Part Two of the 2005-2006 Detroit Red Wings analysis.
Three Defining Moments
Jiri Fischer collapsing on the bench. The majority of Redwing fans can tell you where they were when they were watching this or heard about it. Fischer was one of my favorites, and budding into the elite defenseman the Wings coveted. Everything changed that day. A story from Helene St. James captures it from the time. Brett Lebda most likely saved his life…he was the first one to witness it.
It robbed Fischer of his career, but thank God that was all it took. It hadn’t been ten years since Konstantinov’s car accident and only a year and a half from Yzerman’s gruesome eye injury in the 2004 playoffs. It was another moment where Wings fans swallowed their hearts and hoped for the best. It also harkened to the terrifying Chris Pronger collapse during the 1998 playoffs. For all intents and purposes, the Wings lost a defenseman but he kept his life.
Fischer is now the director of player development, a role that has been crucial in the maturation of the Wings prospects. Below is a video of Babcock discussing it. (Side note, look at young he looked!)
2. Manny Legace’s move to #1
It was Legace’s time to be the starter. He was the Wings backup and arguably the best backup in the league behind the likes of Chris Osgood, Dominik Hasek, and Curtis Joseph. The offseason brought back Chris Osgood. But Legace emerged as the #1 goalie after being in the shadows for nearly six seasons due to injury and a hot 10-1 start. But the good feelings would be short-lived. The Wings were shocked by the Oilers in six games, and Legace was shaky between the pipes. It signaled the end of his Detroit career and his lack of confidence was one of the overwhelming reasons many Wing fans (and players) felt the playoffs ended so prematurely. Legace would infamously say that he “wished he could hang himself” after the Wings bowed out. For those that don’t want to remember, avoid the video below. That last one still rips my heart out.
3. Steve Yzerman’s final game
It’s funny because I can still remember the scene like it were yesterday. Yzerman hobbling off the Edmonton ice, going through the tunnel, the voice of the announcer (it was on OLN, yes, the Outdoor Life Network and it was a CBC feed) asking if it was the last time Yzerman would play. It was. And every Wings fan knew it. The heart and soul of the Winged Wheel went out in just six games and still persevered through the pain he lived with for so many seasons. The 05-06 season would be his last on the ice, but he would be Kenny’s right hand man the next season.
Statistically, this was the second best Redwing team in franchise history. They won a staggering 58 games and had a glut of 20+ goal scorers. More impressive was General Manager Ken Holland’s ability to pick “scrap” off the heap and make it into gold. Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary, and Chris Osgood all come to mind. Osgood was unfairly considered a marginal goaltender, despite his successes in the late 90’s with the Wings. Cleary was a young journeyman that never lived up to his high draft pick billing. And Samuelsson was virtually unknown in the league—dogged by a perception that he was mentally weak. All of these players played huge roles in the success of the team, especially in the years to come. With the new CBA in place, the Red Wings were expected to start “slipping” because they could no longer spend recklessly and mortgage their future by trading for A-level players.
The regular season, despite injury and Fischer’s stunning collapse, was a cakewalk. Osgood was injured early in camp, and Manny Legace rose to the challenge, helping the Wings to a 10-1-0 start. The old and the new blended together to dominate the regular season again and net the Wings their sixth consecutive 100 point season. The playoffs however were a different story.
The Wings were heavily favored to defeat the lowly Edmonton Oilers who snuck into the playoffs with 95 points. Dwayne Roloson and the stingy Edmonton defense confounded the Wings and under new coach Mike Babcock, the Wings failed to make it out of the first round alive. After a stunning Game 6 loss where they gave up two backbreaking goals in the final four minutes, Steve Yzerman skated off the ice for the final time.
Worse, the goaltending was a huge question mark as was the future of the team. Legace struggled in the playoffs and never regained the form that made him successful in the regular season. It would hasten his exit when Holland didn’t offer him a contract in the off-season. Whispers around Detroit indicated that Legace didn’t have the confidence of the team. Osgood’s health was in question and so too, was his ability to play at the level that was necessary. Brendan Shanahan would move, saying that “he identified more with the past than the future.” The words were sobering for a fan base that worshipped the “missing piece” of the ’97 team.
But this season, as much as it hurt and put the Wings fan base into a depression until the 2006-2007 season rolled around, was a necessary evil. Although both Yzerman and Shanahan would inevitably leave following the stunning loss, it would open the door for the valuable pieces of the future to rise and carry the team. The players that would hoist the Cup just two seasons later, and come within a whisker of winning another in 2009 suffered through tough lessons in 2006 and eventually 2007. More on that in the next season recap.
What it meant
This season was the bridge between the past and the present. The stalwarts of the Wings past namely Yzerman, and Shanahan, were playing their final season in the Winged Wheel. The new faces, the ones that were rising up, namely Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and eventually Franzen were cementing their place as the new cornerstones of the franchise. You also saw the “kids” start rotating in with Hudler, Filppula, Quincey, and Howard all making appearances. While they never had to step in and save the team like the kids of 13-14, the Wings could still patiently let their prospects “over-ripen.” Fischer’s retirement forced the Wings to find another defenseman to fill his void. Looking ahead, that would be the catalyst in landing Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart down the road. Going into the 2006-2007 season, many were nervous about what would happen without Yzerman’s leadership. But the worries were unfounded as the Wings would find their greatest success in the next three seasons.
(Thanks to hockeydb for having more statistics than I know what to do with!)