Hockey philosophy: Why are the Red Wings so good?

“Why are the Red Wings so good?”

I’m going to see the Flyers play the Red Wings in Philly next week and this question is poking at me. It’s been just a couple weeks since the Wings unseated the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers for longest home win streak, so the game feels like it has some sort of fateful historical gravity. But if you’re only looking at this year’s team, you’d be missing the larger, more interesting mystery.

I’ve been living in fear every time the Flyers play the Red Wings pretty much since I started watching the Flyers at age ten.

After the Devils but before the Rangers, my dad taught me to hate the Red Wings. They swept the Flyers in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals and for that we can never forgive them.

That was about 15 years ago.

So now, at least for me, the mystery is so profound it’s taken on something of a philosophical quality.

Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot would surely be offended that the first place I go to gain some insight on an intractable mystery like this one is Google (though maybe I could just ask Gavin), but really that would just be jealousy.

Even if it didn’t really answer this deep-seated question for me, what comes up on a Google search is actually pretty fascinating in its own way.

Here are some explanations I’ve culled from the “depths” of the interwebs:

Ken Holland: Turns out Ken Holland has been GM about as long as I’ve been watching hockey, too. Under him the Wings have won more games than any other NHL team, not to mention four Stanley Cups. He helped the Red Wings survive the salary cap. More than that he built a team that thrived while other clubs faltered. Sports Illustrated named him the GM of the first decade of the 21st century.

So what is it about Holland? Is it his experience as a scout for the Wings, his experience as goaltender? What does he have that no other GM has? And why does that allow him to make his team great?

In 2008, E.M. Swift tried to record his formula:

Load up on Europeans (the Wings have 11 on their roster, seven from Sweden); keep your character guys (Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby have all played on four Cup winners with Detroit); sign free agents who care more about winning than money (Chris Osgood, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios); and look for hidden gems in the higher rounds (Zetterberg was a seventh-round pick, Datsyuk a sixth-rounder).

But I don’t know. A lot of those things seem like what any sensible coach would strive for, it’s just that Holland appears to be successful where others fall short. Which is to say the formula doesn’t answer the “why” question.

Drafting: Namely Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom. Plenty also threw their hats in for Chris Osgood. These guys are GREATS, no question. And more than that, they’ve all hung with the team longer than the average hockey player and seemed to only get better with age. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom have been with the Red Wings more years collectively than I’ve been alive. That’s saying something, especially given all we’ve heard about concussions this year.

But when I see a list of names like that, I can’t help but wonder if it’s not the greats, but the not-as-greats that make all the difference. The Red Wings don’t rebuild, they reload, picking up guys who are low on profile and high on character.

Lots of teams have all-star players. Lots of teams do not exhibit consistent excellence the way the Red Wings do.

Scouts: I have no idea how to analyze this because I don’t know any hockey scouts. The most I know about scouting comes from Moneyball and that’s baseball, so there you have it. Maybe they practice some sort of hocus pocus with a crystal ball, but I doubt it.

I have a hard time accepting that it’s just one of these things, though I suppose it could be all of them. Just a happy confluence of aligned hockey stars.

But those are largely intangibles. With no real way to measure what influences what, such an answer somehow feels hollow and dissatisfying, like the reverberation of a puck on the boards when you’ve shot wide of the net.

Maybe I — and the Flyers-shaped chip on my shoulder — am over-thinking it.

Why ARE the Red Wings so good?

The winner, as far as I’m concerned, came from WikiAnswers:

i don’t know but they are

Yael Borofsky is a writer, editor, and Philadelphia sports fan. Follow her on Twitter @yaelborofsky.

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