SUN Hockey Pool

No new NHL lapse

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:41 PM ET

Wasn't this the season, with Hockeytown no longer an exclusive high-rent district, the Detroit Red Wings were supposed to slum it with the riff-raff and have-nots?

As one of the NHL's big spenders - having parlayed Mike Illitch's pizza dough into 14 straight years in the playoffs, three Stanley Cup parades since 1997 and five consecutive campaigns with at least 100 points - the new CBA and its $39-million salary cap was supposed to pick the pockets of Moneybags Mike and knock his team down a peg or two.

That theory, it turns out, is bogus as a $3 bill because the Red Wings come calling on the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place tonight sitting exactly where they always do - atop the standings.

All of which proves, yet again, money cannot buy hockey smarts. The Red Wings and GM Ken Holland have a wealth of it. This franchise is loaded, no matter how much or how little it spends.

Champagne results on a beer budget.

"There's a lot of teams that spent a lot of money in the previous 10 years and they didn't win three Stanley Cups," said coach Mike Babcock, in his first season as bench boss in the Motor City. "To me, if you do it right, you have a chance year after year."

The Red Wings have shed a stack of payroll from the team that finished the 2003-04 season with 109 points before the NHL lockout, but they've made the transition seamlessly.

With 95 points from a 45-15-5 record as the puck drops tonight, they'll surpass that points total with relative ease, thin wallets and all. The new CBA sure put them in their place, eh?

"It's all the same for everybody," Babcock said. "My point is that teams that are run right, over time, will be successful."

Despite tough calls on contracts and free agents, the Red Wings remain a powerhouse, first and foremost because Holland has retained his core of players, tweaking it and adding to it along the way.

The marquee is shared by emerging stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg with veterans like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios and Mathieu Schneider.

Steve Yzerman remains the heart and soul, but he plays a dozen minutes a night now.

"You predict a team like Detroit that had to cut payroll would drop off, but they've done a good job of keeping veteran leadership there, and their young guys are dynamite," says Oilers defenceman Steve Staios.

Time, almost as much as a slashed payroll, was supposed to humble the Red Wings, but Datsyuk and Zetterberg, along with Jason Williams, Niklas Kronwall and Mikael Samuelsson, have taken up the slack.

"I think it's a product of a very high skill level by their core players," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said.

"Their skill level is probably second-to-none in the game right now with guys like Lidstrom. Schneider is having a terrific year. Tomas Holmstrom fills a valuable role. Shanahan is having a terrific year and there's the experience and leadership Yzerman brings. They've got a lot of elements."

It hasn't hurt that Shanahan refuses to act his age. He's scored 30 goals. The same is true for Chelios, who is actually 68 years old, but claims he is only 44.

"With Zetterberg and Datsyuk, real dangerous offensive players, they're a pretty well-balanced team," Staios said. "What can you say?

"They've done a great job. Having guys like Yzerman and Shanahan on your team doesn't hurt in the leadership department and experience-wise. That brings a lot to a team."

For outfits like the Oilers, who are coming from the other end of the pay scale and have beaten Detroit in the first two meetings of the teams this season, the Red Wings remain a measuring stick.

"I'm thinking of making the playoffs and having success," smiles Babcock, asked if another Stanley Cup run is on the agenda in Hockeytown.

"The way I look at it is you start every year and that's what you want to do. In Detroit, that's obviously the real focus. We also know how far away that is.

"You can be good in the regular season, but if you don't have success in the playoffs ... the bar is set very high. That's what you want."


Photos