The greatest test of the plan came this season. The last of the great nucleus of talent that carried the Red Wings for 20 years dribbled away – Rafalski and Draper retired in 2011 and then last summer defenceman Brad Stuart and forward Jiri Hudler left as free agents, winger Tomas Holmstrom retired and, worst of all, so did Lidstrom, perhaps the best defenceman of his generation.
“It’s getting harder and harder; we don’t have those veteran guys,” Holland said and recited the list of names. “A hockey team retired. There’s Hall of Famers in that group.”
Hockey observers were certain the Red Wings would finally hit the wall. Then, when the season started in January after the lockout, the Red Wings ran into a string of injuries. Their entire third line – Helm, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson – was lost for almost the entire season.
But down on the farm, Joakim Andersson was deemed ready and was promoted in February. Gustav Nyquist came up from Grand Rapids in March and along with 27-year-old rookie Damian Brunner, who spent the lockout playing with Zetterberg in the Swiss league, joined with Andersson to form a third line that is scoring big goals against the Blackhawks.
“I did 2 1/2 years down there,” Andersson said. “I know the Red Wings’ plan. They want their guys to be ready when they get up here and I felt I was ready when I got here.”
Kindl and Jonathan Ericsson stepped up on defence to support Kronwall, who became the No.1 blueliner but not one expected to log the kind of minutes Lidstrom did. Jimmy Howard’s emergence as a star goaltender is another big reason why the Wings are not going away quietly.
Holding it all together is Babcock, who may have performed his greatest run as a coach this season, pulling the Wings into the playoffs. Now, they look like a team that was simply getting better slowly because of the transition to a new generation.
“I think he finds a way regardless of who’s in the lineup,” Kronwall said of Babcock. “Over the last few years we had some players leave us but he’s found a way to get everybody on the same page and get the job done. I don’t think there’s a coach out there that compares to him.”
There may be envy of the Red Wings’ success around the league but it has benefited other teams. Two of graduates of the Red Wing Way are Yzerman, now the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Jim Nill, who after years of wooing from other teams accepted the GM’s job with the Dallas Stars last month. Among the eight teams still alive in this year’s playoffs as of Friday, two have former Babcock assistants as head coaches: the Ottawa Senators with Paul MacLean, who is the favourite to be coach-of-the-year, and the San Jose Sharks with Todd McLelland.