Monday, June 02, 2008

Can you imitate the Wings?

Every few years an NHL team wins the Stanley Cup employing a system that is soon emulated by other teams aspiring for the same measure of success.
If they're to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive the Penguins must ... play with far more intensity than they've displayed in most of this series.

Otherwise, the aftermath of Game 5 will see the Penguins dejectedly shaking hands with the triumphant Red Wings while commentators again sing the praises of a puck possession system that will be copied by more NHL teams in the near future.
I'm not picking on Spec in this post because I've been mulling the same thing. And what I just can't get past is the feeling that it might simply not be possible to duplicate what Hockeytown's pulled off in putting together one of the most dominant playoff performances in recent years.

It's not so much Detroit's style that's revolutionary, as this is a franchise that's played this type of hockey for years. No, what's incredible is how they've been able to assemble the horses that can skate, score and play defence the way this one has, and do so under a tight budget.

The NHL has never seen a team built quite like the Red Wings: Cheap (and old) in goal, undersized and full of veterans, a roster built 50/50 with Europeans and North Americans, and only three players that make more than $3.5-million on the roster.

If I wasn't talking about the likely Stanley Cup champions, who would have believed that was the winning combination?

Imitating what's being called a "puck possession style" is harder than it seems. It's not a matter of loading up on low-paid bruisers, as the Ducks did in 2007, or having star youngsters drafted from the top of the class.

No, what makes Detroit so successful is that its high-end talent is underpaid, its depth performs above its salary grade and the netminders don't cost a thing.

That's pretty tough to replicate.

Consider these salaries for some of the NHL's most dominant players this postseason:

Henrik Zetterberg, $2.7-million
Tomas Holmstrom, $2.25-million
Niklas Kronwall, $1.5-million
Johan Franzen, $900,000
Chris Osgood, $800,000

And those are just the potential Conn Smythe candidates.

In fact, going down the roster, there's nary an overpaid player to be found. Many of Detroit's veterans took a discount to reup with a perennial powerhouse, while the underrated talent, much of it European, is all homegrown. And then there are the reclamation projects made good — Dan Cleary, Osgood, Brad Stuart — all of whom have earned bigger paydays going forward.

You can't copy a puck possession game without the skilled cast to carry it out, and how on earth will anyone manage what Ken Holland has here?

Everywhere but Detroit, speed and puck skills cost big money.

(Anyway, that's enough fawning over the Red Wings, who we're likely going to be hearing about all off-season. Pulling off what they've managed in one season is a lot different than performing the trick repeatedly, and we've seen plenty of top teams fall quickly postlockout. Perhaps the real question is, can Detroit buck that trend?)




At 2:18 a.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

There are some key things about the Red Wings. The first is that they find talent that no one else does. Their first line consists of a 6th rd pick, a 7th rd pick, and a 10th rd pick. The third best defenseman of all time was a 3rd rd pick. There are only three 1st rd picks on the whole roster: Niklas Kronwall, which Detroit used the 29th overall selection to take in 2000; Dan Cleary, the 13th overall selection by Chicago in 1997, who the Red Wings signed as a free agent after he had left the NHL to play in Sweden; and Brad Stuart, the 3rd overall selection in 1998, who the Wings acquired for a 2nd and a 4th rd pick.

Teams are trying to imitate the Red Wings, but they are going about it all wrong. They see Ken Holland finding gems strewn about the landscape of Sweden, so they are building up a network of scouts in Sweden. The point is that you have to build up a network to find talent where other teams aren't already entrenched. Detroit did it first in Russia, then went to Sweden when everyone went to Russia. So far, the rest of the league gives all of the indications that they intend to keep chasing Holland around the world. I'm guessing that, in fifteen years, you're going to watch a whole bunch of teams decide that they need to build up the same sort of scout network that Detroit has in China.

The other thing that has been striking about the Red Wings over the last decade is their ability to find players that everyone else thinks is finished, and get star caliber play from them. Cleary. Larry Murphy. Draper and Maltby. I have no idea what it is, but there is more to their systems than is immediately obvious. Either the Ponce de Leon was looking for Lake St. Claire, or Bowman put something together that uses resources differently than anyone else does, and Babcock continued it.

At 3:01 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous ken said...

>> The third best defenseman of all time was a 3rd rd pick. <<

I'm sure you mean Lidstrom... so, who are the other two. Orr, obviously. Then who? Doug Harvey? Paul Coffey? Please don't tell me you mean Ray Bourque.

>> So far, the rest of the league gives all of the indications that they intend to keep chasing Holland around the world. <<

He really should visit Holland itself. It would be poetic if he found a superstar there.

At 4:39 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember when self-promoting jagovs like Glen Sather used to whine about how Detroit won because it had a billion dollars to spend on players. Then Slats moved to NY and couldn't win with all the loot in the world to spend. And now Detroit is going to win a Stanley Cup on the cheap?
Is Slats still a genius? Just asking.

At 4:46 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Julian said...

What the hell do people mean when they say Det plays a "puck possession" game? How is it different from what the Pens play? Or what other teams play? What is it about their tactics that make them a puck possession team? Is it something all teams aspire to, but don't have the right players for? Is it the best sort of play possible?

At 8:08 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Reggie said...

Julian the answer to your question is apparent if you watch the game closely. Look how often the Wings possess the puck. Cycling in the offensive zone, cycling in the neutral zone, cycling in their own defensive zone. Rarely ever will you see them relinquish control in a dump and chase manner. They pass or carry the puck into the offensive zone rather than dumping, chasing and checking to create turnovers and offense. In the neutral zone, they'll reverse the ice, and play it back to the defense and attack at different points. Then when many teams are looking for quick breakouts, the Wings will often regroup several times before skating it out of their end with smaller tighter passes.

