Wings could end up looking more like Preds

They say the NFL is a copycat league, in that the 31 other teams try to emulate what the Super Bowl champion has done the previous year.

The NHL isn’t quite the same, but it’s also true that teams tend to react to their competition by building in such a way as to neutralize their chief rival’s strengths.

Alas, after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference in 2008 and 2009, Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia Flyers went out and loaded up on defense, acquiring one-time Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger, to be able to defeat the Pens’ high-scoring tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup final in 2010 and in the first round this year ousted a Pittsburgh team that many favored to win the Cup.

With the Detroit Red Wings having lost in the first round for the first time since 2006 when the Oilers eliminated them in six games, one must wonder if a similar thought process is going on in the Motor City. While Predators coach Barry Trotz scoffed at the notion that his team’s win might represent a changing of the guard in the Central Division — St. Louis, after all, won the division — Nashville’s series victory did expose certain deficiencies in the Red Wings as currently constituted.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was quite outspoken about his team on Friday after the 2-1 loss to the Predators that ended the series. He said of recent early playoff exits: “To me, that doesn’t look like you’re going in the right direction.”

“One thing about it is we’re going to have lots of time and we’ll be able to get figured out what we need to do because I don’t think we’re very interested in scratching and clawing to make the playoffs,” Babcock said. “That’s kind of never been the approach we’ve had.
“We like to win.”

For years, Detroit’s model has bucked the trend in the NHL and, to a degree, the league’s history, with Boston last year and Anaheim in 2007 being notable examples of teams that won with a physically intimidating style.

By going so much with finesse and speed and skill, the Wings have created a team that few can match in those areas. But their ultimate finesse player — seven-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom — is nearly 42 and cannot play forever. Playing with an injured ankle, he was good but not great in the series. One of Detroit’s grittiest players — forward Tomas Holmstrom — is 39 and, like Lidstrom, not guaranteed to return.

These days, a somewhat typical Detroit player is speedy wing Valtteri Filppula. The Finn had 23 goals in the regular season and 66 points — more than any member of the Preds — but he did not score a goal during the playoffs and had only two assists. That’s because during the playoffs, it gets harder to score and — as Babcock emphasized during the series — goals were going to come from the inside, not the outside where Filppula mostly plays.

Another shortcoming showed itself at the end of regulation after Game 1, when the Preds’ Shea Weber shoved the head of the Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg into the glass, a move for which Weber was fined. As Babcock pointed out prior to Game 2, the Red Wings are not built in a way to respond to an incident like that. So, it fell to 37-year-old Todd Bertuzzi to fight Weber in Game 2, an act that was commended not only by Babcock but by Lidstrom, the captain, who has not received a fighting major in 20 years.

In essence, after losing to a Predators’ team that has grit up and down its lineup, the Red Wings might need a dose of the same. After all, the Red Wings’ last Stanley Cup team in 2008 had plenty of it: defenseman Chris Chelios and forwards Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty, the latter three forming the famous “Grind” line, whose game was synonymous with its style. Those players were all at the ends of their respective careers and were not replaced with others of their ilk. As a result, as Babcock has pointed out, the team has reached a point of diminishing returns in the postseason the past few years.

The Red Wings met with media on Tuesday as part of the ritual of “break-up day,” a last session with reporters before they depart for the offseason. A few key players noted the need for change, including Zetterberg and Lidstrom. So did center Pavel Datsyuk.

“There needs to be [change],” Datsyuk told reporters in Detroit. “It might not be something really big, but there has to be some change for sure.”

Babcock expressed confidence that the Red Wings would make the right changes. They have made the playoffs 21 straight seasons and won the Stanley Cup more than any other franchise in that span. General manager Ken Holland is considered arguably the league’s best.

Yet, paradoxically, the changes the Red Wings could make might have them looking more like the team that spent its first 13 seasons chasing and trying to catch up with them — the Predators.