In this third installment of comparing turnover of past Stanley Cup champions to the 2018 Capitals as they prepare for their 2019-20 season opener, we look at a team with a long winning tradition in the 2008 Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings.
2008 Champions: Detroit Red Wings
By the time the Detroit Red Wings reached the 2008 Stanley Cup final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning had long become part of the character of the franchise. The 2008 postseason was the 17th consecutive season that the Wings reached the playoffs (a streak that would reach 25 seasons before they fell short in 2016-17). In the 16 consecutive seasons preceding the 2008 playoffs, Detroit reached the conference finals six times, advanced to the Cup final four times, and won the Cup three times.
The 2007-08 edition of the Red Wings got off to a fast start – 13-2-1 in their first 16 games – and never looked back, winning the Presidents Trophy with the league’s best record (54-21-7). It was the sixth time in team history that they won the Presidents Trophy since it was established in the 1985-86 season and the fourth time in a span of six seasons.
In the postseason, the Red Wings had a knack for putting teams in a hole quickly, winning Games 1 and 2 in the first round against Nashville, sweeping Colorado in the second round, and winning the first three games in the conference final against Dallas. They won Games 1 and 2 in the final against Pittsburgh before denying the Penguins a comeback, winning the Cup in six games.
Detroit slipped ever so slightly the following season, finishing with the league’s third-best regular season record and reaching the Stanley Cup final for a second consecutive season. However, despite winning Games 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh, also a repeat participant in the final, the Wings lost to the Penguins in seven games. It did set up the possibility for the Wings to be the first club since the 1984-1985 Edmonton Oilers to appear in a third consecutive Stanley Cup final as the 2009-10 season began. Here is the starting lineup for the 2009-10 season opener as they embarked on that quest compared to the lineup in their Cup-clinching game in 2008:
Of the 19 players iced in Cup-clinching Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, five were not in the lineup to start of the 2009-10 season – four forwards (Dallas Drake, Darren Helm, Jiri Hudler, and Mikael Samuelsson) and one defenseman (Andreas Lilja). Helm and Lilja (who missed the end of the 2008-09 and most of the 2009-10 seasons to a head injury) were on the roster to start the 2009-10 season but did not play on Opening Night.
The three departures from the club were, as you might expect, due to various reasons. For Drake, the Cup-clinching game against the Penguins in 2008 was his last NHL game; he announced his retirement in July 2008. Samuelsson played another year for the Red Wings, but in July 2009 he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Vancouver Canucks. Hudler’s departure was more complicated. After posting good numbers in the 2008-09 season (23-34-57, plus-7) in his third full season with the club and fifth overall, he was a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. It set off a long, arduous journey for player and club, with the KHL playing a part. It is laid out well by the folks at Winging It in Motown. In the end, he missed the 2009-10 season in its entirety, spending the season in the KHL, returning to the Red Wings the following season.
The five players who were in the 2009-10 season opener that did not play on the 2008 Cup-clinching lineup had a distinct “Detroit” character to it. Winger Justin Abdelkader, who got a cup of coffee with the Red Wings in the 2007-08 (two games) and 2008-09 (two games, plus ten in the playoffs) seasons, was a second-round draft pick of the club (2005) who got his first significant regular season action with the club in 2009-10 (50 games). Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was a ninth-round pick by Detroit (2002) who got his first NHL action in a brief stint in 2007-08 (eight games), followed by a somewhat longer stay in 2008-09 (19 games) before staking a more permanent claim on a roster spot in 2009-10. Ville Leino was a free agent signed to his first NHL deal by Detroit in May 2008 who broke into the lineup briefly with the Wings in 2008-09 before taking on a bigger role with the 2009-10 club. Jason Williams was originally signed by Detroit as a free agent in September 2000, departed for (in order) Chicago, Atlanta, and Columbus, before returning to Detroit in August 2009 as a free agent.
Even Todd Bertuzzi, who had a longer history of play with various teams than the other four, had a Detroit past. He was traded to the Red Wings in February 2007 from Florida as a rental before departing as a free agent for Anaheim the following July. After spending a season in Anaheim and the following year in Calgary, he returned to the Red Wings as a free agent in August 2009.
