THE PUCK DROPS HEREWINGS HAVE ALL THE PIECES TO WIN STANLEY CUPWINGS VS. PISTONS: WHY THIS IS HOCKEYTOWN, NOT HOOPSTOWN

Ageneral manager is not a player, nor a coach. He doesn’t skate or knock pucks away, he doesn’t blow a whistle.

What he does, in a front office sort of way, is paint. He paints a portrait of a team he wants, he paints faces over each roster spot, and finally, when all the trading and cutting and buying is over, he leans back to examine his canvas.

Tonight, the Red Wings, with perhaps the most impressive canvass in NHL history, take to the playoff ice in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. And Ken Holland, the GM, the man who, more than anyone, painted their faces over these roster spots, watches nervously to see how his masterpiece comes together.

Mr. Holland’s Opus.

“Is it the best team you’ve ever helped assemble?” Holland is asked.

“You can’t say yet,” he answers. “It’s the most high profile. Maybe the most talent. But the best team is always the one that wins the Stanley Cup.”

So for now, this may only be the most star-studded team to ever line up for the NHL playoffs. Consider the roster:

Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Luc Robataille — all with more than 600 career goals, three of the top 10 scorers of all time.

Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov, all Salt Lake Olympians and multi-time All-Stars, all in the front lines.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios on defense, the Norris Trophy winner and one of the best plus-minus forces in the league.

And, backing them up, Dominik Hasek, considered by many goalie-watchers to be tops in the business.

And that’s without mentioning Kris Draper, or Pavel Datsyuk, or Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom, Boyd Devereaux, Jiri Fischer . . .

No matter what happens, it is surely worth one satisfying pre-playoff glance.

Mr. Holland’s Opus. As paintings go, it’s Realist and Impressionist.

As in real impressive.

The right mix

OK. So much for appreciation. Now, for explanation. Why did it work? Other teams, like the New York Rangers, were willing to spend money for stars — Eric Lindros, Theo Flurry, Pavel Bure — yet the Rangers didn’t even make the playoffs, while the Wings wrapped the NHL’s best record while there was still snow on the ground.

Holland has a theory: “Obviously, when we got Dominik, we knew we were going to have to move Chris Osgood. So we knew Dom would have that position outright.

“But in bringing in Brett Hull and Luc Robataille, you never know. These were guys who had been really high profile on their team, and with all the guys we have here, they weren’t going to have the same roles they had before, maybe not be on as many power plays, not get as may goals or as much ice time.

“But in talking to both of those players, and their agents, it was so clear they wanted to come here. In fact, Hull did things with his contract to make it possible. And other guys on our team — four guys who have been here a long time, to be particular — did things with their contracts to make it possible as well.

“That’s when I knew we had a really good chance at the chemistry you need to be successful.”

And while Holland does not reveal which four players did the financial shifting, the players know, and that’s all that matters. It is part of what makes the Wings’ locker room as relaxed and familiar as a high school reunion, a rock band’s jam session, or a Friday night poker game in your buddy’s basement. There are quieter guys (Yzerman, Lidstrom) and louder guys (Hull, McCarty) and foreign guys (Hasek, Fedorov, Holmstrom, etc.) and it just seems to all come together.

At least in the regular season.

Which, as we say, no longer matters.

Starting tonight, we find out if Mr. Holland’s Opus has a Dorian Gray up in the attic.

The final test

Age. We hear it all the time about this team. Its marquee players have been on the marquee for a while. Late 30’s is pretty common on this team. And age often means injury, and injury in the playoffs is a subject that makes Wings fans break out in hives. Last year, this team lost Yzerman and Shanahan in the playoff opener, and didn’t got past the first round.

And then there’s the matter of the last few weeks. The Wings have not played playoff-level hockey. “We tried to lift our game here and there,” says McCarty, “but we didn’t sustain it for three periods. We’re not happy about how we played at all.”

The Wings went winless in their last seven. The smart money says so what, what did you expect? You can’t fool future Hall of Famers into acting like a game counts when it doesn’t.

But that still leaves the Wings with a big switch to throw tonight. They need to come alive fast, and — if we learned anything from last year — they need to play as if the worst thing in the world is enduring one more game than they have to. No throwaway losses. No shrugging off a defeat as “no big deal” because they still have a lead in the series.

Every game is a big deal. Every night saved is a night available for a better performance against a more important team. We’ve seen how dazzling the Wings are, and how friendly they are, and how expensive they are.

Now we’ll see how tough they are.

“After we lost last year,” Holland says, “I talked to Mr. Ilitch. He said he was willing to spend if the moves would make us better.

“Right now, I’d say there’s a lot of teams out there that are envious of the commitment of our ownership.”

Not to mention the team picture.

But a picture’s worth a thousand words, and not a single win. A first-round exit would be a coma for this team. A loss to Colorado would mean the grand experiment still failed.

It’s Mr. Holland’s Opus. It hangs tonight. A portrait of talent. A canvas of dreams. It cost a lot. Now we see if it pays off.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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