Detroit Red Wings 2005-2006
GM: Kenny Holland, 8th season as general manager, 22nd year with the organization
Coach: Mike Bab*****, 1st season as head coach with the Wings
Note to readers: This is long. I can’t help myself. I also seem to have developed a bizarre penchant for parentheses.
Forgotten moves: The Wings didn’t do much in the months leading up to the lockout, but, like almost every team, there are plenty of new faces around lately. Detroit lost 6 regulars since they last suited up in Curtis Joseph, Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney, Brett Hull, Darren Mccarty, and Jason Wooley.
The CuJo Experiment was a resounding failure for all parties. The un-retirement of Hasek, a series of early playoff exits, and the disappointment of the fans and the management as Cujo didn’t live up to our memories of his prior playoff brilliance left a sour taste in just about everybody’s mouth. Cujo, who has always seemed like an extremely easy-going and likable guy, commented just last week that it was a mistake to come to Detroit. The galling part about the entire situation, however, is that he was so alienated by management that we had to eventually sign Chris Osgood to replace him, which isn’t so bad until you realize that we’re paying Osgood the same salary that Phoenix signed Joseph for. Ugh.
Buying out Hatcher was the biggest no-brainer of the summer for Ken Holland as his contract was prohibitive, he’s never really been the same since he blew out his knee, and he’s only getting older and slower in this supposedly new NHL predicated on speed and youth.
Whitney also had to be cut loose, although he probably would have fit well within the Wings system. Holland made the classic mistake of signing a guy who consistently put up points while playing on the first line and soaking up the PP time on a crappy team. So, when he ended up severely slumping statistically while playing half the minutes, no one should have been too surprised. In the old NHL, the Wings could easily have swallowed his pts/$$$ ratio, but he became a victim of financial efficiency.
Brett Hull actually left for Phoenix as a free agent before the lockout. The vast majority of fans were sad to see him go as there isn’t a better quote in the league (JR’s idiocy notwithstanding). He was also the perfect linemate for Zetts and Datysuk, but I think it was time to move on.
No one around here seems to know how competitive the Wings will be and so management is kind of hedging their bets in regard to going with youth or making another run with their geriatric line-up. Hull, who has never been much of a force on the defensive end of things, was deemed expendable (either that or he just decided he liked the weather in Arizona more…no matter).
D-Mac. Sure, we’ll all miss him. He was kind of a warmer, fuzzier version of Bob Probert: Probie drove his hog on coke, D-Mac drove his hog drunk. Probert was the most feared enforcer of his era, D-Mac fought often and fought well occasionally. Before his career became undone due to his off-ice troubles, Probert was a real, live scoring threat, while D-Mac has come to be known more for throwing pucks into the stands for fans during warm-ups than for actually putting them in the net. When it comes down to it, as likable as he is, you knew something was wrong when Mccarty got more press for his band than he does his hockey skills. With all that being said, two of my favorite memories as a Wings fan were provided by Mccarty: (1) Darren’s one and only beautiful and meaningful goal in his entire Red Wings career (Stanley Cup gamewinner when he deked through Jannnneee Ninniiimmmmaaa’s legs and around Hextall (Snow? One of the other 27 goalies the flyers have had in the last decade?) (does anyone else think that the “suicide dive” was the most inexplicable action by a goaltender ever…I think he either put money on a Wings’ sweep or had a brief seizure) and (2) Mccarty’s complete and utter beatdown of Claude Lemieux in the revenge game. Thanks for the memories, stay warm in Alberta.
Jason Wooley filled in his spot in the line-up very well, but there simply isn’t enough money to go around to have a player of his caliber sitting at 6th on the defensive depth chart.
So, who’s replacing these guys? Back in net we have the not-so-triumphant return of Chris Osgood. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good guy. He even signed a coaster for me at Outback Steakhouse when I was 13. He’s just not going to be intimidating any shooters any time soon (=ever). The D will be just fine without Hatcher. Due to injuries and the lockout, he only played 15 games for the Wings anyway. Wooley’s spot will get eaten up by either a young guy or maybe Andreas Lilja. The offensive depth has been severely depleted by the losses of Hull and Whitney. The goaltending, while not impressive, is a known quantity. The offense, however, is the big question mark heading into the season.
