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Despite blowout, Detroit model built to last

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall (55) celebrates his goal with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (5) and right wing Todd Bertuzzi (center) in the third period at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit won 3-1.


When the words tumble forth from Mike Babcock, it all sounds so easy, so obvious.

But if such is really the case, why is it when you look at the last 20 years in the NHL, on the one hand, you have the Detroit Red Wings and, on the other, you have the rest of the league?

"We have a good team, a good owner, a good manager, good players, we think we're organized and we play hard," Babcock, the Wings head coach, said before his team's tilt with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.

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What sounds simple is, of course, eye-wateringly complex and fiendishly difficult to reproduce.

Otherwise, the Canadiens, who have made little secret of their desire to emulate Detroit's approach and playing style, wouldn't be a bottom-feeding club playing against a team that had won seven in a row coming into the Bell Centre.

The Wings' biggest issue this season has been an iffy road record against weak teams. The Habs duly scored six goals on 13 shots en route to a 7-2 rout – proof that the wheels can fall off even the most slickly-built wagon.

But it's not advisable to draw conclusions from one outing. Part of what distinguishes the Wings, who last missed the playoffs in 1990, is they have discovered and developed a core of veterans that is the envy of the league – having two certified hockey geniuses in future Hall of Fame defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom and forward Pavel Datsyuk (widely considered the most-skilled player in the NHL) doesn't hurt.

Nor does having a coach of Babcock's stature – although the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold-winning bench boss said guiding the NHL's oldest team is a mixed blessing.

"There's two ways to look at it. Number one: kids you can still scare, and they're more likely to do what you tell them. Veterans have an opinion on everything, so if it makes no sense to them, they're not going to be in. It can be easier, it can be way harder," he said. "But they're smart guys, they want to win, they're at the team time of their career, most of them, and they understand what success is all about."

The Wings' average age is 30.4 – the New Jersey Devils are the only other team to top 30 years.

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To put it in perspective, the Wings' youngest player on Wednesday was 23-year-old centre Cory Emmerton, a fourth-liner who plays an average eight minutes a night.

On the other side of the ice, the Habs had four players who are younger than Emmerton and play much-larger roles: P.K. Subban (their most oft-used defenceman), top-six forwards Max Pacioretty and Lars Eller, and defenceman Yannick Weber.

When 31-year-old winger Henrik Zetterberg, another of the Red Wings' elite players, was asked how it is that Detroit has managed to keep its veterans in the fold, he deadpanned: "We give them contracts."

Babcock said the 41-year-old Lidstrom, who is out of contract next summer, remains the key to Detroit's success.

"He's one of the best players ever, period. He's an incredible human being, he's very humble, he provides unbelievable leadership, I think he's the best player/leader in the NHL," he said. "Because of no ego, he doesn't allow the rest of the team to have an ego, and then you're just about winning and the team comes first."

Lidstrom missed Wednesday's game with a touch of flu, and will skip this weekend's festivities to rest up.

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Zetterberg jokingly lamented that decision, saying Lidstrom won't have a chance to be swayed by their countryman, Daniel Alfredsson, the Ottawa Senators 39-year-old captain. ("He looks 45," Zetterberg quipped.)

Alfredsson has hinted he is not quite ready to retire – and the Wings fervently hope Lidstrom will follow suit.

"I think Gordie [Howe]played until he was 50, didn't he? So, hopefully, he can go for that," Zetterberg said.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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