Today, we continue the theme of the week in looking at the best teams not to win a championship. Monday provided a summary of the 1995-96 powerhouse Red Wings team and a good argument as to why they are the best team to fall short of the ultimate goal. But there has to be a case for the 2008-09 team that rumbled all the way to the Cup Finals and came up just short.
Looking back to the start of that season, this team had just come off of their Cup run in ‘08 led by their captain Nicklas Lidstrom, Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg, as well as Pavel Datysuk and a plethora of other talented players.
Most times if a team can return the bulk of their roster after a championship season they’ve set themselves up well to repeat. Not only was Ken Holland able to do that, but he managed to upgrade this roster for the attempt at a repeat. The only change to the defensive lineup was as the season rolled on when Andreas Lilja eventually relinquished his role on the third pairing to a young Jonathan Ericsson. Remember this is the Ericsson of yesteryear and the one who earned praise at the time for the way he stepped up. This was seen as an upgrade by most fans. Chris Chelios was still with the team at the time but in his late 40’s had become a spare part rather than key cog years before. In goal, Osgood officially took the reins after taking over for Dominik Hasek during the previous Cup run. Mike Babcock had now established himself as a championship coach and provided a no nonsense style that wouldn’t allow his team to carry a Stanley Cup hangover.
The most significant change was at forward where Dallas Drake rode off into the sunset with a championship. So in looking for a replacement, Holland received a call from an agent who represented a superstar that wanted to sign a one year deal with the Red Wings for a chance at a Cup. This was the year Marian Hossa fell into Detroit’s lap after losing to them in the Cup Final the previous season. Hossa was a godsend to a team that probably didn’t need it.
This team finished with a 51-21-10 regular season record (112 points), led the league in goals, but was surprisingly 19th in goals against. This team rocked a CF% of 57.3 around the time these metrics started being tracked. The powerplay hummed at a 25.5% success rate while the penalty kill hovered at a mediocre 78.29% rate. But if you think you’re already seeing what may have been the downfall of this group, it’s not that simple.
From an individual standpoint this team was led by Datsyuk with a stellar campaign with 97 pts. Other high totals included Zetterberg with 73 pts, Hossa with 71 pts, Franzen and Lidstrom each with 59 pts, as well as Kronwall and Hudler also both crossing the 50 point plateau. All in all Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Hossa, and Franzen all scored more than 30 goals, with Hossa hitting the 40 goal mark. This team could score with the best that was for sure.
Getting into the playoff action, the Wings matched up with Rick Nash and the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. In Columbus’ first playoff action in franchise history they were given a rude introduction as Detroit swept them in four and none of the games except for Game 4 were all that close.
For Round 2, the Wings took on the Anaheim Ducks in what had become a somewhat frequent match-up during the 2000’s. This one went to seven games, included a triple overtime game early in the series, and all in all was a hell of a series that helped build hate for the Perry and Getzlaf duo. In the pivotal Game 7, Bobby Ryan tied the game close to midway through the 3rd period. At that point it was essentially next goal wins, and well...
Following that career highlight goal by Dan Cleary it was on to the Western Conference Finals to take on the up and coming Chicago Blackhawks. This was a young team that wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still just 20 years old. The Red Wings made fairly quick work of the youngsters taking the Blackhawks in 5 games. But they didn’t come out unscathed with both Datsyuk and Lidstrom missing time with injuries during the series. Oh, this series also featured perhaps the largest Kronwalling of all time...
After taking down the Blackhawks, Detroit was on to the Cup Final in a rematch with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit got off to a good start at home taking both games by a 3-1 score. In both games a young Justin Abdelkader just barely cracking the lineup scored the insurance markers in the 3rd period to ice the games.
But heading back to Pittsburgh, the Penguins showed they weren’t going down without a fight. First they took Game 3 with a 3rd period powerplay goal by Sergei Gonchar and an empty netter by Maxime Talbot (foreshadowing...). Pittsburgh took Game 4 as well with a 2nd period flurry of three goals and shutting the door the rest of the way.
Back in Detroit for Game 5 where Detroit ran over Pittsburgh 5-0 at home. This game also coincided with the return to the lineup of Pavel Datsyuk who had missed the first four games of the series. Detroit fans were elated with Datsyuk looking to be the X-factor that would prove too much for the Penguins to handle. But Pittsburgh grinded out a 2-1 victory at home in Game 6 thanks to their secondary scoring, a theme for them in this series.
It was back to Detroit for Game 7 in a winner take all finale. We heard the history over and over going into this one, the home team in Game 7’s of a Cup Final are favoured so heavily, they can’t lose. But before we get into that, just enjoy all of Detroit’s playoff goals from the 2009 Playoffs, you’re going to need this spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
OK, ready? Spoiler, we wouldn’t be here if they were the best team that also won the Cup. As Game 7 got underway it quickly became a tight checking affair. The final shots in this one were 24-18 Detroit so it was not a barn burner. After a scoreless first period, Maxime Talbot broke the scoring early in the 2nd period. Then stunningly he scored again 8:54 later putting the Red Wings in a 2-0 hole halfway through the game. As the minutes ticked away into the 3rd period, what originally seemed impossible was becoming inevitable, but then Jonathan Ericsson scored on a point blast with 6:07 to play and the Wings had life.
