by PuckStopsHere on 05/28/09 at 11:06 AM ET
The Detroit Red Wings have eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks and are moving on to face Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals. It is a rematch of last season’s finals which Detroit won.
How good is Detroit on a historical scale? How would they match up with the greatest teams of all time?
I argue that historically elite teams necessarily have several players who are Hall of Famers or on Hall of Fame career tracks. Detroit has two players who are clear Hall of Famers regardless of what happens in the rest of their careers. They are Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios.
Lidstrom is arguably the best defenceman in hockey today. Chelios is far enough past his prime that he won’t play on a regular basis. Chelios only gets into the Detroit line-up at playoff time due to injury. Unfortunately, it is Lidstrom who is providing him that opportunity right now.
Detroit has a very good group of defencemen beyond Lidstrom. Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are all very good defencemen who would be above average contributors anywhere in the NHL. Although it is unlikely, Rafalski could have a Hall of Fame career if he manages a couple Norris Trophy candidate seasons in the near future. The depth defencemen, Brett Lebda and Jonathan Ericsson are solid, if unspectacular players at this point in their careers. This is what an elite defence looks like. Detroit has one.
Although there are no clear Hall of Fame forwards at this point, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Hossa all look to be on Hall of Fame career tracks. There is some cause for concern among them as Datsyuk has missed the last three games due to injury and Hossa’s lack of production suggests that he is also playing hurt. They have some reliable depth in players who are a notch below them. Johan Franzen is leading the team in playoff points. Daniel Cleary and Valtteri Filppula have played very well so far in the playoffs. Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom complete a very good core of forwards. This forward group is also an elite group, assuming health of its stars.
However, I cannot consider Detroit to be a historically elite team because of their flaw in goaltending. Chris Osgood is not an elite goalie. There is no reasonable argument that he is one of the top five goalies in the NHL today (note that this condition is a weaker condition that demanding him to be on a Hall of Fame track). Kukla’s Korner readership agrees with me. Not a single person called Osgood a top five goalie in a mid-season poll. Chris Osgood may not be as bad a goalie as his regular season showed. Osgood’s .887 saves percentage was the worst in the league among goalies who led their team in games played. He was a huge liability to the Red Wings this season. At age 36, there is no precedent for goalies bouncing back from a season like that. It would take a lot more than his current slightly over a month long hot streak (which corresponds with the playoff run) to live that down. Even with his .925 saves percentage so far in the playoffs, Chris Osgood has to be seen as the weak link on the Red Wings. The Pittsburgh Penguins have to be thinking that they could expose him and win the series. Chris Osgood is not an elite goalie at this point in his career. There is no reasonable argument that he is among the top five goalies in the NHL today. If a new season began right now and you could pick any goalie you wanted for it (with no concerns about salary etc.), Chris Osgood shouldn’t be on your shortlist.
Goaltending is too important. Detroit does not have one of the best goalies in the game. That prevents Detroit from seriously being considered among the historically elite. The Red Wings have a strong enough team that they could win the Stanley Cup despite a lack of elite goaltending. Osgood is a good enough goalie that he could provide solid enough goaltending for the team to win, despite his inability to steal a game. Detroit has a very good chance at winning the Stanley Cup. They have a good team. It has an obvious weakness that might be exploited by the Pittsburgh offence, if things do not go well. That may be as good a team as one can build in the salary capped NHL. Detroit deserves a lot of credit for building such a team and keeping it together for two very good seasons, but it falls short when compared to the elite teams of the past. Its goaltending is the reason for that. Red Wings fans have to be holding their breath and hoping it can hold up one more round, but it is hard to truly be confident in it.
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