As the free agency period winds down we have a better idea of what exactly the Wings roster will look like for the '10/'11 season. And while Mike Illitch is adrift with dreams of sugar plums and "cuppy, cuppy, cuppy," others in the blogosphere and hockey media are repeating an oft heard refrain: the Wings are too old, and too slow to be a lock as Cup contenders. Wings fans have basically poised themselves to expect to hear this criticism at some point every season since the mid '90s. Yet the combination of youth and veteran leadership has made this franchise the most successful NHL franchise for the past two decades.
So are the Wings too old this year? Or is "cuppy, cuppy" (a phrase I can't believe was uttered by Illitch) a true possibility? The average age of NHL clubs is 28.15. The Wings sit at the top with a whopping 31.32. Admittedly, that's a somewhat significant number. But there are a number of reasons why it's not a concern.
1. The Wings win. Period.
Every year we have this conversation, and every year the results are the same: the Wings are the oldest NHL club, and the Wings repeatedly finish as one of the top NHL teams. Granted, last year was something of an anomaly based on the almost comical devastation injuries doled out to our roster. But even with all the necessary qualifications attached to our performance last year, the Wings still finished 5th in the Western Conference, and 7th overall in the league. That's remarkable.
The Wings haven't missed the playoffs since the '89/'90 season, and have finished first in their division 13 times in that span, winning 4 Cups. For the past ten years the Wings have finished the season with at least 100 points. I could go on and on, but the basic fact is that the Wings have continued to produce effective teams that win, and that win when it matters.
2. The Wings Development Strategy
One of the benefits of having a deep roster (which has been part of the reason for Detroit's success these past 20 years) is that you can afford to keep your bread in the oven until its golden and crispy...or something like that. Under the guidance of Ken Holland (in Holland we trust) the Wings have made a habit of keeping prospects in the system far longer than most other clubs. This means we bring up players when they are more mature as players, and more mature in years.
King Tiberius is a perfect example. Howard spent four years in Grand Rapids, and six years in the Detroit system (drafted in 2003). Last year, his first full season as a Wing, Howard was 25 years old (turned 26 during the season). While goaltenders tend to take more time to develop, Howard probably would have been brought up much earlier on most other teams. What this means for Detroit's average age is that we can expect to see a higher average than most other teams because the majority of our younger players have been ripening in the Detroit system for a few years longer than most other teams allow for their players.
3. Our "old" guys are awesome.
No. Seriously. Our older players are aren't a liability...well, most of the time. And we really don't have that many "old" players, it's just the ones we do have are really old (by hockey standards). Detroit's oldest players are Nick Lidstrom, Mike Modano, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Chris Osgood, Kirk Maltby (most likely), and Brian Rafalski. These players are all in the 36-40 range (Bert just misses out with age 35). Maltby's future with the Wings is uncertain. The Wings are known for their loyalty to players, and it's unlikely Maltby will sign with another club. But his role was already diminished last year, and there's really no room for him on the current roster. If Maltby wants to play another year as a Wing, he'll probably have to accept a two-way contract (at least, that would help the team).
Draper's role has also been diminished, but the Eaves-Helm-Draper line was a great combo last year. As sad as it is to admit, Drapes is almost done, though still effective as a role player. Holmstrom is still vintage Homer, doing what he does best night in and night out: irritating opposing goaltenders and defensemen with his spectacular posterior. Osgood is basically our veteran backup, acting as a mentor to King Tiberius. And even at age 40 Lidstrom is one of the best (if not the best) D-men in the league. Finally, who wouldn't want Modano and Rafalski on their team? In 59 games last year, Modano tallied 30 points on an offensively challenged Stars team. I'll take that kind of production from a third line center any day, especially one with the veteran presence of Modano.
So of these "old guys," who wouldn't you want on your team? I mean, seriously?
Every year we have some influx of youth that gives an extra boost to the team. The Wings already have 23 players signed to date, with a roster max of 23. We still have contracts to sign with at least two or three other players. This means that there will be players fighting for ice time opening night, and this means that the Wings will again boast significant depth at the beginning of the season. That depth was the only thing that kept the Wings in contention last year amid the horror that was injury after injury (losing over 300 man-games to injuries). At times the Wings looked like an AHL team, and yet we never fell too far out of the playoff race.
Additionally, our depth will help minimize the wear and tear on our older players, allowing guys to rest on back to back games. If the Wings can make a big push early we'll also be able to rest our older players as the season winds down. But we also have to consider the intangible effect of bringing in a guy like Modano. Modano is certainly more of an offensive threat than a guy like Dallas Drake, but having Drake on the roster for the 2008 playoffs provided an extra incentive to go deep and win the whole thing. The team rallies around these veteran players, who reciprocally benefit the development of the younger players. What we consistently end up with is a team that knows how to win, has won, and is capable of imbuing younger players with the know-how of winning.
So, call Modano old. Call Lidstrom over the hill. Poke fun at Holmstrom's receding hairline. But this team is again poised to be a threat to win it all. There's a reason we Wings fans have come to expect the Cup every year, and it has a lot to do with the guys who allegedly make us "too old." Too old? Too slow? Shut your mouth.