The Wings threw everything they had in the final minutes, and then one glorious opportunity on the stick of the perfect human in the dying seconds...
That might be the most heartbreaking moment in Red Wings history. That moment essentially marked as the end of one dynasty and the start of another, even with the Red Wings being somewhat relevant for a few more seasons.
Why They Didn’t Win
So it’s sort of easy to remember this whole series and particularly Game 7 as somewhat of a blur. Certain moments etched in your memory forever, others distorted either by time or personal feeling. I hadn’t watched that Fleury save since it happened and I remembered it somewhat differently. I thought it had been a somewhat routine save as the buzzer was about to sound but it actually was a terrific save on an unorthodox dive by Fleury.
So what went ultimately went wrong? There’s a variety of ways to look at it but considering the end result it’s probably fair to isolate the scope to the Cup Final series and especially Game 7. After all they did everything right to get that far and lost the winner take all game by a single goal. See these extended highlights from Game 7.
Looking at the series as a whole, some people might want to jump to goaltending. In a Fleury vs Osgood match-up most people would take Fleury. But Osgood was strong in this series. He posted .930 SV% to Fleury’s .913 SV%.
Perhaps the biggest factor, and likely not overlooked by most fans, Datsyuk didn’t enter the series until Game 5 and was likely far from full health in the games he did play. We’ll always look back and wonder what could’ve been in Games 3 and 4 if he played, or what he could’ve done if closer to full health through the rest. But injuries are part of the playoffs and by the Cup Final everybody’s got them.
Maybe a big reason is the player who was becoming if not already the best player in the game in Sidney Crosby. That would make sense right if he put the Penguins on his back and carried the Penguins to victory. But take a look at his stat line and you’ll see he only posted 1G and 2A with a -3 for what that’s worth. He was also a non factor in Game 7 after Franzen knocked him out of the game early in the 2nd period, he played less than 10:00 in the deciding game.
If there was a single player from the Penguins to look at as the difference maker, Evgeni Malkin posted 8 PTS in the series. That in particular is a bone of contention for some fans as many feel Malkin should’ve been suspended for Game 3 of the series when he instigated a fight with Zetterberg in the final 20 seconds of Game 2, for which he was specifically given an additional 2:00 minor for. The rule at the time was that if a player instigates a fight in the final 5:00 of a game they would receive a one game suspension. But the NHL rescinded any the would be suspension and there are plenty of theories as to why. Malkin would go on to pick up 3 assists in Game 3 to give the Penguins a 4-2 win and get them back in the series. But would the Penguins still have made a push without Malkin given they were down 2-0. This can be argued but let’s give the edge to yes they likely would have still found a way in that game.
After looking at all of these factors, maybe it boils down to something smaller, rather than a player or game as a whole, instead just a handful of plays in the deciding game. There was the aforementioned save by Fleury in the final moments. Everyone remembers that play. But what about the Kronwall shot through traffic that caught the crossbar and stayed out with just over 2:00 left. That was an even closer what if. But going back to the 2-0 deficit to begin with, how was Maxime Talbot the hero of this game scoring both Pittsburgh goals. I’ll preface this by saying Talbot for his career was a role player who played in at least parts of 11 NHL seasons only ever topping 30 points once. But he was on a different level in this game and this series. He led the Penguins with four goals in the Final and trailed only Malkin in points, quite the underachievement for a role player. Both his goals in Game 7 were tough stops for Osgood, the first on a Red Wings turnover where he got Ozzie to open his five hole while shifting across the crease. The deciding goal was on a 2 on 1 break where Hudler missed his check to fill in for a pinching Stuart. Talbot to his credit picked the far side top corner on Osgood who had come out past the top of his crease to challenge the shot.
It was just a good shot at the right time. That’s really at the end of the day what doomed this team, bad bounces. There’s always a lot of what ifs after a Game 7 loss, and there were no shortages here. Detroit poured it on throughout the 3rd but couldn’t come up with the tying marker. This team didn’t have an Achilles heel, it just didn’t have any luck.
Comparing to 1995/96
So how does the 2008/09 team matchup with the 1995/96 squad? The regular season results heavily favour the 95/96 team that put up a record 131 points compared to the 112 points by the 08/09 team. That gap widens further when you consider the 08/09 team had the benefit of the loser point.
The 08/09 team was an offensive powerhouse leading the league in scoring, but they’re defense left something to be desired. The 95/96 team were no slouches scoring more than the 08/09 team while playing in the dead puck era, but were 3rd in the league. Their defense though was the best in the league that season.
