Opinion about this year's Red Wings team, as it has been each year since the lockout resumed, has been deeply divided. At the beginning of the season, ESPN's most visible hockey analysts diverged thusly: E.J. Hradek picked the Wings to win the Stanley Cup, while Barry Melrose declared them a "second class" team in the Western Conference. This division was still clearly apparent on today's NBC broadcast of the Rangers-Penguins games: Studio analysist Mike Milbury listed Detroit as one of his top three Cup contenders, whilst Pierre McGuire used his studio time to deride the Winged Wheel.
McGuire, predictably, got my blood boiling, but he also got me thinking: what are the major criticisms of this year's Red Wings, and do the statistics bear them out? Let's explore, shall we?
The Red Wings' record is padded from playing in an easy division.
McGuire used this argument (not his exact quote) on TV today. It may have been true in the last few years, but this time he's dead wrong---just ask any Blackhawks fan. The Red Wings better be thanking their lucky stars that division winners are crowned based on the teams' overall records, because if only intra-divisional games counted, the Red Wings would be in third with a 15-11-3 record, trailing Nashville (16-8-4) and Chicago (16-10-2). So, with almost 40 percent of the schedule dedicated to intra-divisional matchups, how can a team barely over .500 in its own division win the President's Trophy? By dominating the Northwest (15-2-3) and Pacific (15-5-0), the West's "strong" divisions.
The Red Wings don't have any scoring depth beyond Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg
This one sounds plausible, at first. But do the statistics bear it out? Just for fun, let's take, say, the top 11 scorers from Anaheim, San Jose and Detroit and see how they stack up. We'll throw in the Stars too, because they have a good offense this season.
The Red Wings lead the way with 11 players with 30+ points (Dallas 9, San Jose 8, Anaheim 7), 8 players with 40+ points (all others 4), and tie Dallas with 4 players of 40+ points (San Jose 3, Anaheim 2).
True, this is not a perfect analysis: for example, the Stars' Zubov and Lehtinen would have many more points without their injury troubles, and the Ducks' Niedermayer and Selanee would have more without their fence-sitting problems. But, it's also likely true that Holmstrom and Cleary would both be over 50 points by now if not for their injuries.
It is clear that Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominate the Wings' scoring output from forwards---both have over twice the point totals of the #3 Dan Cleary. But again, injury problems have derailed both Cleary and Holmstrom late this season, and they still stack up relatively well against the #3 and #4 forwards of Anaheim (Kunitz 49, Bertuzzi 38) and San Jose (Marleau 43, Pavelski 38), although Dallas does have all three teams smoked when it comes from output from these two forwards.
And, while we're at it, let's not forget that Datsyuk and Zetterberg are by far the best 1-2 punch of all the "elite" teams in the Conference. That matters too.
The Red Wings' recent struggles exposed a real weakness in this team---they're very beatable
A lot of people jumped off the Red Wings' bandwagon during their terrible February, and most have been slow getting back on. Well, guess what---when you're missing two top-six forwards, all of your top four defensemen and a starting-quality goaltender, you're gonna struggle a bit. Brett Lebda and Derek Meech, the Wings' #6 and #8 rearguards in a healthy lineup, were playing 30 minutes a night!
Imagine Anaheim trying to win games with, say, Selanne, Kunitz, Pronger, Niedermayer, Schneider, Beauchemin and Giguere all out with injuries. Hell, Anaheim was looking like it was going to miss the playoffs without just Niedermayer and Selanne.
The Red Wings can't win in the playoffs
The Stanley Cup is North America's hardest championship trophy to win. Detroit has been knocked out of the playoffs early a few times in the recent past, true. But they're hardly the only good team that has had playoff struggles. And I think it's also important to see to whom, exactly, the Red Wings are losing.
In the last five seasons, the Red Wings have one Stanley Cup (2002), one conference final defeat (2007), one conference semifinal defeat (2004) and two first-round exits (2003 and 2006). Not a stunning record, to be sure---Stanley Cup aside.
But, it's worth noting that every team that has bested Detroit in the last four seasons has gone on to the Stanley Cup finals---The Ducks took home the Cup last season, and the Oilers (2006), Flames (2004) and Mighty Ducks (2003) all came within a single victory of immortality.
And, let's also say this---recent history is not always the best indicator of future success. This is not the same team that lost to the Ducks in 2003, the Flames in 2004 or even the Oilers two years ago. It's a matter of opinion, of course, but I think that this team has been built to better withstand the playoffs than previous Detroit squads, and still retains enough memories of the last two years to appreciate what it takes to win.
The Red Wings don't have good enough goaltending
Look, I'm not going to stand up here and say that Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek are elite NHL goaltenders. I'm a big Red Wings and a big Osgood fan, but even I'm not that deluded.
But, I will say that they're both much better than they get credit for these days. Ozzie has been extremely consistent this year. His GAA leads the league and his save perecentage (the truer gague of goaltending skill) puts him right in the pack with most of the NHL's better goaltenders. Hasek's numbers aren't as good, but a lot of the blame can be placed on a terrible first half. He's been much better since the all-star break.
Neither of these guys is going to be confused for Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur. And, I think there are more that are a bit better. But, I think that both Hasek and Osgood are good enough to match up reasonably well against just about any other keeper they could face. With a team which is as offensively potent and gives up as few shots per game as Detroit, both are more than good enough to give Detroit a great chance to win any series.
The Stanley Cup is very, very hard to win. Every team will face tough challenges this year, as they do every years. When you consider that there are maybe 6 or 7 great teams every year and only 1 team can win the Stanley Cup, that means no matter who you are---you're probably going to lose.
So, I'm no saying that the Red Wings are going to win the Stanley Cup. But, I am saying that they have as good a shot as anyone else---and in my opinion, the best shot of anyone.
So, if you're listening Mr. Pierre McGuire, know that I respectfully disagree.