When a team wins a Cup with an average age of over 30, you do not call them “old,” you call them a “veteran” squad. Detroit was a veteran squad when they won the Cup in 2008, averaging 30.0 years of age among the 19 players to take the ice in their Cup-clinching game. But a funny thing happened between that Cup-clinching game in 2008 and the season opener for the 2009-10 season.
Well, perhaps not so much “funny” as doing it the way you would draw it up. The five new players in the 2009-10 season opener averaged 27.2 years of age, and that includes the 34-year old Bertuzzi. The other four, who were products of the Detroit system in one way or another (including journeys away from the club for a time), averaged 25.5 years of age. It was, at least by appearances, an example of “move ‘em out; move ‘em up.”
This is not to say that the Red Wings suddenly got young, only that the replacements were made in the context of a club aging among some of its most important pieces. Consider that when the Red Wings clinched their Cup in 2008, four players on that club who returned for the 2009-10 season opener were 35 or older on the night they hoisted the Cup – Kris Draper (36), Tomas Holmstrom (35), Nicklas Lidstrom (37), and Kirk Maltby (35). And, time being unsentimental, there would eventually be a price with that quartet of over-35’ers. The 2009-10 season would be Matlby’s last in the NHL after appearing in only 52 regular season games before his season ended with a shoulder injury. Draper’s career ended after the 2010-11 season, and Holmstrom’s ended at the completion of the following season. Even the seemingly ageless Lidstrom wrapped up his NHL career at the end of the 2011-12 season.
Detroit’s situation, that being dependent on an old – excuse us, “veteran” – group for important contributions is different than the situation the Caps face as they head into the 2019-20 season. On Opening Night, no Capital having skated in the Cup-clinching game against Vegas in 2018 will have yet reached his 35th birthday. Alex Ovechkin will have just turned 34, and only four others from that club will have passed their 30th birthdays – T.J. Oshie (32), Nicklas Backstrom (31), Lars Eller (30), and Braden Holtby (30); and only John Carlson of that Cup-clinching group will reach his 30th birthday in the regular season (30 years old in January).
Further, the five players who might reasonably be expected to be in the lineup on Opening Night who did not play for the Cup-clinching team – forwards Nic Dowd, Carl Hagelin, and Richard Panik; and defensemen Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas) – will be still, with the exception of Hagelin (31), under the age of 30 on Opening Night, although all will be 28 or 29 years old.
The 18 skaters to dress for the Red Wings in the Cup-clinching game in 2008 recorded a total of 238 goals. The 13 skaters of that group who would dress for the 2009-10 home opener accounted for a whopping 209 (87.8 percent) of those goals. It was a balanced group of returnees, too. Only Henrik Zetterberg posted more than 40 goals in the 2008-09 regular season (43, a career high), while Pavel Datsyuk was the only other player to add more than 30 (31). Eight of the 13 finished in double digits in goal scoring.
Even the quartet of over-35’ers was productive. They accounted for 45 of the 238 goals that Cup-clinching lineup scored in the 2007-08 regular season. But here is the thing. Defying logic about the results of aging on production, especially among players having reached their 35th birthday, this quartet of veterans would go on to combine for 45 goals in the 2009-10 regular season.
Conversely, the five players from the Cup-clinching team not in the lineup for the 2009-10 opener were not an especially productive goal scoring group in the 2007-08 regular season, accounting for only 29 goals in the 2007-08 regular season. But the five players new to the lineup would not be much of an improvement in the 2009-10 season, combining for 35 goals.
One could conclude that the Red Wings returned a more productive group of scorers for the 2009-10 opener than the Caps are likely to return to start the 2019-20 season and a more balanced one. But it came at a cost. It was an older group than the Caps are likely to return, and some of the most productive members of that group on which the Wings leaned heavily would not have that much longer to play in the league.
