Primeau, at 23, is the baby: big, bouncing and careless with his stick. He cut Graham in Game 4. He almost Van Goghed the peeved Chelios in Game 5 and didn't even draw a penalty. But Primeau also made some supremely grown-up plays: scoring the tying goal in Game 1 while cruising through the slot with one hand on his stick, and then cleanly beating Roenick on the face-off that set up defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom's winner 61 seconds into overtime. Primeau also played 36 minutes in the 4-3 double-overtime victory in Game 3, scoring a power-play goal by protecting the puck along the boards, fending off Chelios, making a slick pass to the point that bisected the Chicago penalty killers and then crashing the net and putting in a rebound.
Roenick was snippy after the first game, probably because he found himself in the unexpected position of having to neutralize Primeau instead of the other way around. "I'm sick of talking about Primeau," Roenick said. "Haven't you heard? He's the best player in the NHL."
But after the Wings took a 3-0 lead in the series, Roenick was more gracious: "He's developed extremely quickly, a lot more quickly than I expected. He has a lot of confidence and size and talent. I've seen him struggle with his confidence, but he has it now. He's cocky, and you have to love players like that. He's got an edge, he comes to play. He doesn't bitch and then not show up. He's an honest player; that's what you need. I just don't like to play against him."
"Wow," Primeau said. "Roenick said that?"
Primeau is no more accustomed to the kindness of strangers than he is to the kindness of the Joe Louis Arena crowds. In the fabulous draft of 1990, Red Wing fans wanted a player, not a project. They looked longingly at the elite players selected that year—No. 1 Owen Nolan, No. 2 Petr Nedved, No. 4 Mike Ricci, No. 5 Jaromir Jagr—and then gazed upon Primeau, whom Detroit had taken third. Nolan scored 42 goals in his second NHL season. Nedved poured in 38 his third season. Ricci had 27 and 30 goals his first two years, respectively, and the flashy Jagr scored 59 in his first two seasons. Meanwhile Primeau had just nine goals in two years, but he did possess a superior knowledge of the bus routes of the American Hockey League. The Red Wings deposited him in their minor league affiliate in Glens Falls, N.Y., for much of his second year not only because he looked bad on the ice but also because he made the organization look bad for seemingly having squandered a high pick in a bountiful draft.
The Wings simply didn't know what to make of this gangly man-child. Was he a center? A left wing? A checker? A scorer? Or was he simply a bust?
By his third season, in '92-93, Primeau didn't want to play in Detroit any more than the Detroit fans wanted him to. He asked out through the newspapers, not the prescribed way of winning new admirers. "I brought a lot of this on myself," Primeau says. "The people expected me to score like Jimmy Carson and fight like Bob Probert. They had such high expectations for me, but I had high expectations for myself. I understood their frustration. For a year I tuned out the radio, didn't watch the TV, wouldn't look at the sports section except to read about other sports. Size always has been a huge advantage and a huge hindrance to me. It makes you stand out on good nights and bad nights, and there were a lot of bad nights. My mistake was taking the trade request to the papers."
Primeau was more discreet early in the 1993-94 season, complaining to assistant coach Barry Smith that he was unhappy with his limited ice time and uncomfortable playing left wing. Smith said fine, that makes us even, because the coaches aren't real enamored with your play, either. "Give it five or 10 more games," Smith told him, "and if you're still unhappy, I'll take you by the hand to the front office and say that you should be traded."
Primeau thought about it and realized he had better be careful about what he wished for because he might get it. For his first three years in Detroit, Primeau knew that no matter how much he groused, the Red Wings wouldn't trade him. Even at 6'5½", he had a big upside. But now the team had lost patience. Primeau decided he wanted to remain a Wing at precisely the time Detroit was ready to jettison him.
Where hasn't he seemingly been traded the past five years? He was supposed to go to Chicago for Belfour in 1991, to the Buffalo Sabres for Grant Fuhr last year, to New York (Rangers and Islanders), to the Philadelphia Flyers, to the Pittsburgh Penguins and to the Edmonton Oilers countless times. "A rumor a day," Primeau says. But when he scored 31 goals last year and made plays at high speed with a skating stride that is so long he looks like a figure in a hockey video game, Red Wing management cut back on the long distance calls. Primeau, whose coordination was improved by his jumping rope daily, played poorly the first five games after the lockout this year to put himself back in the bad graces of the fans. But 15 goals during the truncated season and his playoff performance at the Joe, where Detroit is 8-0 in this postseason, have granted him absolution.