But comparing the way they went out tells a different story. The 08/09 team came up a goal short of the promised land while the 95/96 team went down in six in the Conference Finals. Albeit that series served as basically the Cup Final with Colorado going on to sweep Florida. But it’s fair to say the Avalanche were just the better team that year. Give the playoffs point to the 08/09 team.
Let’s take a closer look at the end of season rosters of both teams with a reminder of the player’s ages at the time:
Steve Yzerman, 30
Sergei Fedorov, 26
Dino Ciccarelli, 35
Igor Larionov, 35
Slava Kozlov, 23
Doug Brown, 31
Martin Lapointe, 22
Keith Primeau, 24
Tim Taylor, 26
Kris Draper, 24
Darren McCarty, 23
Greg Johnson, 24
Kirk Maltby, 23
Bob Errey, 31
Stu Grimson, 30
Henrik Zetterberg, 28
Pavel Datsyuk, 30
Johan Franzen, 29
Marian Hossa, 30
Valtteri Filppula, 24
Jiri Hudler, 25
Darren Helm, 22
Tomas Holmstrom, 36
Dan Cleary, 30
Mikael Samuelsson, 32
Kris Draper, 37
Kirk Maltby, 36
Ville Leino, 25
Justin Abdelkader, 21
Head to head this would be a hell of a matchup. To lead off you have in their prime Zetterberg and Datsyuk against a similarly aged Yzerman and Fedorov. Looking further down the lineup from the ‘96 group you have the early stages of the Grind Line in addition to Kozlov and Larionov, and key role players like Lapointe, Brown, Primeau, and Ciccarelli. The ‘09 depth was definitely more skill dependant with Franzen, Hossa, Filppula, Hudler, Samuelsson, and key role players like Cleary, a young Helm, as well as some guys nearing their last hurrah in Holmstrom, Draper, and Maltby. While the advantage for the bottom end of the lineup probably goes to the early Grind Line, that middle section with Hossa and Franzen may tilt this in the ‘09 team’s favour. But this is very close up front, both teams could hurt you with any line and had the necessary superstars.
Nicklas Lidstrom, 25
Paul Coffey, 34
Vladimir Konstantinov, 28
Viacheslav Fetisov, 37
Marc Bergevin, 30
Mike Ramsey, 35
Anders Eriksson, 21
Nicklas Lidstrom, 38
Brian Rafalski, 35
Niklas Kronwall, 28
Brad Stuart, 29
Jonathan Ericsson, 24
Brett Lebda, 27
Both the ‘96 and ‘09 top four were incredible. You of course had Lidstrom in both groups, and it’s certainly an interesting debate to consider when Lidstrom was better, at 25 or 38 as he never seemed to age. You have similarly aged offensive defensemen in Coffey and Rafalski with Coffey’s career more decorated. Konstantinov and Kronwall are also a pretty good comparable with Konstantinov being probably the more physical but Kronwall being the more offensively gifted. Rounding it out is a veteran Fetisov and a under rated shutdown d-man in Stuart. Both teams bottom pairing was a significant drop-off, but serviceable nonetheless. These lineups also look neck and neck with perhaps a slight edge to the ‘96 team.
Chris Osgood, 23
Chris Osgood, 36
It’s like looking in a mirror. Osgood in one of his first couple seasons against the refined veteran Osgood who may not move as well as he used to but has wisdom now. While this is a neat comparison, the edge has to go to ‘09 Ozzy right? He adapted his style after the lockout to keep up with the changing of the position. Early in his career he was known for his gaffes at times, while the ‘09 version had just taken the crease from an elder Dominik Hasek in the previous playoffs.
All in all there are more similarities than differences, especially considering the years between these teams and the eras they played in. The ‘09 team was built more on speed and sill than physicality but the ‘96 team was ahead of the curve in moving that direction before the rest of the league.
One final note for consideration here as well; the 2008/09 team had to work around the salary cap and a league with greater parity. The 1995/96 team could spend what they wanted and there were certainly have and have not teams at that time. But whether that should matter is up to you.
The Winner (Sort of?) Is...
In my humble opinion, the slight edge goes to the 2008/09 team. This is due in part to nearly that same roster taking the Cup the year before while the 1995/96 group jettisoned several significant players from that roster before claiming their Cup. Another reason is how they ultimately fell, one seemingly to a better team, the other to some tough luck.
Perhaps a good question to ask though is are either of these teams really a Best Team to “Never” Win? Both won the Cup either before or after the given season. They aren’t the traditional teams you think of that fell short and never did go on to taste victory like some other teams may be able to offer. But if the question is what is the most talented team that didn’t win in any given year, they both certainly qualify.
Do you feel differently about who was the better squad? Is there another team altogether you think should have been considered? Discuss in the comments section.
Credit to hockey-reference.com for the statistical data presented here.
Who was the best Red Wings team NOT to win the Cup?
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2008/09 Red Wings
1995/96 Red Wings