Monday, 1 June 2009

The Sum Is Greater Than The Parts

Do you want to know why the image to the left continually shows up on magazine covers and newspapers around the country in the spring? You can make the claim that the players on the Red Wings are disrespected all you want because there is some truth to that statement. However, the problem is that the individuals making up that team don't win the Stanley Cup on their own. It takes a total team effort, and there is definitely a tradition of winning in Hockeytown, USA. But rarely are the members of this team up for major individual awards. Sure, Pavel Datsyuk got some consideration for the Hart Trophy this season, but the last time the regular season MVP played in Detroit was 1993-94. His name? Sergei Fedorov. And he's long gone from that team now.

So why is it that somewhat-average players, a few bonafide superstars, and a pile of discarded free agents end up in Detroit and win Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup? How does this happen? And who are these "discards" that have made a huge difference?

First, let it be known that the Detroit Red Wings' investment in scouting has paid off in spades. Hakan Andersson might be the best European scout in NHL history. Andersson, a man recommended by former European scout Christer Rockstrom to take over the Red Wings' European scouting, is the guy digging up these gems in Europe. Names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Ericsson, and Frazen are the guys that Andersson has convinced GM Ken Holland to pick on draft day. And all are contributing this post-season. If Holland ever honours someone, Andersson should have a statue erected outside Joe Louis Arena for his contributions in the building of this franchise.

The Red Wings have literally extended careers enough to provide select players the opportunity to spend a day with the Stanley Cup. Some of these guys were stars in their time while others were role players throughout their careers. However, the Red Wings have not only found new roles for all these players, but made them integral in the success of the franchise.

We'll start in 1996-97 where the Red Wings made a few key moves. The first was a surprising move when head coach Scotty Bowman went out and signed 31 year-old enforcer Joe Kocur out of a beer league in Michigan. Kocur had left the NHL after the 1996 season, but captain Steve Yzerman felt that the Red Wings lacked the toughness needed to go deep in the playoffs following the departures of Stu Grimson and Bob Probert. With Kocur back in the fold, the Red Wings became tougher.

The Wings also went out and made a deal at the deadline to add some veteran scoring. They dealt Greg Johnson to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for winger Tomas Sandstrom. Sandstrom was an able scoring threat, and played solid defence. By adding him, they got a great two-way player who had played in big tournaments before.

Sandstrom scored only four assists in the playoffs that year, but he routinely would be out checking against the opposition's better players. Kocur had one goal and three assists, but was part of the "hustle" line. His energy was huge in changing momentum for the Red Wings, and he routinely threw his body around like a wrecking ball. Bowman, recognizing his needs, found two players that made a difference that playoff year. Sure, they didn't lead the playoffs in scoring, but they played their roles perfectly, and the Red Wings prevailed.

In 1997-98, the Red Wings needed a few good men to make a title defence, and they loaded up. First, they went out and signed 30 year-old Brent Gilchrist. Gilchrist was deemed expendable by the Stars, and the Wings signed him to be part of their role players. No longer would he have to score 30 goals and put up 70 points. Instead, the Wings wanted him to fit into their gameplan.

They also went out and traded for Jamie Macoun from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Macoun was the kind of dogged defender that could log a lot of minutes while not being a liability, and he was welcomed to the blueline. While he was still used by Toronto as a secondary scoring threat, the Wings allowed him to play his defensive game as they already had scorers on the blueline.

The result was a successful title defence. Gilchrist scored two goals and added one assist in the playoffs while playing against the opposition's top line. He routinely was in scrums and in front of the net, causing general mayhem for all. Macoun had two goals and two assists in the playoffs, but was a perfect shutdown defenceman for the Red Wings. He excelled on the penalty kill as well, and gave Scotty Bowman a lot of minutes. Again, these two players were put into a role that didn't require them to do more than what they could, and the results prove that this method works.

In 2001-02, the Red Wings were looking to add to their defence corps as they prepared for a long playoff run again. They went out and signed Steve Duchesne and Fredrik Olausson in the offseason, and gave 21 year-old defenceman Jiri Fischer a season-long look as the sophomore performed well in his rookie campaign.

Duchesne and Olausson had been high-scoring defencemen in their heydays, but age was catching up to them. Much like Macoun in 1998, Bowman gave the two graybeards new roles as they were to play a more defensive game. Duchesne recorded 18 points. Olausson had 15 points. But both men posted plus/minus stats above +20, so their defensive games excelled.

Fischer was into his second full season in the NHL, and had experience all around him. He scored two goals and eight assists in 80 games, but was a solid +17 and really looked like he belonged with the elder statesmen as his game matured quickly.

In the playoffs, Duchesne put up six assists. Olausson added two goals and four helpers. Fischer put away three goals and added three assists. However, these three - along with Lidstrom, Chelios, and occasionally Sergei Fedorov - formed a formidable defensive unit as the Red Wings went on to win another Stanley Cup.

Last season, the Red Wings went out and added some grit and tenacity by signing Darren McCarty and Dallas Drake. These two added to a solid checking unit alongside Draper and Maltby, and really added experience to the Wings' deep lineup. The Red Wings also swung a trade to bring in Brad Stuart from Los Angeles in an effort to gain some depth on their blueline.

McCarty and Drake were instrumental in bringing energy and playing a tenacious game against the opposition. Stuart's offensive responsibilities were reduced, and his defensive play improved greatly to the point where head coach Mike Babcock rolls him out on the second unit without hesitation.

But it's not just these role players who have been instrumental in bringing Lord Stanley's chalice back to Detroit. Osgood, who won a Cup in all four of the previously mentioned campaigns, left Detroit for a period of time. He spent two somewhat forgettable seasons on Long Island, guiding the Islanders to the playoffs in 2001-02. However, his stats were nowhere near what they were in Motown as he went 49-39-10 in two seasons. From there, he moved back to the Western Conference with the St. Louis Blues. Again, his stats took a nosedive compared to his days in Detroit. His two seasons in St. Louis resulted in a 35-28-10 record, and he really appeared to struggle.

Now, you're probably asking yourself why these players were highlighted today. Kocur, Sandstrom, Gilchrist, Macoun, Duchesne, Olausson, Fischer, Drake, McCarty, Stuart, and Osgood all were thought to be done in the hockey world at some point. For the younger guys like Stuart and Fischer, it was thought that they had reached their ultimate potential, and may not have much room for growth.

However, as history has shown us, by reducing their contributions back to a simplified role, it actually helped these players become greater contributors to the overall cause. With the exception of Osgood, all of them settled into a role that was less than what it once was, but all showed greater ability because of it. Osgood, a man who was written off after his stops with the Islanders and Blues, has rebounded to prove that the best was yet to come as he is this season's odds-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

On their own, all of the players listed above may not be considered to be stars by any means or criteria. However, all of them accepted a lesser role on a team with stars, and became much better hockey players because of their reduced roles.

Overall, the sum is greater than the parts. The Red Wings are a much better team when good hockey players accept roles assigned to them. And these good hockey players look like exceptional hockey players when they accept the role assigned to them, and complete the tasks at hand to the best of their abilities. The scorers will find a way to score, but when talented role players chip in when they get the chance, success is almost guaranteed.

And where are the Red Wings outmatching the Penguins right now? Role players who embrace their defined roles while still contributing on the scoresheet. That is how you guarantee success in the NHL.

As the Red Wings prove year after year, the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. And they are proving that again this year against the Penguins in spades.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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