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Wings win by paying attention to defense

by Larry Wigge

Red Wings GM Ken Holland has been putting together a quality defense since 1999. Watch Brian Rafalski highlight video
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PITTSBURGH -- We've often talked about how the National Hockey League is a copy-cat league. You try to duplicate what the champion does. Simple, eh?

For those who think that Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke invented the wheel by loading up his roster with quality defensemen like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Francois Beauchemin and Sean O'Donnell, a stout defense that helped them win last year's Stanley Cup Final, think again, says Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland.

Holland insists that the Wings started loading up on quality defensemen back in 1999 ... and still value good-looking defenders No. 1 in their blueprint.

"You've got to remember that (assistant GM) Jim Nill was a defensive forward and I was a goalie ... for however brief that was," Holland laughed after the Red Wings took a 2-0 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in this year's Stanley Cup Final. "And as a goalie, I know the value of those guys who were right in front of me, controlling the game."

Holland claims his philosophy to go defense-first and build around the kind of puck-possession offense led by a disciplined, but mobile, puck-moving type of defense began after the 1999 trade deadline, when he spent a ton of draft choices to acquire veterans Wendel Clark and Chris Chelios in hopes the Wings could win a third consecutive Stanley Cup. That didn't work out for Detroit.

Holland remembers vividly sitting at a sports bar with Nill, seeing his picture on every TV screen. No three-peat. No love from Detroit fans. More important, no draft choices left to continue to build the Wings.

"I remember telling Jimmy that that would never happen again," Holland said. "I told him, 'We've got to draft defensemen, lots of them, because some day Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov will be too old.' And how do we stay competitive then?"

Holland proudly pointed out how the Red Wings had the best goals-against average in the NHL this season, that they allowed the fewest shots and they were in the top five in penalty killing. Those categories obviously make the Red Wings pretty tough to play against.

"You have to be competitive defensively no matter how much you score. That's the bottom line, to me," he added. "So if you look back at our drafts the last six or seven years, we have concentrated on defensemen. We've got a lot of kids that we think are close to playing."

For those looking for a glimpse at Detroit's future look no further Brendan Smith (Detroit's first pick in 2007), Jakub Kindl (the Wings' first pick in 2005) and Jonathan Ericsson (ninth round pick, 291st overall, in the 2002 draft).

"It all starts with a mobile, puck-moving defense headed by Nick Lidstrom. I think we got lucky when we went out shopping for a defenseman in free agency and Brian Rafalski wanted to come home to Michigan,” Holland said. “We really missed Niklas Kronwall last year at this time, when he got hurt and missed the playoffs. And when the trading deadline came around, we all got together and said if we could get a quality guy on defense that could play in our top two defense pairs that we'd be willing to give up a second-round pick to get him. Brad Stuart has been all of that since we got him from Los Angeles ... and we hope to keep him."

Add to that the hard work of defensemen like Chelios, Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja and Derek Meech. Plus work in those above-mentioned defensemen of the future into the Red Wings lineup when they are ready.

Moving the puck and being disciplined defensively is the blueprint for the Red Wings. That, plus a pretty efficient group of forwards, who know how much playing solid both ways starts with stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

"And when the rest of the team sees how hard Pavel and Hank work at playing defense, it kind of becomes contagious – and everyone wants to chip in that way," Holland added.

That blueprint showed up again in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, when the Red Wings shut out the high-powered Penguins 4-0 and 3-0, limiting them to just 19 and 22 shots on goal.

Ten times in 18 playoff games, the Red Wings have allowed 21 or fewer shots. That comes after Detroit allowed the same 21 shots or fewer 30 times in 82 games.

"Clearly, in the first two games our defensive play has been dominant," Holland added. "To me, that's been the key. And that's what we do best."

And in this copy-cat game, that is the bottom line I'd want to strive for, wouldn't you?

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