The 1991 Entry Draft was not a particularly successful one for NHL goaltenders. Of the 29 goalies taken, only 13 reached the NHL, only five appeared in more than 100 games, and only one appeared in more than 300 games. That one would be Chris Osgood, taken by Detroit in the third round (54th overall), who would appear in 744 games in his 17-season career. The odd thing about Osgood as the Detroit netminder for their 2008 Stanley Cup win was that it came in what might be considered the twilight of his career and in his second tour with the team. After spending his first eight NHL seasons with the Red Wings, he moved on to play three seasons split between the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues. He returned to the Red Wings after the 2004-05 lockout season.
And frankly, one might not have thought of Osgood as a Stanley Cup caliber goalie going into that 2007-08 season. He played in only 53 games over the previous two seasons, and although he did win 31 games, his 2.61 goals against average and .901 save percentage were not impressive. He did have a fine 2007-08 regular season, though, going 27-9-4, 2.09 (league leader), .914, with four shutouts in 43 games. It was an effective springboard to a solid postseason in which he recorded 14 of the Red Wings’ 16 wins, posting a 1.55 goals against average (again, best in the league) and .930 save percentage with three shutouts, capping his performance with a 20-save effort in a 3-2 win in Detroit’s Cup-clinching win.
Having won a Cup, there was the issue that they did so with a 35-year old goalie. A 35-year old goalie that the club retained the following season as they went to a second consecutive final (where they lost in a rematch with the Penguins) and retained for the next season as well. Osgood was the starter on Opening Night of the 2009-10 season, less than two months away from his 37th birthday. He would not last long as the starter, though. Osgood played in only 23 games that season, giving way to Jimmy Howard as the number one netminder and playing only 11 games in the 2010-11 season, his last in the NHL.
Braden Holtby, on the other hand, won a Cup in the prime of his career, even if one is of a mind that his regular season performance in 2017-18 slipped some from his Vezina Trophy winning year in 2015-16. However, there is an odd potential similarity between Holtby and Osgood. Holtby will, absent an unforeseen circumstance, be the goaltender for the Caps’ 2019-20 season opener in October. It is likely to be the first game in a season in which Holtby will get the lion’s share of the workload. But, as Osgood’s workload dropped dramatically in his last two seasons with Detroit, Holtby’s could drop to zero after this season. With Osgood it was age and the emergence of a replacement in Jimmy Howard. With Holtby it could be contract issues and, if Ilya Samsonov is all he has been reported to be, the emergence of a replacement. Holtby’s contract is up after this coming season, and with other salary matters faced by the club (Nicklas Backstrom’s contract expiring this season and Alex Ovechkin’s next season), the Caps might not be able to afford Holtby after this season.
Overall, here are the returnees from the 2008 Cup-clinching game for the Red Wings returning for the 2009-10 season opener compared to likely returnees from the Caps’ 2008 Cup-clincher for the upcoming season:
When Detroit won the Stanley Cup in 2008, their 11th in franchise history, the Red Wings were the envy of the league and the template for other teams to emulate, including the Capitals. Not only a perennial playoff contender, they were a bona fide Stanley Cup contender for more than a decade. However, it would turn out be the high-water mark for the franchise in the post-2004-2005 lockout period. It was a veteran team that would become “old” in short order. The result was not an abrupt end to their competitive phase, but the beginning of a fade. They would reach the Stanley Cup final in 2009 and reach the postseason in each of the following seven seasons. But players retired or moved on, and the farm system was not as productive as it had been in the recent glory years. After reaching the Cup final in 2009, the Red Wings won only three playoff series over the next seven years. They would then miss the postseason three years running, a streak they carry into the upcoming season. The 2007-08 Presidents Trophy and Stanley Cup were the last of each for the franchise to date.
The Capitals are not yet “old,” but they can be reasonably characterized as a “veteran” team whose prime players are now in their prime or on the beginnings of a down slope in their NHL careers (in years, if not production). Detroit retained a significant number of 35-plus players from their 2008 Cup winning lineup. The Caps do not find themselves in that situation of an expiration date fast approaching, but those days are not far off. And what may follow, especially when clubs need to balance a “win now” attitude with salary cap considerations, is what the Red Wings have faced in recent years, a dark time where playoffs are not a given