This was the last magic trick, the final yank of the tablecloth. The Red Wings, just hours before the NHL trading deadline, burned up the phone lines, said “deal,” “deal,” “deal,” “deal,” and acquired four new players, three of them major personalities, in hopes of finally straightening the wheels on their wagon roll to a third straight Stanley Cup.

“I went to bed last night with a wish list,” general manager Ken Holland said.
“We had lots of irons in the fire. We had lots of lines in the lake.”

And that’s a lot of metaphors. But to sum them up: Wishes? Granted. Fire? Lit. Fish? Hooked.

Here is what the Wings got: defenseman Chris Chelios, 37, from Chicago, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, 34, from the New York Rangers, left-wing Wendel Clark, 32, and backup goalie Bill Ranford, 32, from Tampa Bay.

Here is what the Red Wings gave up: the future.

Not the whole future. Just a part of it. Two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks, one third-round draft pick, young and promising defenseman Anders Eriksson and young backup goalie Kevin Hodson.

It is, quite clearly, an attempt to grab the big prize now, and worry about later prizes, well, later. I like the chances. But make no mistake. This is not about being a smart move or a dumb move.

It’s about being the only move.

“Our record is not as good as it should be,” Holland admitted, which is kind of like saying Monica Lewinsky is overexposed. “We’ve had a lot of our guys injured. But at some point you say, ‘If we don’t get some depth in here, we’re gonna be in trouble.’ “

Of course, waiting until the last hours of the final trading day is a little like saying that you only recognized the water was deep when it began to come out of your mouth and ears. But the Wings — fighting to keep from dropping from third to sixth in the playoff pecking order — were hoping to right their ship without making major trades.

But give Holland and coach Scotty Bowman credit: When they saw trouble, they sent up a flare. They made the deals.

And what they got is big, strong, tough.

And old.

New leases on life

Yes, it’s true, the newest Red Wings are a lot more VH1 than MTV. The average age of the new men is 34. They are long in the tooth — if they have any of their own teeth left.

But don’t let that fool you. For one thing, the Wings didn’t get these guys for next year or the year after. They got them for now. If they help them win one more Cup, it’s worth it.

Secondly, there are certain advantages to giving championship hope to players who have put in their time waiting. Remember Larry Murphy, acquired as a throwaway on trading day from Toronto a few years ago? He got one whiff of a championship aroma and seemed to lose 10 years off his skates.

So it shall be — the Wings hope — with Chelios, who, in coming to Detroit, at the very least, gives Wings fans one less guy to boo when they play the Blackhawks. Chelios always has been tough, he plays hard, and what he may have lost to age he could make up for in enthusiasm, now that he has been sprung from the purgatory of Chicago hockey.

“Chris is one of the premier defensemen in the league,” Holland said. “I’ve been interested in him for a long time, but it wasn’t until (Monday) night that Chicago indicated he might be available.”

Chelios gives sting to the Red Wings’ blue line. So, too, will Samuelsson, if he recovers from a broken foot that is supposed to keep him sidelined for another two or three weeks. Why trade for an injured player, you ask? Well, the guys the Wings have are injured, too. It now becomes a race for quickest recovery time.

As for Clark? Red Wings fans will remember him as a feisty forward who used to regularly tangle with Bob Probert in the late ’80s. In those days, Wings fans hooted and called him “Wendy.” My guess is we won’t hear that any more. Clark was having a whale of a year with Tampa Bay, scoring 28 goals, and the Wings could always use some firepower.

The final piece of the pie was Ranford, a nod toward caution. In losing Hodson, the Wings lost the security that comes with a third goalie. Ranford returns that, and has experience.

In fact, experience is hardly the concern with these new Wings. A bigger question is how much they have left in the tank.

A risky business

Time will tell. The fact is, this is one of those moves that works brilliantly or backfires like bad gunpowder. To introduce four new faces, at this point in the season, into a championship locker room, can do one of two things: It can mess up the chemistry, and throw off the precious equilibrium of the team — or, it can stir the pot just enough to make things fresh, make everyone hungry, and the team can ride that new passion right to a championship.

The Wings clearly are figuring on the latter. The teams they must beat have all made improvements since last year. This was about shoring up, flexing some muscle, and sending a message that just because they own championship rings does not mean they spend all day staring at them.

It is the final magic trick, the last pull of the tablecloth. Now fans, players and management hold their breath and watch if the plates and cups — especially the one marked Stanley — remain standing or come tumbling down.

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