Many people say they operate like the old Red Army team. I think a better comparison is that of the Brazil soccer teams.

At 8:46 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it would be nice if it does nothing more than smash the old tired stereotype of "soft Europeans" even for the last stubborn holdouts, and makes even more teams give another look at competitive little guys that would have been dismissed before.

The biggest thing that can't be replicated is the long-term committment to one system, even in the face of losses. so many other teams swing wildly from drafting big physical guys, to young speedy guys, that the team has no coherent identity and they always have a hodgepodge of talent int eh system that no longer fits whatever the current flavor is at the big-league club. I'm not sure many other teams can have the patience to commit to one strategy for a decadde and a half.

At 10:42 a.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Hallock said...

"Rarely ever will you see them relinquish control in a dump and chase manner"

This is one comment I have to disagree with, they do dump the puck in--just in a style that no other team does. I was originally going to post about how this is the one thing that may be replicated in the future by others, as Don Cherry pointed out a few games ago.

Red Wings will fire from their blue line, and have a guy standing at the opposing teams blue line nick it with his stick as it flies into the zone. It's not standard 'dump and chase' but they often aren't just carrying it in as you say.

At 10:44 a.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

3rd best defenseman? Thats laughable. There is one guy who you could argue is ahead of Lids, and thats Bobby O. I never got to see him play, so I can't argue that point either way, but I it hard to believe you could find someone that has quietly dominated (and the correct word IS dominated) as long as Lids has. Coffey, great. Zubov, great. Borque, great. If I can use a metaphor that probably makes no sense, these guys are the bricks in the wall that is a team. Lidstrom is the mortar that keeps those bricks up.

Also, for Mirtle, I would argue the Wings have bucked the trend. This isn't football or baseball, where there's no parity in the leagues. The Wings talent shows through during the regular season, playing many different teams. But we all know there is always the team that just matches up against you so well. Detroit is the closest thing to a dynasty (and please note, i am not saying they are) the NHL will ever have again. They are just consistently a threat to win it all. Every year, teams know that to make it to the cup in the West, odds are you will have to beat Detroit.

At 10:49 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To add on to what Reggie said, if it doesn't seem like this is very different from what the Penguins do, it's because it isn't -- they play much the same way, with a slightly greater tendency to go for quick breakouts. I didn't see a lot of Montreal's games this year, but they also take the same approach, as far as I can tell.

It's more a style than a system, per se -- you don't need diagrams to see the advantage of having the puck on someone's stick as much of the game as possible.

At 11:08 a.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Nathan said...

"Pulling off what they've managed in one season is a lot different than performing the trick repeatedly, and we've seen plenty of top teams fall quickly postlockout."

Think about that comment for another second.

Detroit has been the most successful team post-lockout, hands down.

They don't have to prove they can keep performing. They have performed.

I think the ultimate point is simply that it's just that difficult to win the Cup, especially in the post-lockout world.

People really like to de-value regular season success, but when you look at a team's ability to play quality hockey over a period that long, you have to respect it. Certainly, it deserves more than the comment, "Pulling off what they've managed in one season...".

It's been a hell of a lot more than one season.

At 11:12 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Dave said...

Good post. I think the next step with Detroit taking it to the next level is getting the Grand Rapids Griffins to play a similar style so the prospects can start playing the style earlier in their careers. It will be interesting to see how that works out since the talent level at the AHL level varies so wildly.

At 11:30 a.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Julian said...

re: what anonymous said... that's sorta what I was getting at, that most teams seem to play that way. All I've really watched of the Wings this year is in these finals, and the Pens don't seem to play much differently.

Second (related) question... is this puck possession game a product of the Wings talent (are they skilled enough to pull it off?) or does their chosen style of play allow them to possess the puck more often than other teams would expect to? In other words... do they happen to play a puck possession game because they're so skilled that they happen to have the puck more often than most teams?

I wish the NHL counted puck possession time so we could actually see if the Wings control it more than most teams.

At 1:12 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger FAUX RUMORS said...

1) All we can say is Thank God few other teams will be able to duplicate the Wings' style of play.
2) While we agree its effective and probbaly difficult for other teams to duplicate, we also have to say its an amazingly boring style of hockey to watch(unless you're a Wings fan)

At 1:41 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

julian, I don't want to imply that most teams try to play this sort of puck possession style, just that Pgh and Montreal also do.

You would see a very different approach from the Rangers or Boston or Tampa Bay.

At 2:57 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

faux its only boring if you don't know enough about the intricacies of the game. watching the seamless flow of players for the wings is incredible. a defenseman steps up, a winger covers him, then they rotate back. they are in continuous motion, its almost poetic. watching datsyuk with the puck is one of the simplest joys in my life. the pens and stars both try to play the same game the wings do, they're just not as good, which to me makes THEM boring. detroit is full of guys that make you hate them, because they force the realization on you that you'll never be as good at anything as they are at hockey.

At 4:34 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>> because they force the realization on you that you'll never be as good at anything as they are at hockey.<<

Hey, speak for yourself, dude.

At 4:58 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...because they force the realization on you that you'll never be as good at anything as they are at hockey.

Actually, Mikey, I hate them because they all make more money than I do.

/rolls eyes

At 8:16 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

There seem to be a lot of people forgetting Slava Fetisov when they're putting together a list of the best defensemen of all time.


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