They haven’t dipped their toe into the abyss in 23 seasons, fearful to be swallowed whole.
For 23 seasons, the Detroit Red Wings have been one of the model franchises emulated across leagues, the Shangri-La of stops for players. They currently hold the longest active playoff streak out of the four main professional sports leagues at 22.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the compulsory ‘last time they missed the playoffs ….’ line to provide context.
Here goes: the last time the Wings ashamedly watched the postseason on television in 1990, George H.W. Bush was president, gas crept up to $1.12 a gallon and—get this tech heads—the Internet was made available publicly for the first time (although not until autumn). That’s an infinite amount of gigabytes soaring in the ether since.
For anyone wondering, the Boston Bruins hold the longest consecutive postseason appearance record at 29.
This year, the Wings’ record for excellence may be in jeopardy.
Their de rigueur status in the NHL is waning. After defeating the Montreal Canadiens Saturday, the Wings had a loose hold on one of the wild-card positions in the Eastern Conference, the same conference they couldn’t wait to join due to the Western Conference’s innumerable time zones. Tongue in cheek alert: OK, so it was four different time zones but, hey, it still served as a handicap.
The thinking went that Detroit would leverage the Eastern Conference to its advantage.
Simply put, was last year a mirage when they scared the bejesus out of the Blackhawks in the conference semifinals? Or was it indicative of a promising team that could blossom into perennial favorites within a couple years?
There’s a strong debate against the notion the Wings are rebuilding.
After all, not much was expected of them last year before they came within one lousy win of advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Yet the other side of the argument suggests—based on General Manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock’s assessments—that the organization has been retooling (a euphemism for rebuilding) on the fly since their last Cup appearance in 2009.
Babcock has gone so far to say that if the team doesn’t dial it in every night, their chances to win are slim. He’s right.
If the Wings are on the right track, someone awoke Mr. Intangible before he vigorously waved his callous hand this year. Who knew through Jan. 23 the Wings would lose 210 man games to injury thus far? They have played without six of their nine forwards for long stretches.
Holland couldn’t have predicted that all those millions for signing Stephen Weiss would lead to buying a bucket of bolts when he wanted a dependable vehicle. Then a sports hernia incidentally marred a season in which Weiss, a No. 2 center demoted to the fourth line, has posted just four points in 26 games. Not exactly a bang for the $24.5 million buck.
Man-games lost are an easy excuse to find fault, but in fairness, injuries disrupt chemistry and restricts top talent from being on the ice.
Howard, an all-star and headed to the Sochi Winter Olympics to play for the U.S., has had a pedestrian year due to injury and inconsistency.
Although the latter can be attributed to a middling defensive core, which is missing a mega shut-down unit.
Brendan Smith, still loaded with upside, turns the puck over too much and finds himself a healthy scratch at times; Kyle Quincey, since being re-acquired, hasn’t performed anywhere near his days with the Los Angeles Kings or Colorado Avalanche; the organization is still waiting for Jakub Kindl, a 2005 draftee, to find his niche; and the leader of the group, Niklas Kronwall, is north of 30.
The hope is that the 6’3” Danny Dekeyser, 23, continues to develop into a top-tier defenseman. Looking at past Stanley Cup champions, you’d be hard-pressed to find a winner that didn’t have a puck-moving defenseman who was also a stud.
Outside of the Wings' defensive unit, however, remains a glaring weakness.
None of them can consistently make the critical breakout pass that opens up offenses. That is a main culprit for the Wings' meager 2.51 goals per game, which has them mired 18th in the league. The Wings also are 14th in five-on-five situations in the Corsi Stats, a tough spot for a team that preaches a puck possession system, or has tried to in spite of the injury bug.
As Babcock has lamented much of the season, the team hasn’t gotten dependable scoring from anyone besides Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both of whom—cue the chorus—have been injured periodically. It’s an ongoing conundrum because, besides long-in-the tooth Daniel Alfredsson, no other veteran has stepped up the way Holland has hoped.
That and the injury bug have expedited the arrival of several key players from last year’s Calder Cup winning Grand Rapids Griffins.
Grand Rapids Griffins
They’re not just ancillary pieces; instead they’re being asked to play crucial minutes. Sort of like being a salad crouton advertised as the main course. That’s not in the Wings' DNA. Since Scotty Bowman instilled his blueprint in the 1990s, younger players have been thought of as pears hanging on a tree until fully ripe.
Recent forward draft picks Tomas Jurco, 21, Gustav Nyquist, 24, and Tomas Tatar, 23, have shown promise in flourishes. Joakim Andersson and Riley Sheahan are big, thick players who have potential to contribute. Holland knows these aren’t the types of players you deal unless something better in return comes back.
Not to beat a dead horse, but in today’s NHL, the issue is this: drafting can make or break a franchise.
Mistakes can no longer be ignored simply by going the free-agent route. The most successful teams up front boast dynamic one-two punches in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
The relationship between them all? They were drafted by their respective teams.
Looking ahead, the Wings must make do with what they have, and frankly speaking, no one can affirmatively say there is anyone in the organization who will develop into superstars.
All of this raises critical questions. Is the organization at a crossroads? Has the line of demarcation been drawn?
Since owner Mike Ilitch handed the reins to front office wizard Jimmy Devellano in 1982, ‘The Dead Things’ became passé and rose to unparalleled success. They’ve won four Stanley Cups in 22 seasons.
Ilitch, the one who rubber-stamped intrinsic moves during the recent zenith, has taken on a diminished role due to age and health issues. The hard cap imposed in 2005-06 forced Holland to be more creative without the luxury of lavishly spending on an essential free agent.
Rebuilding responsibly in the cap era can only be done through the draft.
Holland gets it. Jim Nill, who shepherded the draft as assistant GM for 15 years, got it. But he’s gone now. And the days of global scouting have changed.
The franchise has relied on European uber scout Hakan Andersson to coyly dig out gems like Datsyuk in late rounds. Yet other teams have caught on and, similar to the U.S.-Russian arms race, have built up their European presence.
The hangover from winning all those Cups and being left with low draft picks is here.
The problem is that outside of Datsyuk and Zetterberg, the Wings haven’t had an impact player come out of the draft since 2003 in goalie Jimmy Howard. OK, 2004 if you want to count Johan Franzen, who at one point was being compared to Peter Forsberg by the organization. Kronwall? Maybe.
No, this isn’t about winning their final four games, as they did a year ago, to keep the playoff streak alive. It goes much deeper.
The consensus here is that the Wings have a nucleus, albeit young, to ascend to prominence again. A few other pieces will be needed, but Holland has demonstrated he has the aptitude to build a winner. That can’t be said of many GMs.
Shortly after the Wings were eliminated by the hated Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Western Conference Finals, a forlorn Jimmy Devellano hopped in an elevator and let out a long sigh. He tilted his glasses down, telling this writer the loss stung but the Wings were still within reach of a title. If they could just win one Stanley Cup, he was sure they’d win three or four more.
Positive of it.
Who knows, in a few years as this team redefines itself, Devellano just might make a similar assessment and be the clairvoyant one again.