This season, the Washington Capitals are dominating the NHL, putting up 49 wins in their first 68 games. They still have a chance to match or break the record for most wins in a season—62—set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings 20 years ago.
Following a sweep to the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings truly dominated the NHL. And despite the fact that they did not end the season with a Stanley Cup, it was unquestionably a year to remember for the franchise and its fans.
Red Wings Nucleus
After years of drafting well, the Red Wings had a core of home-grown players. Twelve players to don a Red Wings jersey that season were hand-selected by Jimmy Devellano and company in the draft, starting with Steve Yzerman in 1983.
In the famed 1989 draft, the Red Wings selected Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Vladimir Konstantinov—all of whom played huge roles on the 1995-96 Red Wings team. The following year, Detroit struck gold again when they drafted Keith Primeau and Slava Kozlov. Martin Lapointe, Jamie Pushor, Chris Osgood, Darren McCarty, Anders Eriksson, and Mathieu Dandenault would all be drafted by Detroit in the following years, creating a strong core for years to come.
In today’s NHL, free agency is often the means to build a team (in addition to the draft). However, twenty years ago was different. Only five players from the 1995-96 Red Wings—Kevin Hodson, Tim Taylor, Mike Ramsey, Bob Rouse, and Wes Walz—were brought in via free agency. Another, Doug Brown, was acquired off of waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, these depth moves, though small individually, played a large role in the Red Wings’ season. Rouse and Ramsey, specifically, solidified the defense, giving the Red Wings six or seven fantastic defensemen on a nightly basis.
Along with drafting well, Red Wings’ management was able to pull off some very favorable trades. Key players like Dino Ciccarelli, Bob Errey, Greg Johnson, Kris Draper, and Slava Fetisov were acquired for next to nothing (in retrospect). Others depth player such as Marc Bergevin and Stu Grimson did not cost the organization much either. Grind Line legend Kirk Maltby was acquired at the trade deadline for Dan McGillis as well.
In larger trades, the Red Wings were able to come out on top, despite trading away valuable assets. Veteran superstar Paul Coffey was brought in for Jimmy Carson, Gary Shuchuk, and Marc Potvin. Carson, a former 50-goal scorer and key part of the 1988 Wayne Gretzky blockbuster trade, would only score 33 NHL goals after departing from Detroit.
To shore up the Red Wings’ goaltending, Devellano acquired playoff veteran Mike Vernon from the Calgary Flames prior to the 1994-95 season. Vernon would mentor the young Osgood during the 1995-96 season and the two would accomplish much that year. Vernon and Osgood shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for the lowest goals against average in the NHL. Osgood would also finish second in Vezina Trophy voting, earn his first All-Star Game selection, and be named to the NHL’s All-Star Second Team at season’s end.
However, the most important acquisition was made during the 1995-96 season, when the Red Wings traded Ray Sheppard for Igor Larionov. When the Red Wings acquired the 34-year old Larionov from San Jose, no one could have predicted the kind of success the Russian center would have in Detroit, especially considering Ray Sheppard had been one of their top goal scorers over the past two seasons.
The Russian Five
With Larionov on board, Head Coach Scotty Bowman unleashed one of the top player utilization strategies the NHL had seen since Gretzky and the Oilers’ run-and-gun offense: The Russian Five.
Up front, Larionov centered Fedorov and Kozlov, while Fetisov and Konstantinov manned the blue line. Though these players specifically occupied the center, left wing, right wing, and two defenseman positions, who actually played which position on the ice varied from second-to-second. Because all five players had been raised (and brainwashed) on the Soviet-style of hockey, they all knew where each other would be on the ice at all times. If one player moved out of their position, the right player would step in and fill the original role—all subconsciously. Surely, Bowman could not have predicted that his all-Soviet lineup would have dominated the way that they did.
Side Note: It’s great to see that Mickey Redmond looks the exact same today as he did 20 years ago. Dave Strader looks completely different now, but losing the traditional 90’s moustache was the right choice.
Apart from the record-setting 62 regular season wins and birth of the Russian Five, the Red Wings experienced a few other major moments during their magical 1995-96 season. Long-time captain Steve Yzerman celebrated a huge accomplishment when he scored his 500th career goal against future arch-rival, the Colorado Avalanche. To that point, only Gordie Howe had scored 500 goals with the Red Wings.
In addition to Yzerman’s milestone goal, another Red Wing scored an impressive goal during the 1995-96 season. Goaltender Chris Osgood scored a goal—only the third goalie in NHL history to do so—against the Hartford Whalers on March 6, 1996.
It was truly a remarkable year for Osgood when you consider the goal, All-Star Game appearance, Vezina nomination, Jennings Trophy share, and NHL All-Star Second Team selection.
After steamrolling through the regular season, the Red Wings met the Eight-seed Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs. The Jets put a scare in the Red Wings, but Detroit was able to dispatch the Jets (permanently) in six games. Game Six would be the last playoff game for this version of Winnipeg’s hockey team, as they moved to Phoenix in the fall.
In the second round, Detroit met the Wayne Gretzky- and Brett Hull-led St. Louis Blues in a bitter matchup. It was only fitting that the back-and-forth series went to a Game Seven and, ultimately, to overtime after the two teams remained scoreless through three periods of regulation play. And in overtime, captain Yzerman delivered in the clutch. His double-overtime goal is arguably one of the best and most important overtime goals in Red Wings’ history.
Detroit’s amazing season came to an end in the Western Conference Finals after losing to Colorado in six games. Colorado’s high-powered offense, physicality, and superb goaltending from Patrick Roy was enough to send the Red Wings home empty-handed once again.
However, the end of the Red Wings’ season came with the birth of a lasting rivalry that dominated the hockey world for the next decade. Colorado’s Claude Lemieux delivered “The Hit” on Red Wings’ center, Kris Draper. Every Red Wings fan still can picture the hit that ignited the Detroit-Colorado rivalry.
Though a Stanley Cup would have been the perfect cap to the Red Wings’ historic season, retrospect allows us to appreciate the actual end result: the rivalry. Detroit was lucky to win four Stanley Cups in the years after their 62-win season, but the birth of this rivalry not only put the Red Wings in the spotlight, but the NHL as well. The bad blood and epic tilts were as beneficial to the NHL as a whole, as they were to a Red Wings team dying to sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup. The NHL needed a marketable matchup and they got more than they ever could have expected when Claude Lemieux set off a course of events that would define hockey for years to come.
The 1995-96 season was truly a remarkable one for the Detroit Red Wings. It was arguably the best season an NHL team has ever had without winning the Stanley Cup. Luckily, the Red Wings would not need to wait much longer to achieve the ultimate dream.
Tony Wolak is based in the Washington D.C. area and covers the Detroit Red Wings for THW. As a former junior and college hockey player, Tony has a unique perspective on Red Wings topics.