"You see guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and a few others. They all joined the Red Wings in a third- or fourth-line checking role and had to work their way up the ladder. When you look at that team, you notice right away that their best players are their hardest workers -- and that's definitely something we try to take from the way they play that game."
-- Joel Quenneville CHICAGO
-- More than a few hockey pundits were looking at the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day as sort of a glorified exhibition game.
There were plenty of lessons to be learned -- lessons that the surging Blackhawks can learn from the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.
"What makes Detroit so good is how they can take a player, give him a role and then watch as he grows," explained Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who had a close-up look at Detroit long before he took over behind the bench in Chicago earlier this season, spending parts of eight seasons going head-to-head with the Red Wings when he coached in St. Louis, a division rival.
"You see guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and a few others. They all joined the Red Wings in a third- or fourth-line checking role and had to work their way up the ladder," Quenneville continued. "When you look at that team, you notice right away that their best players are their hardest workers -- and that's definitely something we try to take from the way they play that game."
Role. Chemistry. Identity. Those are the steps in Detroit's developmental game plan — and they're the ones the Blackhawks are trying to follow, even if Chicago has lost all four games against Detroit this season, including twice in the last three days by scores of 4-0 and 6-4.
One step at a time.
"What makes Datsyuk and Zetterberg so great is that they are game-breakers at either end of the rink," said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith
, one of Chicago's goal scorers. "They learned the values of hard work and being responsible defensively. Hey, they were both among the finalists for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward in the NHL) last year. That tells you how special they are, and it's a great example for the rest of the players on that team to follow."
Zetterberg said the lesson -- the Detroit way -- was important for him.
"I came into the League and looked around the locker room and saw Hall of Famers all over. Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek," he said. Then he laughed and continued, saying, "You learn to keep your mouth shut and your ears open ... and just wait for your chance to show off your skills."
Even better examples are the stories about how what some might call "fringe players" could get better in Detroit's disciplined system and puck-possession game. Cleary and Franzen come to mind. Both got a chance to play a more offensive role in the Red Wings' scheme of things. With Cleary, it came after Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan left as a free agent after the 2005-06 season. For Franzen, he moved up from a third-line checking center's role to play on the team's top lines when Cleary and Holmstrom were sidelined for a long stretch in the second half of last season.
Cleary, a former first-round pick by Chicago in 1997, spent several nondescript seasons with the Blackhawks, Edmonton and Phoenix and was released by the Coyotes after the lockout. He went from a training camp tryout in Detroit to a productive forward -- going from 3 goals and 12 assists in 77 games in his first season in Detroit to a career-high 20 goals and 40 points in 2006-07.
Franzen? He was your classic late-bloomer -- he didn't get picked in the draft until Detroit tabbed him with the 97th pick in the 2004 Draft, when he was 25. Ironically, he was on the fourth line with Cleary in 2005-06. The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder, known as "Mule," went from power player to power scorer when he finally got a chance to show off his offensive skills in the second half of last season and wound up with 15 goals in his last 16 games, followed by another 13 goals in 16 playoff games and 17 more goals in his first 31 games this season.
In each case, it was a work-your-butt-off-to-succeed story that raises an interesting question: Is it was more important to find your identity or your role first?
"That's easy: your identity," Cleary said. "If you don't know who you are and what you can do, you can't put your all into the role that's out there in the hockey world for you."
Added Franzen, "That is a good question. ... I've had a role here as a checking center. But that didn't define me, really. Which means, if you don't know who you are and what you can do, you can't put your all into the role that's out there in the hockey world for you."
In spite of this year's record, the Wings see a mirror image from the Blackhawks.
"They've done a great job of recruiting skilled young players," Zetterberg said. "They are hard to play against. You can't let down against them or they'll burn you with the offense they've assembled."
Said Cleary, "The big thing about them is that Jonathan Toews
and Patrick Kane
are the hardest workers on that team and their defense is very skilled and mobile ... a lot like our team."
Added Toews, "I watch a Kris Versteeg and see how far he's come since he was first called up last year. He's a more confident player, someone who seems to be comfortable in his role. And with his hands, the goals just seem to be coming because he's playing better positionally."
Interestingly, after watching the Red Wings blank Chicago two days earlier, the Blackhawks took the lead in the New Year's Day Classic on a power-play goal by the aforementioned Versteeg just 3:24 into the game. Versteeg set up Martin Havlat for another power-play goal and fourth-line winger Ben Eager also scored to give Chicago a 3-1 lead after the one period.
"If you play against the Detroit Red Wings, you know how patient and confident they are to play against," Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp
said. "You have to be impressed with that. I think we're learning."
"Since I came up with the Blackhawks last season, I've always paid particular attention to Detroit," Versteeg said. "There's a lot to be learned from playing against them. You see how their players have to earn their ice time. That's the right way to do it.
"Our coaches have us on the same track. I know last year I was just battling to get a call-up, and when I got to the NHL I tried to be more conservative. Now I'm more confident and comfortable in everything I do. I feel like I'm growing each game and playing against the Wings is a great measuring stick."
Those growing-from-checkers-to-scorers players helped the Wings take over the game in the second period. Hudler scored twice to tie the score at 3-3, matching his career-high of 15 goals set in the 2006-07 season. Then, at 17:17 of the second, Datsyuk split the Chicago defense and beat Hawks goalie Cristobal Huet to give Detroit a 4-3 lead. Brian Rafalski made it 5-3 just 3:07 into the third period. Sixteen seconds later, Brett Lebda made it 6-3.
Roles. Identity. Confidence. Success. Detroit's got them and Chicago's trying to duplicate that winning developmental blueprint.
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist