Detroit Red Wings: The Last Alpha Dog Leaves the Sled Team

NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 17: Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg (40) is shown during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings, held on February 17, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 17: Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg (40) is shown during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings, held on February 17, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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With Henrik Zetterberg trotting off into the sunset, the last alpha dog departs the Detroit Red Wings sled team.  (Apologies for any Ulf Samuelsson parallels.)  Not so long ago, the Red Wings featured enough hearty alpha dogs to supply the lead dog of every Iditarod sled team in the race.

Not only can we still see those frontrunners, they seem more vividly real than the current Detroit Red Wings roster, strangely so.  Steve Yzerman scoring on his back; Sergei Fedorov flying forward like a greyhound; Brendan Shanahan‘s bulldogging power forward finesse; Niklas Lidstrom as a paradigm of pure hockey efficiency; Pavel Datsyuk finishing tricks that no other dog on the paddock would attempt.

As for Zetterberg, he recalls the adage, it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.  That was Zetterberg.  He was a junkyard dog with the manners of a Westminster purebred.   Soft-spoken, his big dog presence molded rookies with nary a shrill bark, in the way of Red Wing captains. That was Zetterberg.  But he’s gone and thoughts turn to the future.  So often we hear we will never find another leader like Yzerman, another Lidstrom, or another Zetterberg.

How do these thoughts intersect the team drafting approach of recent years?  We usually hear of prioritizing offense vs. defense, choosing between position players vs. best player available.  But drafting for character and leadership is a core value implicit in the Detroit approach to the draft.

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With alpha dogs dragging the pack forward, willing or not, betas can shine and gamma dogs find a role.   With the Zetterbergs, Datsyuks, and Kronwalls of yore, the Abdelkaders could score 23 goals and the last pick Ericssons could usefully contribute.  We saw this in previous Detroit generations.

Insert Chris Chelios into a lineup of the Detroit Red Wings alpha dog studs, and that old dog had a new day.  Larry Murphy was mocked in Colorado as a Wing acquisition, I clearly remember.  Too grey in his muzzle and teeth falling out, chortled the uneducated Colorado sports talk.  Murphy was useful for years.

Why?  Neither Murphy nor Chelios had to be alpha dogs any longer on a team of strong, unselfish alphas.  Young Kris Draper or Dallas Drake would never play as effectively in bigger roles on other teams.  Why? Alphas elevate tired players or role players. The sum becomes larger than the parts.

Suddenly, poof, Detroit Red Wings alphas are going or gone, exposing the entire team, with beta or gamma players awarded salaries that look far too rich.  Dare the team look forward to finding new alphas?

Groomed for alpha, Dylan Larkin wears it well.  Anthony Mantha has strength, speed, and even grit but doesn’t yet grasp alpha sacrifice.  Danny DeKeyser might step forward more with other alphas.

Being an alpha is lonely.   Expectations are totally unfair, always wanting more, more.  Alphas don’t complain.  Did you know that the best Iditarod lead dogs distance themselves from the pack, even sleeping apart from the dog cluster, when the nights turn frigid?  Trainers recognize them like that.

Michael Rasmussen brings purposeful probity belying his 19 years.  Are his shoulders that broad? Filip Zadina bared his teeth at  Montreal and Ottawa for passing on choosing him.  Can he fill their nets?  Is he a Mark Messier promising a victory, and then a Cup?  Or is Zadina merely a blowhard?

Joe Veleno was elite to be cleared for major junior hockey at age 15. Can he bring scoring to a well-rounded game and his leadership?  Smallish forward  Jonatan Berggren has enough desire to burn a hole in the ice. Not every alpha dog need be large; is he the next Johnny Gaudreau-little-big-dog?

Next. It may come down to Zadina or Svechnikov. dark

Not all will, of course, but the way forward is finding genuine alphas with the skill to elevate the team.