Team mode: So, what the hell is going on with this team? If you wanted to argue the “contender” angle, you could point out the fact that the last time the regular season ended, the Wings were the best team in the league. You might mention that several young guys who were just beginning to blossom have had a year to work on their skills; guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and one of the best young D-men you’ve never heard of, Niklas Kronwall (local media had a piece about him that said he is reminiscent of both Lidstrom and Konstantinov…apparently they forgot about Jesus, Caesar, and Mother Teresa). The Wings still have the best defense in the league (I’ll address this argument later) and it might help cover for what’s lacking in net and up front. Finally, the success (regular season) the Wings have had in the past few years was in spite of a pretty heinous head coach in Dave Lewis (again, a good guy, but he’s not going to be winning a game of Chess against Hartley, Crawford, Bab*****, or, for that matter, Milbury).
Of course, skeptics, Motown pessimists, and Avs fans might label this team as a group of pretenders. Our number one goalie is…well, we’re not really sure. Manny Legace has looked impressive, but he has primarily played the Blue Jackets and Predators of the world. Chris Osgood won a cup, but he played behind arguably the best all-around team of skaters ever assembled. Umm…beyond that, I hear Stefan Liv does pretty good in Sweden and hockeysfuture.com’s analysis of Jimmy Howard uses the phrase “up-and-down” approximately 83 times. Our forward lines go about 2 deep instead of the 3.3 deep Wings fans have gotten used to over the past decade. Our (arguably) third best defenseman is several years older than our head coach. And, finally, the Wings’ complete and utter self-destruction against “inferior” teams in the playoffs over the last few years could easily be related to the rapidly aging/tiring core of the team.
There is yet another angle to be argued here and that is the Wings as a rebuilding team. It’s pretty amazing that the Wings don’t have one player on their team who gets regular icetime between the ages of 27 and 32 (which are generally regarded as a player’s prime). The only guys that fall into that range are new signees who are nothing to get excited about (Delmore, Lilja, Samuelsson) and Mark Mowers(!). The goalie with the greatest potential on our roster is 21 y.o. Jimmy Howard (hockeysfuture.com projects him as a future starter). On defense, Jiri Fischer is still an extremely promising young player (25 y.o) and 24 y.o. Niklas Kronwall has been getting some serious hype lately. Up front, 27 y.o. Pavel Datsyuk and 24 y.o. Hank Zetterberg are 2 of the Wings’ top 3 or 4 forwards and young Swede Johan Franzen appears a lock to make the team. If a couple of the top veterans go down with injuries and/or the team as a whole starts to tank it, Mike Bab*****, who has no prior relationship with anybody on the team, might pull the plug and see what he’s got for next year. If it gets ugly, Wings fans could see more of Jiri Hudler, Jakub Kindl, Igor Gregorenko, and Valterri Filpulla (to be honest, I know essentially zero about both the skill level and contractual obligations of the latter three).
To take charge!: Umm…no offense to HTR’s hardworking and fantastic admins, but I’d like to explicitly state here that these somewhat lame sub-headings are theirs’ and not mine (I wonder if that will get edited???). Anyway, the point of this section is to highlight the individual who will make the difference/provide the leadership for the team. There’s not really an interesting answer here as the Wings have stuck to a pretty consistent formula for success over the last decade and, despite some personnel shuffling, it won’t change much. In this spirit of consistency, I’m simply going to copy and paste some bits from when I wrote this column 2 years ago:
Yzerman aka Stevie Y aka El Capitan aka classiest guy in hockey: Although a center for pretty much his entire career, expect to see him at right wing on a line with some young players to save his bionic knee from all the extra skating. When healthy, he’s consistently been a point-a-game player for the last several seasons. Could very possibly net 60 points while playing a very solid defensive game if on one of the top two lines, but will probably play very little during the regular season and end up with about 40 pts. Health is a big question mark but the guy has got the heart of a lion and I’d play him in the playoffs with a prosthetic limb.
