Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Let's Go Red Wings!

I've avoided talking about the Pistons and Red Wings on this blog for the simple reason that playoff trains get derailed quickly. And as the Tigers have proved, so do regular seasons. But as of last night the Detroit Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup Finals and that makes Todd a happy young boy. Too bad that in a fit of supreme ineptitude I forgot to watch the series-clinching game last night. Angie turned on Bones at 8:00. When that was done I fired up Raiders of the Lost Ark. It didn't occur to me until about ten minutes after the game was over that it was on. Ah well. The video highlights at NHL.com were fun to watch.

As a Wings fan it's really easy to take for granted to the enduring greatness of this franchise. They built one of the top two franchises in the NHL in the 90s and into the pre-lockout new millennium, winning three Stanley Cups ('97, '98 and '02). New Jersey was the only other team to win as many during that time ('95, '00 and '03). But the rap was always that the Wings were the Yankees of the NHL. That they bought their Cups by offering big free agent contracts that other teams couldn't match. And there's an argument to made for that with the 2002 team, in which they stockpiled Brett Hull, Dominick Hasek and Luc Robataille in a single off-season to go along with their existing roster of Hall of Fame talent.

The lockout was supposed to change that. It was supposed to decimate the Wings franchise. Their aging core was past its prime and they wouldn't be able to stockpile free agent talent like in the past. They were done.

Yeah. Whatever.

The end of the Wings run of NHL dominance has proven to be just a smidge overstated. Yeah, the return to the Stanley Cup Finals took a few years, but since the lockout season of 2004, the Wings have won their division every year and won two of the last three President's Trophies for having the best regular season record. (They've also won four of the last six overall.)

How did they do it? The fact of the matter is the greatness of the Wings franchise was never dependent purely on free agent acquisitions. They paid handsomely for a lot of talent over the years, no doubt, but that was what the financial system of the time demanded. The rules changed, but not the brain trust putting the team together. They adapted.

It's easy to overlook the fact that a lot of their talent was and is homegrown and found in the later rounds of the drafts. Take their two premiere young superstars: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit drafted them 171st overall (6th rnd) and 210th overall (7th rnd) respectively. How about Johan Franzen? With 11 goals in 10 games he was only the hottest player in the playoffs prior to a mystery concussion-like injury that cost him the past four games. The Wings took him 97th overall, in the 3rd round. Perennial Norris Trophy (best defenseman) candidate Nicklas Lidstrom was a 3rd round pickup (53rd overall). Their promising young bruiser, Niklas Kronwall? Okay, yeah, he was a first rounder. The 29th guy taken in that round.

That's not luck and that's not buying anything. That's a team that knows how to scout talent. It's a team run by one of the best GMs in all of sports in Ken Holland and his track record does all the talking required.

Needless to day, I'm really looking forward to start of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday. (Watch the series dammit! The NHL needs the ratings!) The Pittsburgh Penguins are a scary group of upstarts that have dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs, losing just two games. They're not fluke. They're really frigg'n good. But the Wings are not the Flyers, Rangers or Senators. I'm expecting a drawn out, exciting series. We get that and win or lose for the Wings, I'm happy.