Ranking the 5 Best Playmakers in Detroit Red Wings History
Today’s NHL adulates the scoresheet, celebrates the spectacular and pays tribute to those who bring home the hardware.
However, some of the greatest athletes fly below the radar, making the kind of plays that are overshadowed by the final result. These guys are some of the best to lace up the skates, and no team is complete without a quality playmaker.
The heart to play all 200 feet of the rink and the knowledge to think ahead of the action are some of the qualities of good playmakers. Some put up Hall of Fame numbers, while others are adorned the respect and honor from their peers, but altogether, they’re often the best player on the ice.
It can be their dedication or a superior knowledge of the game, but these players deserve to be listed among the best. The Detroit Red Wings have themselves a laundry list of tremendous playmakers, and this writer attempted to narrow it down to the top five in their history.
With a lot of gut-wrenching decisions, and without further ado, here are the five best playmakers in Detroit Red Wings history.
5. Igor Larionov
Heralded as one of the best players in the world, Igor Larionov’s time in Detroit was immeasurable.
The Hall of Fame center was acquired from the San Jose Sharks for Ray Sheppard in October 1995 and ultimately spent parts of eight seasons with Detroit. He would win three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings and was the masterful center of the famed “Russian Five” line.
Larionov was already a reputable star in Russia before he came to the NHL, and he brought his magic to Detroit when he was 34 years old. His immaculate passing and unmatched hockey IQ earned him notoriety as “The Professor.”
He tallied 308 assists in 539 games with Detroit and was an impressive plus-102. His statistics may not wow many people, but it was his two-way style, responsibility without the puck and his clutch performances that made him special.
He may have flown below the radar, but his contribution to the club was invaluable as a leader, skilled center and ageless wonder.
4. Alex Delvecchio
After the departure of Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio stepped in as the center for the famed “Production Line” and no one missed a beat.
His career 825 assists are fourth in team history, and his 1,281 points rank third. A consummate professional on and off the ice, Delvecchio was tremendous in the playmaking characteristics of the game.
Although he played alongside Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, Delvecchio played nine more years after Lindsay left Detroit, and two without Howe. He also amassed the second-highest point total of his career without either of them in 1972-73, scoring 18 goals and 71 points in 77 games—at 41 years old.
He was a tremendous boost to the club from the beginning, winning a Stanley Cup as a rookie during the 1951-52 season and two more over the next three seasons. He played in 13 All-Star games in a 15-year span from 1953-1967 and accumulated three Lady Byng trophies (1959, 1966, 1969).
Delvecchio was named team captain in 1962 and carried that title with him until he retired in 1973. He was only the second player in NHL history, behind teammate Gordie Howe, to play more than 20 seasons with the same team.
His skill with the puck also earned him a few personal milestones. He assisted on Gordie Howe’s 700th career goal as well as scoring the goal that earned Howe his 1,000th career assist.
Delvecchio was a beloved player in his day and remains a memorable figure in Hockeytown.
3. Nicklas Lidstrom
The best way to describe Nick Lidstrom’s play over the course of his 20-year career is with two words: subtle dominance.
As a defenseman, he ranks third in team history in assists (878) and fourth overall in points (1,142). He captained the organization for six seasons after the retirement of Steve Yzerman and will be the seventh Detroit player to have his number retired on March 6, 2014.
As a rookie, his impact was felt immediately with 11 goals and 60 points in 80 games. He totaled a negative plus-minus rating only once (minus-two) in his entire career—at 41 years old. Ansar Khan of mlive.com summed Lidstrom up best:
He was not flashy or physical, he was just incredibly steady, game after game, season after season. Nobody was better positionally. Nobody used his stick more effectively. Nobody was smarter.
The seven-time Norris Trophy winner ran the blue line for two decades and made it look easy. With a lineup sporting nine Hall of Famers in 2002, Lidstrom totaled 16 points in 23 playoff games to secure the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP.
Lidstrom was effective anywhere on the ice. It’s easy to see why he’s regarded as the best defenseman to ever wear the winged wheel—and easily one of the best to ever play the game.
2. Steve Yzerman
Steve Yzerman knew what it took to win, and he made plays in all aspects of the game.
A prolific scorer early in his career, Yzerman was forced to adapt to a two-way style of hockey when Scotty Bowman took over as head coach. Instead of being a leader on the stat sheet, he became a leader in every way. He didn’t just wear the “C,” he defined it.
Yzerman made the kind of plays that demanded attention, even if he didn’t score the goal. He’d take the big hit to deliver a pass or a chop from the goalie in front of the net.
His career numbers are proof enough that he worked to earn his keep. Yzerman ranks second in Red Wings history in goals (692) and points (1,755), only behind Gordie Howe, and is the all-time team leader with 1,063 assists.
He didn’t just make everyone around him a better player, but also a better person. In 2006, he was given the Lester Patrick Trophy, awarded for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. His 19 years as captain is the longest-serving for a single team.
One of the greatest playmakers in history, Steve Yzerman is a model for players and professionals alike. With four Stanley Cups (2008 as an executive), a Conn Smythe Trophy, nine All-Star appearances and plenty more hardware, he is also one of the most decorated.
It’s hard to imagine anyone ranking higher than the man affectionately known as “The Captain.”
1. Pavel Datsyuk
He isn’t nicknamed “The Magic Man” for nothing.
Pavel Datsyuk is a special player, and we’re all spoiled to have the opportunity to see him in action. The soft hands and puck pageantry that Datsyuk displays are simply mind-boggling. With or without the puck, nobody can make something out of nothing like No. 13.
Currently enjoying his 12th season in the NHL, Datsyuk is already sixth all-time in Red Wings scoring with 792 points. His scoring ability tends to follow what already is deemed spectacular. Even when he doesn’t put the puck in the net, jaws drop, corrective lenses are wiped clean and opposing players are left dazed and confused.
He isn’t just dangerous in the offensive end of the ice. Datsyuk is consistently near to the top of the league in takeaways, earning him the Frank J. Selke Trophy for best defensive forward three consecutive years (2008-2010).
While Datsyuk has made some of the most dazzling plays in recent memory, he’s still committed to two-way hockey and playing within the system. His persistence, no matter the situation, is perpetual and dynamic in nature.
We may never see such a remarkable skill set like Datsyuk’s again, and that’s why he ranks as the No. 1 playmaker in Detroit Red Wings history.