Lidstrom: Like every other Swede I’ve met/seen on TV, he seems to be a genuinely nice man. Besides that, he, with Yzerman and Howe, is one of the three best players the Wings have ever had. 6 time Norris finalist, 3 time winner, he is indescribably good. Most accurate slapper from the blue line in the league and impeccable defense. Only limitation is the lack of a strong physical game. However, this doesn’t detract from his ability to stop the opposition from scoring, just the intimidation factor. Just awesome.
Legace: A lot of well-meaning Wings fans can’t wait to see this guy start. Unfortunately, those same fans said the same thing about Kevin Hodson and Norm Maracle (don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize their names; they’re no longer in the big leagues). Let’s face it: it hasn’t been hard to be a back-up goalie on the Wings for about a decade now. I know Legace covered well for Osgood when he slumped a few seasons ago, and that he’s put up great numbers against the Columbus’s and Predators’ of the league, but the guy is simply not starting material. He’s great at what he does: backing up a number one.
This one is (obviously) not copied-and-pasted because, well, Bab***** just got here. From an e-mail my brother sent me: “BTW, I really like Bab*****. LOVE the offensive/defensive pairing philosophy on the blueline. Like the fact that he just sort tells it like it is with Osgood (Hasn’t been that good since winnin the cup), Lilja (lazy swede), etc…” It is refreshing to have a little personality behind the bench after 2 years of the utterly unremarkable Dave Lewis. The D pairing philosophy he alludes to is that Bab***** is trying to create a balance between offense and defense on each defensive pairing and encouraging the offense guy to jump up into the play. It seems that he might be trying to get a lot closer to a 1-4 set-up in the opponents zone as opposed to the traditional 2-3. I’ll get to the actual projected lines later, but, for now, let’s just say it’s nice to finally get away from the Bowman-Lewis-Smith triumvirate (as successful as they’ve been).
On the rush: The Wings offense doesn’t look particularly fearsome. Its “name” guys: Yzerman, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lang, Shanahan, and Draper. Mid-level guys include Maltby, Holmstrom, Murray (health permitting) and that’s pretty much it. The offensive “depth” is rounded out by nobodys/prospects: Hudler, Samuelsson, Franzen, Mowers, and Jason Williams. For this offense to be successful, there are 2 keys: (1) the emergence of a younger player as a legitimate scoring threat and (2) using the Wings’ skilled defensive players as the base on which to build the offense. For the past several years, NJ has utilized a great D core in order to help cover up an offense which was relatively undermanned.
The top line is pretty much guaranteed to have Datsyuk and Zetterberg on it, but who will fill Brett Hull’s sniper spot? I think Maltby might actually fit in really well here. He’s got a quick, underrated shot and he could provide some real grit and defensive presence on the top unit. The second line should shake down to being Lang between Yzerman and Shanahan. Stevie Y and the Mad Irishman have a long history of playing well together and Lang was the Wings’ best offensive player for the last third of the season in 2004. Shanahan had an extremely disappointing year and it’s possible that the wheels have fallen off. However, his game was never predicated on speed and the real problem the last season of play was a seeming lack of intensity and a reluctance to drive to the net. At least, this is Bab*****’s impression. The new coach has gone on the record saying that Shanny’s problem was not forcing himself into the play and he’s said that the problem will be corrected, even going as far as predicting a huge year for him. Whether or not it works out that way, it seems clear that Bab***** believes Shanahan is still a top player in this league. So, really, the top two lines appear to be pretty competitive, if a bit unbalanced age-wise.
