With the Tigers tanking worse than Speed Racer, it’s refreshing that we can almost always count on the Wings to give us something to celebrate. No franchise in professional sports has won more championships over the last 15 years. For all of the post-season disappointment the Wings have provided in recent years, there is no question that they have more than made up for it by winning four Stanley Cups. Those who were watching the Wings closely through the first three rounds of the playoffs could tell that there was something different about this team. Whatever wasn’t there to get them past Anaheim last season was certainly there this year. I’m inclined to believe it was simply a little more experience and maturity. Nonetheless, this Wings-team was really good. The Salary Cap-era means there are fewer stars per team. So, it’s a dicey proposition to compare this team to its $100 million brethren of the 90’s. All I know is that the Wings were better than the average Cup-winning team. They are the first team to win the Cup by winning the first two games of every series and never trailing in any series since the ’88 Edmonton Oilers.
As good as the Wing were this year, they wouldn’t have won the Cup without Henrik Zetterberg. Chris Osgood did a good job in the playoffs but the Wings had the best defense in the NHL and I’m not sure it was close. That certainly decreased Ozzie’s degree of difficulty. Zetterberg, on the other hand, is playing at an all-time level. He won’t have an all-time resume but there is a good chance that he’s the best player in the NHL right now (more on this in a little bit).Watching him reminds me of a really good hockey player in a video game. You know the kind that; are faster and stronger than all of the other players, destroy the other players with vicious checks but can never be checked themselves, and get off impossible shots with a d-man in perfect position? Well, that’s Zets. He was the best player on the ice at all-times throughout the playoffs and in the finals.
What makes that interesting is that Sydney Crosby—the reigning Hart Trophy winner—was also in the finals. There is no doubt that Crosby is great but Zetterberg was the superior player offensively and defensively. Zetterberg led the playoffs in shots, goals, points, short-handed points, and plus/minus all while providing suffocating defense. That’s the most telling comparison between the two. Pittsburgh tried to do all it could to keep Crosby off the ice when Zetterberg was on it. Detroit? The exact opposite. Zetterberg is probably the best defensive forward in the NHL. He proved his worth throughout the playoffs helping Detroit to a fantastic 86% penalty-kill percentage and the fewest shots and goals allowed per game. He was especially effective on two crucial 5-on-3 penalty kills against Pittsburgh. Crosby is only 20. He has a point and award-laden career ahead of him. There is no question that when his career is over, it’ll be vastly more spectacular than Zetterberg’s. However, if Crosby was considered the “best player in the NHL” before this season, then I think there needs to be an amendment. There is no question in my mind that, right now, Zetterberg is a more complete player. If there’s a more complete player in the NHL, I haven’t seen him. There might be one or two players who are better offensively (and I mean might) but none of the best offensive players can touch Zetterberg’s skill on the defensive end. Hopefully winning the Conn Smythe Trophy will get him the recognition that he deserves moving forward. It has been a long, long time since the city of Detroit could boast that it has the best player in a sport. Barry Sanders might have been at one time or another but the last player that you could say was unequivocally the best was probably Gordie Howe. It certainly won’t be unanimous but a more complete player does not exist in the NHL.
Amazingly, Pavel Datsyuk isn’t far behind. In fact, Zetterberg and Datsyuk are easily the best 1-2 combination in the NHL. They were the highest scoring teammates in the regular season and they’re both up for the Selke Trophy given to the top defensive forward. It’s amazing that one team can claim two players as complete as Zets and Dats. The Crosby/Malkin combo is really the only other duo that comes close and we just saw how big of a difference there is between the two. Zetterberg and Datsyuk were a combined +29 in the playoffs. Crosby and Malkin were a +10.
The rest of the Wings are certainly worth talking about in detail but in the interest of time, I’ll close with Nicklas Lidstrom who became the first European Captain to lead his team to a Stanley Cup. That might sound trivial—it did to me at first—but it’s important. Even after the Wings won the Cup, Don Cherry insinuated that European Captains are inferior by nature. Lidstrom’s win should become a stereotype-busting accomplishment. Lidstrom now claims four Stanley Cups, soon-to-be six Norris Trophies, soon-to-be nine 1st Team NHL All-Star selections, and a Conn Smythe Trophy. No player in NHL history can boast that resume. He is the most decorated defenseman of the last 30 years and probably the second best defenseman in NHL history. If Lidstrom is selected to the 1st Team again next season—and there’s no reason to think he won’t—he will only trail Ray Bourque and Gordie Howe for most selections all-time. Lidstrom is the second greatest Red Wing of all-time, the second best defenseman of all-time, and among the 15 greatest hockey players in NHL history. The question is: does anyone realize it?
As if this hasn’t all been exciting enough, there is no reason to think this was a one-time deal. The Wings became the first team to win the Cup before and after the Salary Cap-era. Ken Holland proved his worth as the best GM in the NHL and has the Wings in excellent position cap-wise. Virtually the entire team will be back next season with few exceptions. Dominik Hasek’s future is up in the air. Regardless of whether he re-signs for significantly less (which isn’t likely), or retires, the Wings won’t have to carry around a $4.1 million-hit to the cap like they did this year. That money, along with the cap room that they already had, will allow them to pursue a player in a pretty good Unrestricted Free Agent-class. Brad Stuart, Chris Chelios, and Andreas Lilja are the only other significant UFAs. It won’t take much to re-sign those players even if Stuart re-signs at $3.5 million annually. However, the same cannot be said for next season. With Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Mikael Samuelson becoming UFA’s next season, Holland will need a stockpile of money to keep them in Detroit. Hopefully, he signs them to extensions before next summer thus bypassing all of the breath-holding. Who knows, maybe they’ll be willing to give the Wings a Lidstrom-inspired home-team discount. While it’s always exciting to see the Wings upgrade in the off-season, I can honestly say I’d be more than happy if things were unchanged going into 2009. The Wings will be the best team in the NHL heading into next season. In fact, the Wings might be the best team in the NHL heading into the next five seasons.