Opponents agree: Red Wings are back

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Glendale, Ariz. – It depends on your perspective.

The perception of many fans on social media, talk radio and at Joe Louis Arena, is that the Red Wings are in an extended effort to get back to what they were, when wins flowed more freely and four Stanley Cups were hoisted along Woodward Avenue in 12 years.

The view around the league is increasingly that they are far along the way.

Especially considering the parity among teams enforced by NHL rules, at the behest of owners and league officials to increase competition and help teams in smaller markets, some say, it appears the Wings, who are two points behind Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division with 71 points, have arrived, once again, among the best teams in the NHL.

The standings certainly evidence it four months into the season. Veteran opponents say the success is unlikely to be fleeting.

Patrick Roy, who played against them in a great NHL rivalry of the 1990s and early in the last decade and who now coaches the Avalanche, and Dave Tippett, the coach of the Stars (2002-09) and the Coyotes (2009-present), say the Wings are firmly in the top echelon.

"There's a reason they are at the top of the conference," Roy said.

"There's a lot of depth in their lineup. I mean, a very well-balanced team. This is a team that has speed. This is a team that has great transition.

"They have new players, replacing what they had, there."

Tippett said the core of stalwart leaders combined with the fruits of scouting and preparation that has brought new talent into the lineup, the Red Wings have maintained their quality.

"Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Nick Kronwall are still huge parts of their team," he said.

"There is a responsibility everyone has to prepare and do whatever it takes to win every night. We talk about that, on our team. And the veterans' example will determine how a lot of those young players think.

"The great example is that team right over there, Detroit, where Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two of their top players, but they're also the hardest-working players.

"They've sprinkled some young players in, that have come in and been good NHL players, like (Gustav) Nyquist and (Justin) Abdelkader — I've always been a fan of that guy.

"They are a good strong team."

And while it has challenged the patience of some Red Wings followers, the decision to build from within is the driving force for the new success, Tippett said.

"You have to draft well and develop well," he said. "And in a salary cap world, it's a must.

"Obviously, these guys have done a good job of developing players. With Grand Rapids close to them, they have a pretty good setup going."

Fans long for the confidence of the era in which Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom led the Wings. They recall the security of Mike and Marian Ilitch spending freely to win Stanley Cups, before the NHL enforced a salary cap to encourage competition and help the league grow.

Under the current rules, it will be difficult to establish a dominant team, like some of the Red Wings squads over the past 18 years that engendered so much assuredness in their likelihood of success. It may never be that way, again, in the NHL.

And it can make the current success difficult to judge.

Looking at the standings, some do not trust the measurement.

But the feeling that the Red Wings are somehow playing over their heads, or that they were a rabbit in the race to the playoffs, soon to tire and fall prey to the host of pursuers, is fading.

Opponents say they do not look at it that way, at all.

"They are a good team that's going to make you defend more than you want, and they're going to capitalize on their chances," said Antoine Vermette, the Coyotes forward. "You have to elevate your game, when you look at their lineup it makes you realize you have to be at your best.

"Every time you get a chance to play against these guys, you know how good they are."

One player who has seen the Wings from both inside and outside, thinks they are close to as tough to play as when he left.

"You have to be ready to compete," said Brad Stuart.

"They're a talented group, but the thing that makes their elite players special is the way they compete on both sides of the puck. It's not a razzle-dazzle skill game, regardless of how much skill they have. They work hard. They force you to do the same.

"In my opinion, one of the hardest guys to play against is Henrik Zetterberg, because of how hard he competes on the puck. You know every time you go into the corner with him, it's going to be a battle."

He may play for an old rival, but Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly summed up a perspective on the current Wings team from opponents' fans.

"If you ask any fan who they hate the most," O'Reilly said. "It's definitely still the Red Wings."

As Mike Babcock continually emphasizes, there is a long way to go. The grinding month of February on the NHL schedule is only getting started.

The playoffs seem secure, but stranger things have happened. Injuries can be a matter of providence.

And the playoffs can be like a revolving door for an evolving lineup. Sometime you go through, and sometimes — even amid great effort — they spin you right back out.

But after two desperate runs at the playoffs, in recent seasons, the playoffs are far more secure, confidence abounds and some opponents the Red Wings performance is neither surprising nor momentary.

Oullet sent down

The Red Wings assigned Xavier Oullet to Grand Rapids on Sunday. Ouellet has two goals and an assists in 21 games.