It’s when you start getting into the lower end of the depth spectrum that the Wings might have some worries. The last two lines will be made up of some combination of Draper, Holmstrom, Williams, Hudler, Franzen, Murray and Samuelsson. There main purpose will be to pretty much “hold the fort” while the top 6 guys get a breather. Draper and Holmstrom need to be on the ice for more minutes than playing this low on the depth chart should put them, but the former will be killing penalties all day long and the latter will be setting up camp in front of the net on the power play. Speaking of which, the PP should be among the top 5 in the league. With Lidstrom, Schneider, and Kronwall manning the points, and various permutations of the top lines (plus a healthy dose of Tomas) should allow the Wings to continue their proven success while up a man.
It’s difficult to get a real handle on how this offense will measure up to the rest of the league once the puck is finally dropped, but I think that, on paper, the talent level puts them somewhere in the middle. However, with the help of the strong D and a coach who seems to want to pinch an extra guy up in the zone, the Wings’ offense as a team might surprise some people.
Covering the D-zone: The key to this team will be how well the D can live up to expectations. They will be charged with creating space for the offense to light it up AND making the collection of pylons we’ve got rotating through the crease look good. Lidstrom will be as good as ever; he’s not that old and he’s always played a thinking game anyway. He’ll be playing with Lilja, and will make him look like a serviceable player. The second unit is almost as good, with Jiri Fischer completely recovered from a bad knee injury a couple years back (they always say it takes 2 years to get back to full form after an ACL) and one the most underrated guys in the league in Mathieu Schneider. Ageless Chris Chelios, now the oldest player in the league, will be tutoring the aforementioned and highly anticipated Swede Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall will end up see way more minutes than a third pairing would be expected to as he’ll soak up all the PP QB’ing time that Lidstrom and Schneider can’t handle. The last couple of guys aren’t really settled on yet, but the unit is 6 deep with real players. As mentioned above, Bab*****’s strategy is to stick a stay-at-home guy with an offensive guy on each pairing so that there is a lot of versatility on the ice. The PK will look a lot like the last few years as Maltby, Draper, Yzerman, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Chelios, Fischer, and (maybe) Kronwall will have almost exclusive PK duties.
Guarding the net: Despite all of my protestations, the numbers don’t look too bad. Osgood was the clear #1 guy for the Blues last year and finished with very respectable numbers: .910 save percentage and 2.14 GAA. Compared to CuJo’s numbers, .909 and 2.39, we’ve improved in net. Legace did even better, notching an impressive .920 SVP and 2.12 GAA. Still, everyone knows that statistics don’t tell the whole story. Some goalies simply have that killer instinct and, when the game is on the line, you know the other team will not score. Roy and Brodeur might let in the occasional gimme goal when a game is out of hand one way or the other, might give me concentrated brilliance over sustained mediocrity any day. Of course, that’s just me. I’d be much more enthusiastic if we had some young, talented, unproven guy to roll the dice with. That’d at least be exciting, but we’re stuck with 2 thirty-something known quantities. I guess now would be the time to stop whining, considering the riches Detroit fans have enjoyed since the early 90’s, but a large part of me is going to miss the old NHL. Going into each year knowing that it’s going to come down to beating Colorado was great fun and great drama. And the times when it didn’t work out that way were all the more interesting for everybody else because you always had a built-in underdog story. Parity kind of blows. How was that for a tangential line of thought?
Projected lines: I mentioned most of this earlier, but here are my best-guesses as to what the lines will look like:
Zetterberg Datsyuk Maltby
Shanahan Lang Yzerman
Holmstrom Draper Murray
Franzen Williams Samuelsson
Expectations: As mentioned above in “team mode,” it’s awfully hard to tell what the Wings will do this year. As I’m not supposed to let my personal bias come into play here, I did what any self-respecting objective researcher would think to do: follow the money. The Wings odds at the Stanley Cup are listed at 10-1, second best in the league. A quick scan of several sportsbooks reveal varying numbers but a consistent ranking of the Flyers as the number one favorite and the Wings in second. Hmmm…
Projections: This is like expectations but with my personal slant on it. I’ve covered most of my opinions already so I’ll keep it short. I fear that the Wings are going to follow the same pattern of the last few years: relative dominance during the regular season and an early departure in the playoffs due to tired offensive legs and “untimely” goaltending.