Friday, June 6, 2008

Detroit Red Wings

For the fourth time in the last eleven years, the Detroit Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup, awarded to the champion of the National Hockey League. Since 1990, when Sergei Fedorov joined a lineup that already included Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings have been among the most skilled teams in the NHL.

Although Fedorov is no longer a Red Wing, he is indicative of the success of the franchise. The draft that netted Feodorov for the Red Wings is one of the greatest drafts in NHL history. That same draft for the Red Wings included Center Mike Sillinger and Defenseman Bob Boughner, who both went on to solid NHL careers. It included Winger Dallas Drake, who started with the Red Wings, was traded, and finally returned to the Wings as a free agent this season. It included Vladimir Konstantinov, a magnificent Defenseman who helped the Wings win the Stanley Cup in 1997, alongside his defense partner, Nicklas Lidstrom, who was also part of that same 1989 draft. Lidstrom and Fedorov will be in the Hall of Fame. Konstantinov almost certainly would have been too, had his career not been cut short by a tragic car accident, right after the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997. Picking three Hall of Famers in one draft is a good way to rejuvenate a franchise.

Eventually the Wings added three more skilled Russians to their lineup: Slava Kozlov, a skilled young Winger; Slava Fetisov, an aging but skilled defenseman, and Center Igor Larionov, a puck control specialist, as so many Russians were. Coach Scotty Bowman put these five together as a unit, the Russian Five, and they were amazing to watch. They played the same puck control game of the old Soviet national teams.

Eventually, all five of the Russian Five were lost to the Wings, to free agency, retirement, or career ending injury. But the Wings continued to play a puck control, or puck possession game, unlike any other team in the NHL. Because the Wings were so consistently good, they always ended up in poor drafting position. They haven't had a top ten pick since about 1991. Normally they pick at the very bottom of the round, about 20th or lower. So they never have the opportunity to draft the "can't miss" prospects like the Crosby's, the Malkin's, the Ovechkin's, etc.

That doesn't mean they don't draft great players, however. They do. They just have to look harder and smarter to find them. But find them they do. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, all selected in the third round or later, all star players in the NHL. Datsyuk and Zetterberg, in my opinion, are the two most complete forwards in the NHL. And Nicklas Lidstrom is the best defenseman.

There are now seven Swedes on the Red Wings roster, with more on the way. The Wings are a heavily European weighted team. This is one of the results of having to pick lower in the draft, when all the best North American prospects are already gone. But it is also a result of a deliberate policy of favoring skill over size, which is the opposite of how most teams draft.

The results speak for themselves. Four Stanley Cups in eleven years. People used to accuse the Wings of buying the Stanley Cup, since they had one of the highest payrolls in the league. But when the salary cap was put in place, and the Wings' payroll was cut in half, they continued to be the class of the NHL, consistently finishing first in their division, and advancing well into the playoffs. And now, winning the Stanley Cup again.

The Red Wings are the model franchise of the NHL.

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