The Detroit Red Wings come into the 2007-08 season as a team that was just two wins short of making it to the Stanley Cup Final. But that’s a far cry from where they were at this time last year.
"It seems like so long ago now," veteran forward Kris Draper said the other day of early season struggles that included an embarrassing four-game trip to Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Edmonton in mid-October and a subsequent clear-the-air players meeting that focused on leadership.
The Wings entered 2006-07 without captain and Detroit legend Steve Yzerman, who retired, and heart-and-soul power forward Brendan Shanahan, who signed with the New York Rangers. Both players were part of Detroit’s three Stanley Cups from 1997 through 2002.
For the first time in years, leadership in Detroit was being questioned.
New captain Nicklas Lidstrom, along with veterans like Draper, Kirk Maltby, Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider, called the impromptu meeting to talk about how everyone had to step up and fill the big skates of Yzerman and Shanahan.
"I remember someone saying; ‘Steve and Brendan are gone ... and they weren’t coming back,’ " Lidstrom said last October. "The message was loud and clear: It wasn’t a time for us to look at the guy next to us and expect him to stand up and lead. It was up to each and every one of us to pick up his share of the leadership."
"I remember (coach) Mike Babcock kept talking about creating a new identity for the team," added Draper. "He was right. It was time for Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and others to follow our coach’s direction. Everyone needed to be leaders ... in their own way."
With each succeeding game last season, there was a stark and dramatic change in the Wings’ dressing room. That early season mood that was tense and tentative was replaced slowly by a more traditional Detroit feeling of calmness, confidence and competitiveness.
The fact that this team was able to bounce back after that wakeup call last October — without Yzerman and Shanahan there to take the lead — is a testament to the Wings’ near-perfect blend of veterans and youngsters.
It’s no coincidence that the Red Wings have posted a 108-35-21 record over the last two seasons — including the best record in the NHL in 2005-06 and second to Buffalo last season. It’s no coincidence the Red Wings have been a first-place team the last six seasons, seven times in the last 10 seasons and 11 times in the last 15. It’s also no coincidence that six times in the last seven seasons, the Wings have either been No. 1 or No. 2 in points in the NHL.
The Wings have produced their own Motown sound: the harmony on the ice, the synergy of their puck possession style of skill and precision and the discipline to play stingy defense at the same time. It’s something a lot of teams have tried unsuccessfully to copy.
Their dressing room is filled with that something-old, something-new, something-borrowed feeling — all the way from homegrown draft choices like Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom to 40-something veterans like Dominik Hasek and Chelios, who were taught to play in a different system.
General Manager Ken Holland continues to find players that fit.
"I really feel the success for us goes back to the mid-’90s when Scotty Bowman came to Detroit and he found a way to work that puck possession style for us with skill players like Steve Yzerman and the Russian five," Holland said recently. "It set up a priority for us for the way we draft players that fit that system, the way we try to sign free agents and make trades with that style of play in mind.
"What is really important is to have that constant — players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom, Chris Chelios — who have all been here since 1999. They’re all sort of like extra coaches on the ice for us the way they pass on the message to the newcomers."
That seamless transition had a few hiccups at the start of last season, but it survived ... and thrived.
"They're not playing the prototypical Detroit style you've seen over the past 10 to 15 years," All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger said before his Ducks faced off against the Wings. "They're a puck possession team but a lot more physical than in the past."
This season will feature more of the old and new.
The Red Wings lost Schneider, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang and Kyle Calder to free agency. But they signed former New Jersey Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski, a Michigan native, and St. Louis Blues left wing and captain Dallas Drake, who began his NHL career with the Wings in 1992.
More leadership from Rafalski and Drake and ...
"One of the most important things for this team is the experience young players like Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula and Tomas Kopecky got down the stretch and in the playoffs," said Lidstrom. "You could see them growing in leaps and bounds and gaining confidence in their games along the way."
The offense still starts with the puckhandling wizardry of Datsyuk and Zetterberg — more correctly, Datsyuk with Holmstrom and Zetterberg with Mikael Samuelsson, plus left wingers to be named from a group that includes Hudler, Franzen and perhaps Igor Grigorenko, a second-round draft choice in 2001 who was set back in his progression by a near-fatal car crash in May of 2003.
Four years later, the injuries have cost Grigorenko a step of speed. But the hands are still magical, accounting for 13 goals in his final 30 games in the Russian Super League last season. Because Grigorenko once played on a line in Russia with Datsyuk and Atlanta star Ilya Kovalchuk, optimists in Detroit hope he can sparkle on a line with Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.
Zetterberg had 33 goals in just 63 games last season. Holmstrom had 30 and Datsyuk 27. Samuelsson slumped from 23 goals in 2005-06 to 14 last season, though he also missed significant time with injuries. Daniel Cleary stepped up and had a career year with 20 goals. His gritty style of play puts him on the new “Grind Line” that includes Draper and Filppula, with Draper likely switching from center to left wing where Babcock hopes to translate his speed to something closer to the 24 goals he had in 2003-04 rather than the 10 and 14 goals he had the last two seasons. Kopecky is expected to center the fourth line with Maltby and Drake — obviously a second energy line.
|"I'm proud of what I've done in this game with the Stanley Cup and trophies and gold medals, but you don't prepare for the next season by living in the past. You come here to try to do everything to win again."
-- Dominik Hasek
Lidstrom, who has won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in five of the last six seasons, is still the cornerstone of the blue line. Rafalski brings a reputation of playing tough minutes defensively and contributing big points offensively — not to mention the two Stanley Cups he won in New Jersey. Chelios, age 45, is still a warrior, steady and hard to play against. Kronwall, who was hurt and missed greatly in the playoffs, is already solid defensively and Babcock thinks he can make a big contribution on offense. Youngsters Brett Lebda, Kyle Quincey and Derek Meech figure to fill out the defensive corps.
"No player in the NHL has been more consistently good over the last 10 years than Nick," said Chelios, who adds three more Norris Trophies to a Detroit defense that has ranked in the top 10 in defense each of the last 12 seasons.
And don’t underestimate how much Rafalski brings to the Wings.
"We think he's a perfect addition to our team," Holland said. "He's been a premier defenseman in the League for a number of years. He can play in every situation — power play, penalty kill, against the other teams’ best players.
"With his mobility and puckhandling skills, he is a perfect fit for our style of play. We wanted three puck-moving defensemen — and now with Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian and Niklas Kronwall, we have that."
In goal, the Red Wings have a pretty good 1-2 punch with Hasek and Chris Osgood, both of whom have guided the Wings to a Stanley Cup.
At 42, Hasek was 38-11-6 with a 2.05 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and eight shutouts in the regular season and 10-8 in the playoffs with a 1.79 GAA, .923 save percentage and two shutouts.
"I don't care what anybody says, when the game's on the line, I like having ‘The Dominator’ back there," Babcock said entering last spring’s playoffs.
"I'm proud of what I've done in this game with the Stanley Cup and trophies and gold medals," Hasek said of being named the NHL MVP twice and winning the Vezina Trophy as the League’s best goaltender six times. "But you don't prepare for the next season by living in the past. You come here to try to do everything to win again.
"To me, the motivation to win another Stanley Cup is the same as it was in 2002, when I was trying to prove to everyone that I could win a Cup."
Hasek chose to return to Detroit last season because he knew there’s always a chance the Red Wings will be there in June playing for the Cup.
Despite last October’s stumble, the Red Wings got within two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
And the tradition rolls on.
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Red Wings Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster