Old Reliables The Red Wings are again pinning their Stanley Cup hopes on a band of rejuvenated graybeard defensemen

April 02, 2000

Hard by the banks of the murky Detroit River, with a splendid
view of Canada and with convenient access to nearby airports and
casinos, is a community of active seniors who are having the
time of their lives. Having adopted the philosophy that gray
matter is more important than gray-flecked beards, the Detroit
Red Wings, developers of hockey's Del Boca Vista North, have
once again gathered a group of veteran defensemen to serve as
the backbone of their annual Stanley Cup campaign.

The Red Wings defense consists of the silky 29-year-old Nicklas
Lidstrom and a bunch of early-bird-special-eatin',
Matlock-watchin' guys with shuffleboard in their immediate
futures. There is 39-year-old Larry Murphy, who's so antiquated
that if asked to ruminate on the Great One, he might assume the
subject was Alexander. There is 38-year-old Chris Chelios, a
fusty coot who has been paired with 34-year-old reclamation
project Steve Duchesne. Spurned in its effort to acquire
39-year-old Raymond Bourque from the Boston Bruins, Detroit
settled for a deal with the Phoenix Coyotes to reacquire
34-year-old Todd Gill, a useful spare defenseman who played with
the Wings late last season. Doddering Detroit has as many over-30
defensemen (three) among its top two pairs as the other Western
Conference powers--the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars and the
Colorado Avalanche--have combined.

The venerable rear guard has been a Red Wings signature since the
1980s, when a pair of Hall of Fame defensemen, first Brad Park in
1983 and then Borje Salming in '89, were imported in their
dotage. The practice intensified in the '90s under Scotty Bowman,
a coach with a fondness for players who aren't over the hill but
who do have an elevated view of their surroundings. "Scotty knows
players better than anybody I've been around," says former
Detroit defenseman Mark Howe, now a scout for the team. "He
brings in strong, character people, confident players. People say
Scotty doesn't communicate with his players, but if you're 34 or
38, the last thing you're looking for is communication with your
coach."

Howe, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, retired in 1995 at age
40, after the Red Wings' first Stanley Cup finals appearance
under Bowman. In April 1995 Detroit traded for a soon-to-be-37
Slava Fetisov, and in subsequent years obtained Murphy, Jamie
Macoun (36), Chelios, Ulf Samuelsson (34) and Gill in deadline
deals. If it had any teeth left, the Red Wings defense would be
long in them.

The quest for the ageless defenseman is part of the sad legacy of
Vladimir Konstantinov's career-ending limousine accident a week
after Detroit's 1997 Cup victory. The void created by his absence
has been exacerbated by the slow development of younger
backliners such as Anders Eriksson, who was traded to the Chicago
Blackhawks in the Chelios deal a year ago, and Jesse Wallin, the
Wings' 1996 first-round draft choice, who is still in the minors.
"In a lot of cases you're not giving up key players or high draft
picks to get these older defensemen," Howe says. "It's just
money, the ability to take on salaries. The Red Wings have had
money." When Detroit grabbed Murphy from the Toronto Maple Leafs
in 1997, the Leafs were so eager to rid themselves of his $2.4
million salary that like the kidnappers who couldn't wait to
return Red Chief in O. Henry's short story, they even promised to
pay one third of the buyout if the Wings ended up dumping Murphy
after the season.

"A lot of teams look at a guy and say that if he's not able to
play for us for the next 10 years, we don't want him," Murphy
says. "What happens with that attitude is that you're constantly
playing that game, always searching for a 10-year guy. This
team's approach is to win now. Get a guy and get the most out of
him."

Detroit is a lovely place for a defenseman to age gracefully,
especially since the Wings have high-octane forwards with the
explosiveness to overcome a backliner's occasional gaffe. The
defensemen also have the benefit of a defensive system known as
the left wing lock, which, when properly executed, guarantees
that a forward will stay high and hustle down the wing to lend a
hand when the opponent takes possession of the puck. Now that is
assisted living. For a left defenseman such as Duchesne, who has
made his reputation with his offense, the ease of merely having
to watch the middle has made him a more effective defender.

Other burdens, however, are placed on the Red Wings' defensemen.
Unlike the Blues' Chris Pronger, the Stars' Derian Hatcher and
the Avalanche's Adam Foote, none of the Wings' top four
backliners is a traditional crease-clearer to match against an
opponent's top line. Instead, Detroit's defensemen rely on puck
movement. The Red Wings play a puck-possession game--"Scotty's
philosophy is, if you have it, you might as well keep it," Murphy
says--and if a defenseman can't smartly pass to a forward's stick,
he can't play. "There's no secret that we try to get the puck up
to our centers [Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Igor
Larionov]," Chelios says. "We're not just going to be shooting
the puck around the boards. In Chicago the breakout was to get
the puck, hammer it along the boards and hope for a bounce." Not
long after he became a Red Wing, Chelios confided to associate
coach Dave Lewis that he had almost forgotten how to pass the
puck.

But then, Detroit doesn't merely welcome codgers--it reinvigorates
them. Chelios, a three-time Norris Trophy winner, wasn't plucked
from the scrap heap, but his skills were corroding. The Red Wings
have helped him by using him less, taking him off the power play
for the first time in his 17-year career. Chelios had only three
goals through Sunday, but he ranked second in the NHL at +45.
While concerned that his offensive instincts might rust if he
doesn't cut loose on occasion, Chelios is still happy enough to
lag behind and cover Duchesne's back.

Duchesne was a bigger project. He was heralded as the power-play
savior when he signed a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles
Kings in July 1998. Eight months later, with the Kings on their
way to finishing 24th in the league with the man advantage, he
was shipped to the Philadelphia Flyers. He ended last season with
a total of six goals and 30 points, the worst offensive output in
his 13-year career. "I was thinking about retiring," Duchesne
says. "You have a year like that, you start doubting yourself.
You figure you're no good anymore, that maybe you shouldn't be
playing."

There was mild interest in Duchesne last summer. The Montreal
Canadiens offered him a $1 million contract, a big drop-off for
someone who had made $3.75 million the previous year. Ottawa, for
whom Duchesne had productive seasons in the mid-1990s, offered a
few hundred thousand dollars more than Montreal. But the day
before training camp opened, the Wings also offered Duchesne $1
million. "I was ready to take less just to play in a positive
environment, one so committed to winning," Duchesne says. "This
was such a good fit--a speed-oriented, skilled team in which you
have to move the puck and support the play. I knew I would play
more here." Through Sunday, Duchesne had 38 points and was a
credible +12, and last week Detroit gave him a three-year
extension worth at least $4.2 million, a deal that includes a
no-trade clause for the first two years. After changing teams
eight times in the 1990s, he is finally a stay-at-home
defenseman.

On March 19, Murphy also celebrated a momentous day, playing in
his 1,550th NHL game to slip past Alex Delvecchio into second
place behind Gordie Howe among the career leaders. Murphy is now
three healthy seasons from passing Howe (1,767 games), at which
point Murphy would be 42. "It's like life; it creeps up on you,"
he says. "All of a sudden--boom!--here I am, behind Gordie. I feel
I can play five years. I feel as good as I ever have, but no one
beats time."

In a 200-foot sprint down the rink, Murphy beats no one. His
skating, always languorous, can now be timed with a calendar. Of
course, his mind still works faster than almost everyone else's,
enabling him to slow the game to his speed. He doesn't
necessarily arrive quickly, but he's almost always there at the
right time. Maybe Murphy is being banged around a little more,
but rarely is he caught out of position. He keeps the puck in the
attacking zone as well as any defenseman of his era, and he still
moves it crisply from his end. "They talk about losing a step,"
Murphy says. "I never had that step to lose."

That line is well-rehearsed and indicative of the
self-deprecation that suits him. Lewis, a teammate when Murphy
broke in with Los Angeles in 1980-81, says Murphy was so cocky as
a rookie that the Kings gave him not one traditional full-body
shave, but three. Murphy demurs--"I don't think I was arrogant. I
never lipped off and always sat in the middle seat on the plane,"
he says--but if he ever needed a refresher course in humility,
hometown fans in two cities were happy to provide it. When he
played with the Washington Capitals for almost six years in the
'80s, Caps fans would whoop when he touched the puck, a faux
turkey mating call, because in their estimation Murphy was a
turkey. Later, in Toronto, he was booed off the Maple Leaf
Gardens ice as a symbol of a team that was too old and too slow.
Murphy, who won more Stanley Cups (four) than any other player in
the 1990s, is not a franchise defenseman despite ranking third
behind the Carolina Hurricanes' Paul Coffey and Bourque in career
points. He's just one of those guys with complementary skills who
make good teams better. He had a wobbly start this season and was
stuck at -11 as late as Dec. 4, but at week's end he was +41 and
had eight goals and 37 points playing with Lidstrom. In the one
concession to age, the Red Wings had reduced his playing time by
three minutes from last year's 24:15 per game. Murphy would like
to chase Howe's mark in Detroit next season, but even though the
team has a $3 million option on him, he might have to settle for
less if he wants to remain a Wing.

Detroit is marking time until the playoffs, comfortably ensconced
as the fourth seed (45-22-9-2) in the Western Conference. The
Wings' goals-against average at week's end was an elevated 2.51,
up .16 from the championship teams of 1996-97 and 1997-98, but
the vital signs for a Cup run are promising. Springtime should
bring out the boy in their defensemen, who are so old they can
remember signing autographs with quill pens. "If we don't win,
we're old," says Murphy. "If we do win, we're experienced."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM PIDGEON/ALLSPORT Sticking out Chelios (24), second in the league at +45 through Sunday, is content forgoing offense for defense. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Ironing it out After suffering through a dismal 1998-99 season, Duchesne has rebounded and become a force for the Wings. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Second to one Murphy is three healthy seasons from Howe's games-played record.

"I was thinking about retiring," says Duchesne. "You figure that
maybe you're no good anymore."

The 39-year-old Murphy may get banged around a little more, but
he's rarely caught out of position.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)