There was mild interest in Duchesne last summer. The Montreal Canadiens offered him a $1 million contract, a big drop-off for someone who had made $3.75 million the previous year. Ottawa, for whom Duchesne had productive seasons in the mid-1990s, offered a few hundred thousand dollars more than Montreal. But the day before training camp opened, the Wings also offered Duchesne $1 million. "I was ready to take less just to play in a positive environment, one so committed to winning," Duchesne says. "This was such a good fit-a speed-oriented, skilled team in which you have to move the puck and support the play. I knew I would play more here." Through Sunday, Duchesne had 38 points and was a credible +12, and last week Detroit gave him a three-year extension worth at least $4.2 million, a deal that includes a no-trade clause for the first two years. After changing teams eight times in the 1990s, he is finally a stay-at-home defenseman.
On March 19, Murphy also celebrated a momentous day, playing in his 1,550th NHL game to slip past Alex Delvecchio into second place behind Gordie Howe among the career leaders. Murphy is now three healthy seasons from passing Howe (1,767 games), at which point Murphy would be 42. "It's like life; it creeps up on you," he says. "All of a sudden—boom!—here I am, behind Gordie. I feel I can play five years. I feel as good as I ever have, but no one beats time."
In a 200-foot sprint down the rink, Murphy beats no one. His skating, always languorous, can now be timed with a calendar. Of course, his mind still works faster than almost everyone else's, enabling him to slow the game to his speed. He doesn't necessarily arrive quickly, but he's almost always there at the right time. Maybe Murphy is being banged around a little more, but rarely is he caught out of position. He keeps the puck in the attacking zone as well as any defenseman of his era, and he still moves it crisply from his end. "They talk about losing a step," Murphy says. "I never had that step to lose."
That line is well-rehearsed and indicative of the self-deprecation that suits him. Lewis, a teammate when Murphy broke in with Los Angeles in 1980-81, says Murphy was so cocky as a rookie that the Kings gave him not one traditional full-body shave, but three. Murphy demurs—"I don't think I was arrogant. I never lipped off and always sat in the middle seat on the plane," he says—but if he ever needed a refresher course in humility, hometown fans in two cities were happy to provide it. When he played with the Washington Capitals for almost six years in the '80s, Caps fans would whoop when he touched the puck, a faux turkey mating call, because in their estimation Murphy was a turkey. Later, in Toronto, he was booed off the Maple Leaf Gardens ice as a symbol of a team that was too old and too slow. Murphy, who won more Stanley Cups (four) than any other player in the 1990s, is not a franchise defenseman despite ranking third behind the Carolina Hurricanes' Paul Coffey and Bourque in career points. He's just one of those guys with complementary skills who make good teams better. He had a wobbly start this season and was stuck at -11 as late as Dec. 4, but at week's end he was +41 and had eight goals and 37 points playing with Lidstrom. In the one concession to age, the Red Wings had reduced his playing time by three minutes from last year's 24:15 per game. Murphy would like to chase Howe's mark in Detroit next season, but even though the team has a $3 million option on him, he might have to settle for less if he wants to remain a Wing.
Detroit is marking time until the playoffs, comfortably ensconced as the fourth seed (45-22-9-2) in the Western Conference. The Wings' goals-against average at week's end was an elevated 2.51, up .16 from the championship teams of 1996-97 and 1997-98, but the vital signs for a Cup run are promising. Springtime should bring out the boy in their defensemen, who are so old they can remember signing autographs with quill pens. "If we don't win, we're old," says Murphy. "If we do win, we're experienced."