round of the playoffs and post a 14-4 record en route to his third Stanley Cup. The oft-maligned netminder turned in a 1.55 GAA and .930 save percentage as the Wings rolled over Pittsburgh in six games in the finals. Still, until Terry Sawchuk returns to earth in a Red Wings jersey, there will be questions in some quarters about the team's netminding. Indeed, many will cite goaltending as the team's only potential impediment to a repeat (barring serious injury to key personnel, of course). The bottom line is, with Osgood and newcomer Conklin minding the nets, the Wings are in good hands. Conklin played a significant role in the Penguins' ascendancy to the top of the Atlantic Division, turning in a 19-8-5 record, mostly when starter Marc-Andre Fleury was hurt.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Detroit is that the rich get richer. Fresh off another Stanley Cup championship, the Wings added the best forward available in this past summer's free-agent pool in Marian Hossa. On a team that already boasts three of the top 10 players in the game (Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg), it has now added one of the best right wingers and a player hungry to win a championship.
This is all a testament to the first-class manner in which ownership and management run the franchise. From the Ilitch family to senior vice president Jim Devellano to the management team of GM Ken Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill and new front-office addition Steve Yzerman, the focus is on creating an environment that is conducive to winning championships. As a result, players such as Lidstrom are willing to re-sign for less than their market value, while free agents like Hossa are willing to do the same to pursue a Cup.
Let's not forget the scouting staff, as well. Datsyuk and Zetterberg, arguably two of the top five players in the game right now, were drafted 171st (sixth round) and 210th (seventh round), respectively, in their draft years. This team has it all and is a serious threat to win back-to-back titles.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
DETROIT RED WINGS
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• Record: 54-21-7
• Division: First in the Central
• Conference: First in the West
• Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup
• Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3, the Red Wings will play five times, four away from home, including the much-anticipated New Year's Day game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Their one home date is Dec. 30 against Chicago, which played the Red Wings tough last season and would love to sweep that home-and(-outdoor)-home set to close out the calendar year.
Experience: 5 years.
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• Coaches with talented teams often get less respect than coaches who do more with less. Until they lose, that is. It took Mike Babcock a couple of tries, but he finally found his comfort zone with the talented Red Wings. He is demanding, but his players -- as under Scotty Bowman -- saw the fruits of their labor in June. Detroit was a league-best 35-3-1 when leading after the first period, an illustration of the focus the Red Wings possessed all season. The challenge for Babcock will be in rediscovering that focus without falling into the post-Stanley Cup trap, where many championship coaches tumble. As a side issue, Babcock has to know that a strong season and playoffs likely will put him behind the bench for Canada's Olympic team in Vancouver in 2010. That's a powerful incentive, as if he needed one.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Henrik Zetterberg
The stylish Swede might be the best two-way player in the game, combining terrific skill with a healthy defensive conscience. If there is one niggling question mark following him, it's his durability. He has yet to play a full complement of regular-season games. Zetterberg, who will turn 28 on Oct. 9, can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but it's hard to believe he'll be anywhere but Detroit for years to come.
F -- Pavel Datsyuk
Both Datsyuk and Zetterberg are comfortable playing center, although Zetterberg takes the slight majority of the draws, which makes it difficult for opposing teams to defend against the pair. If you had to categorize the two, it is Datsyuk who provides more of the playmaking, with Zetterberg being the finisher. Consider it degrees of excellence on either count.
F -- Tomas Holmstrom
Holmstrom, who missed games with knee and groin injuries last season, is instrumental to the line's success because of his ability to dig out loose pucks in the corner, control the puck on the boards, then race to the front of the net once Datsyuk or Zetterberg has possession. Holmstrom, along with being fearless, also has a terrific eye for deflections and an uncanny ability to fish loose pucks into the net.
D -- Nicklas Lidstrom
What can you say about the finest defenseman of this generation and maybe of all time? The only European born and trained captain to win a Stanley Cup, Lidstrom appears not to have lost a step at 38. Lidstrom, who took a puck to the face in his first preseason and suffered a broken nose as a result, is the measured pulse of the Red Wings' dressing room. Never too high, never too low.
D -- Brian Rafalski
After playing in the shadow of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in New Jersey for years, Rafalski has fallen easily into the same pattern in Detroit, where he seems happy working in the large shadow cast by defensive partner Lidstrom. Rafalski's 55 points was eighth among all NHL defensemen. Not bad for a second fiddle.
Answer: No, of course not. There are no guarantees in this game, and as good as Hossa is and as good as he was in the playoffs for Pittsburgh (he finished third in playoff scoring with 26 points), it will take him time to adjust to the Wings' new system and his new teammates. Plus, Hossa's one-year deal will put him under a spotlight that will be a little different from the one in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. He doesn't have to be "the guy," but he also is expected to be the difference-maker when it comes to staving off the inevitable Stanley Cup hangover. He got off to a slow start in Pittsburgh, and it's possible the same dynamic will be at play in Motown.