THEY ARE THE TEAM OF THE PRESENT. EVERY YEAR. ¶ THERE ARE TEAMS OF THE FUTURE: THE RED WINGS BEAT ONE IN THE FINALS IN SIDNEY CROSBY'S PITTSBURGH PENGUINS, A SIX-GAME CLASSIC THAT GAVE A MUCH-NEEDED BOOST TO THE NHL'S PROFILE IN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS. ¶ THERE ARE TEAMS OF THE PAST: THE RUN-AND-GUN OILERS; the Broad Street Bullies; the Big Bad Bruins. Champions whose successors have fallen on hard times of late.
But the Wings? They are all about now. No dips or dry spells. They rebuild as they win. Like Peter Pans in pads and skates, the heroes of Hockeytown never seem to grow old. It isn't that the 2007-08 Wings are part of a dynasty. Dynasties win three or four Cups in a row, not four in 11 years, which is what Detroit has now done, a record of consistency that, in this era of parity and salary caps, is even more unlikely. It's that the Wings have created a culture of winning. They have made the playoffs every year since 1991, the longest such streak in the four major sports. This was the sixth year since '95 in which they won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's regular-season champion. (No other team has won it more than twice in that time.) The veterans—Detroit had seven players on its 2007-08 roster 35 or older—teach the kids how to win; the kids stay; they mature; and they pass those lessons on to newcomers. Thus the baton of greatness is handed from Scotty Bowman to Steve Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom to Pavel Datsyuk to Henrik Zetterberg to some future draft choice. It's why, through strikes, lockouts, trades and retirements, Hockeytown rules.
The man behind the throne is Detroit's unassuming G.M., Ken Holland, who has been at the Wings' helm since July 1997. His formula? Load up on Europeans (the Wings have 11 on their roster, seven from Sweden); keep your character guys (Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby have all played on four Cup winners with Detroit); sign free agents who care more about winning than money (Chris Osgood, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios); and look for hidden gems in the higher rounds (Zetterberg was a seventh-round pick, Datsyuk a sixth-rounder). Holland also has a knack for adding key players late in the season without upsetting the locker room. This year it was the 36-year-old McCarty, a free agent who signed in late February. Then at the trading deadline Holland swapped a second-round pick in 2008 and a fourth-round pick in '09 for bone-crushing defenseman Brad Stuart. McCarty and Stuart added depth and toughness to a team some saw as being too soft for the long grind of the playoffs.
Holland also hired as coach the steely-eyed Mike Babcock, 45, who has led Detroit to three consecutive seasons of 50 or more wins, a first for the club. A former college star at McGill, Babcock has been coaching since he was 24. After years toiling in the minors, Babcock took Anaheim to the 2002-03 Stanley Cup finals in his rookie year in the NHL. Holland hired him in '05, after the lockout season, and since then Babcock has gradually transformed Detroit into a team as tough as it is skilled. Emphasizing speed, short passes and puck control, the Wings under Babcock have adopted the ideal style for the new-look NHL, in which obstruction fouls turn into power plays. Their team defense is suffocating—the Wings allowed the fewest shots and fewest goals-against in the league in '07-08—yet they scored the third-most goals.
Against the young, talented Penguins, that puck-control game was the key to neutralizing offensive stars such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. When Crosby was able to touch the puck, Babcock had three Wings collapse on him in the neutral zone, forcing Sid the Kid to pass it off. His linemates weren't able to pick up the slack. The Wings shut out the Penguins the first two games of the series and outshot them in every game—the final total was 222-142 for Detroit. Pittsburgh's potent offense was held to just 1.67 goals per game. It was a clinic in team defense.
A last hurrah for an aging bunch? A final run to glory before the Era of Crosby? It sure didn't look that way. During the series, in the third period the Wings outscored the youthful Pens 9-3. And it was Detroit that bounced back from the exhausting 4-3 triple-overtime loss in Game 5, looking faster and fresher in the clinching Game 6 on the road. The peerless Lidstrom, 38, the first European to captain a Stanley Cup champion, is still the best defenseman in the game. And the torch of the future appears to be in good hands with the likes of Zetterberg, Stuart, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler, all of whom are still in their 20s.
Try telling them they're not the team to beat in '09. Hey, they're the Red Wings. The team of the present. Again.