Losing a Hall of Fame goaltender and a Hall of Fame head coach in the same offseason usually doesn't make for a happy Hockeytown. But nobody is crying in Detroit, where fans are fully expecting a second consecutive Stanley Cup and fourth in seven seasons.
Sure, the Red Wings were disappointed by the news that Dominik Hasek and Scotty Bowman wanted to go out on top. But Wings GM Ken Holland wasn't so choked up that he forgot to restock the shelf for next season's championship run.
Holland went to work, signing perhaps the league's most sought-after free agent -- ex-Maple Leaf goalie Curtis Joseph -- to a three-year, $24 million deal. Along with Manny Legace, who remains the NHL's top backup, the Red Wings boast the best tandem of goalies in the league.The pocketbooks were opened once again for defenseman Chris Chelios, who re-signed for $13 million over two seasons after posting a league-best ratio of plus-40 last year.
Then there is the small matter of who will coach this juggernaut. Dave Lewis, an assistant with the club since 1987, was promoted to head coach and won't change much of the system. However, the days of dizzying head games and random line adjustments left along with Bowman, because Lewis will take a more conventional approach to motivation and strategy.
Lewis' major challenge most likely will be keeping his aging group of stars fresh for the postseason. Detroit was the oldest team in the league last year and will be again in 2002-03. Brett Hull is 38, Luc Robitaille will turn 37 during the season, and Steve Yzerman 38. Chelios will be 41 by the time the playoffs start. Igor Larionov turns 42 in December. And Joseph is no spring chicken, either (36 in April).
"I don't think age matters," Lewis told the Detroit News. "These are world-class athletes. They take care of themselves; everyone trains year-round these days and is in outstanding shape. These guys love the challenge, the high expectations, and are ready to face them this season."
That's probably true. Critics said age would catch up with this club last season, but they were able to stave off Father Time's effects, thanks mainly to an inhuman stretch of toughness by Yzerman. After leading Canada to the gold medal in the Olympics, Yzerman played the final leg of the season and postseason literally on one leg. Even a right knee injury didn't keep him from averaging a point a game in the playoffs.
Yzerman will have to pay the price for his valor -- he isn't expected back on the ice until at least February. His absence will give more development time to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, two young centers who are the key to the club's future.
Last year, Datsyuk showed what he is capable of becoming. Zetterberg also should be able to step in right away as a 21-year-old who won the Golden Puck award as the top player in the Swedish Elite league last season, when he was widely regarded as the best player outside the NHL.
Sergei Fedorov, C -- With Yzerman sidelined for at least four months, the leadership burden will fall on Fedorov. He will have to continue being the dominant two-way force he has been for years, while picking up more of the scoring as well.
Fedorov no longer will have Bowman looking over his shoulder trying to keep his prodigious skills within the team's system. Though Fedorov and Bowman had a rocky relationship, the demanding coach helped bring out elite-level play in Fedorov, with Bowman's arrival as coach in 1993 helping Fedorov score 120 points that season and win the Hart Trophy.
But Bowman constantly pushed Fedorov, asking him to play more defense than most two-way centers are forced to do. If that wasn't enough, Bowman often turned to the slick-skating Russian on defense if the club was hit with injuries or he just wanted to prove a point.
If Lewis allows Fedorov to cut loose, this year could mark a return to his 80- and 90-point seasons.
Even with nine future Hall of Famers, Detroit was tested on its way to the Cup finals. The Red Wings dropped the first two games of the quarterfinals to the Canucks before winning four in a row, and the Avalanche had them down 3-2 before the Wings rallied to win the series in seven games.
This team wasn't just hungry -- they were starving. And it took every ounce of that desire to win it all. Will they still have that burning desire this season? Perhaps that is where the addition of the ringless Joseph will come in especially handy.
They spend more money than anyone else, with a payroll of $65 million last season that will balloon to about $70 million this year. When there is a player they want, they spare no expense to sign him, as evidenced by the Joseph and Chelios signings this season and the trade for Hasek (and his $8 million salary) the year before.
Yet, just like the Yankees, they know how to spend wisely -- unlike teams named the Rangers (New York in the NHL and Texas in the AL).
The Wings have had excellent luck with many of their big-ticket free-agent signings, but they also have done well developing their own talent and then keeping those players around.
"Our team was built through the draft in the 1980s and '90s, and it still is," Holland told the Detroit News. "Steve Yzerman was drafted in 1983 and still is one of the best players in the league. We drafted Fedorov, [Nicklas] Lidstrom and [Darren] McCarty.
"We sent away Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey, plus a first-round pick, to acquire Brendan Shanahan. And Chicago -- they didn't give us Chris Chelios." Holland said, referring to his 1999 trade of two first-rounders and Anders Eriksson for the rugged veteran defenseman.
As other teams complain about the disparity between the haves and have-nots, the onus is put on Detroit not so much for spending extravagantly, but for spending and having the audacity to field a championship-caliber team every year.
With Zetterberg on his way up to the big club, this honor falls on Hudler, who was the third-rated European skater, but fell into the second round because scouts questioned his size.
"The size factor is why he lasted so long," Red Wings scout Joe McDonnell told the Detroit News. "If he had four or five more inches [in height], he probably would've gone in the top five."
It didn't take long for the dust to settle and for other clubs to realize they had goofed. Hudler now is being touted as the steal of the draft. He is a flashy puckhandler with tremendous scoring ability. Combine those skills with his smooth skating prowess and it's easy to see why the Red Wings are loving this pick.
The kid is only 18 and will put on weight in the next couple of years, negating some of the worries about his size. Detroit is so flush with talent that it can afford to let him have another year of development in the Czech Republic before signing him.
Jacob Luft is a CNNSI.com producer.