— Okay, look, it's not that I hate picking the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. Not at all. Quite frankly I can't think of a single thing to hate, or even dislike, about the Red Wings.
First and foremost, it's not like they're so good, or so dominating, or so ... well you know, so New York Yankee-like, that anyone should be compelled to pinch his or her nose or apologize or be embarrassed when rendering the Winged Wheels the sure-shot champions of the NHL season, which started Thursday.
Yep, good guys, the Red Wings. Very talented. Intelligent, straightforward coach. Great uniform and tremendous logo. Solid, committed ownership. To level any legit criticism, I'd probably have to go after something cheesy, like maybe stale nachos at the Joe. Or the dread fear I feel when leaving that arena on foot late night after a game? But bad food and an even worse location aren't really anyone's worry, unless one happens to be an aging, slightly overweight, slow-afoot sportswriter trying to boot it back to the hotel and live to see the next deadline.
Like everyone else in the Original 30, the Wings play by the salary rules, they rarely if ever boast about their success, and they perennially ice proficient, solid teams that must be considered serious, if not formidable contenders.
They're just not fresh and sexy. There's no juice or buzz in picking the Wings. Rolling back the stock market a few decades (and isn't that how the market feels right now?), hearing someone pick the Red Wings is a lot like it was in 1988 to hear AT&T was the stock to buy. Wow, you told your broker in mock astonishment, you must have crunched the numbers and analysis for days to come up with that pick. AT&T, who knew?
For the record, this is the third time in the last five years that I have picked the Wings to win it. You can look it up. Prior to 2006-'07, I correctly picked the Ducks. For 2007-'08, I also nailed it with the Wings. I came back with the Wings the following season, only to see them lose to Pittsburgh in Game 7 at the Joe (must have been the nachos!). Last year at this time, feeling I had to be, you know, hip 'n' sexy 'n' all that, I went with the Canucks. Oops. They lost to Chicago in Round 2. By far, the worst of my recent choices. So I'm here to tell you, sexy ain't where it's at for me. I went there once. Not pretty.
The Wings of 2010-'11 aren't going to introduce a handful of exciting fresh faces into the lineup.
GM Ken Holland didn't spend gobs of money on free agents over the summer or toss ridiculous dough at a 24-year-old late-blooming Swede who flew under everyone's radar the last 4-6 years. Quite to the contrary.
Their big 'get' in the offseason was convincing homeboy Mike Modano, the Stars icon, to try a late-in-his-shift twirl with his fellow Michiganders.
They didn't replace coach Babcock, now with eight years as head coach on his resume, with a 29-year-old ingenue from the junior or college ranks.
They'll most likely go with Jimmy Howard in net again with veteran Chris Osgood as his backup. That's about as close as you'll get to a controversy, or anything edgy, with the Wings, because Howard, now 26, took the job away from Osgood last season and the latter was irked by his protracted time without a start.
But Osgood's ire was eventually stifled, in large part because Babcock made it clear that Howard's time was at hand just as it had been for Osgood in the late-'90s and into the 2000s. End of story. Pass the torch. Ogood played in 23 games, none in the playoffs. Howard logged a Marty Brodeur-like 63 games and then 12 more in the playoffs.
The Wings didn't run around trying to find Nicklas Lidstrom's replacement, not that anyone could replace the future Hall of Fame defenseman. That search was made moot anyway when Lidstrom, 40, decided to play at least one more season. He has won the Norris Trophy six times as the game's top defenseman. For however long he is willing to write one-year deals, Holland, the GM, is willing and eager to listen.
Up front is where the Wings would especially like things to change, but not so much in identity as in health. A number of their key forwards missed substantial time last season due to injury. The likes of Tomas Holmstrom (24 games), Valterri Filppula (27 games), Dan Cleary (18 games), Johan Franzen (55 games) and even newcomer Patrick Eaves (17 games) all had to exit due to various bumps and bruises, often disrupting the flow of Babcock's offense. The backline wasn't without key injuries, too, including Niklas Kronwall (34 games).
Much like Wings' teams of the recent past, it will be their top guns at forward, including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Holmstrom and Franzen and Cleary up front, who pace their offense. Todd Bertuzzi (44 points) rebounded last season and was a valuable asset. If Modano can produce the same numbers or more (he dipped to 30 points in 59 games last season in Dallas), then he'll bring precisely what Holland & Co. hoped for when they convinced him not to disappear quietly into the Michigan hinterland. He doesn't have to be a force, but just a guy who plays maybe 10 or 12 minutes a night, lends support, fills in among the top six forwards to spell guys when tired or hurt.
The Red Wings, in case you missed it, finished with 102 points last season. It was their 10th straight season with more than 100 points.
They'll make it 11 in a row in 2010-'11.
I'm also betting that Lidstrom senses that the end is near, and that Modano knows the same. They believe getting erased in two rounds last season was an insult to everyone in Red-and-White. But it also had to bring some relief to a club that had played 11 playoff rounds and 63 postsesaon games in the previous three seasons. Heading home after only 12 playoff games must have felt like being back in school on a day when classes were dismissed at noon.
Not this season. Uh-uh. The Wings are going all the way. Cup No. 12 for the distant sons of Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.
Howe was the master at connecting when no one was paying much attention. Mr. Hockey had a way of sneaking up on opposition forwards without much notice and connecting with a well placed shot to the ribs or an elbow upside the jaw. This is the season his old hockey team does the same. The Wings, not much new to be excited about, but they're going to pack some punch.