For the last two decades, the Detroit Red Wings have been a playoff team and perennial contender.
It took no second thought, no worrying or wondering: they would simply be there, as they’ve always been, and there was a decent chance they’d contend for yet another Stanley Cup championship. That’s how it always was and would be.
But after squeaking into the playoffs last season, could we be seeing the end of Detroit’s historical run?
There are a few things to consider heading into the 2014/15 season and more than a few reasons the Red Wings could miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. The first being that they are carried by two aging stars that are on the downside of their careers. Pavel Datsyuk is widely loved for his dazzling puck-handling abilities and elite two-way game, but he isn’t scoring like he used to and likely won’t match the 97-point seasons he had way back in 2007/08 and 08/09. And while Henrik Zetterberg continues to score at a point-per-game clip, he can’t be counted on to stay healthy (he played in only 45 games last year). Not to mention that, at 36 and 34 years of age respectively, their best days are likely behind them.
That’s not to say that this is the “old folks home” it seemed to be in there early portion of the decade when the Steve Yzerman’s, Luc Robitaille’s and Brett Hull’s permeated the roster. Sure, their most important guys are all north of 30, but they have a few kids that have been able to step in and fill a role on the team.
Which leads into another issue: young talent. This isn’t the Red Wings of old where they could uncover Nicklas Lidstrom or Sergei Fedorov in one of the latter rounds and have a cornerstone to build around for a decade. They have talent in the system (Anthony Mantha, Tomas Juco and Dylan Larkin to name a few), but they don’t have the kind of high-end young talent needed to make the Cup runs they’re so familiar with. Replenishing the system with solid NHLers is one thing, but replacing the stars that age and then walk out the door is another. You likely can’t do it picking in the latter half of the first round and you can only get so lucky for so long in the subsequent rounds.
Another cause for concern? The team’s biggest scorers all come with issues. The aforementioned Datsyuk and Zetterberg have age/injury concerns, Niklas Kronwall tied for the team lead with 49 points last year and can’t be expected to match that, while co-leader Daniel Alfredsson is both on the wrong side of 40 and possibly retiring. Gustav Nyquist broke out last year, but he was bolstered by an 18.3 shooting percentage that isn’t likely to be replicated. There is no one in the system that seems like they can put up numbers in bunches and there’s also no one to bring in via free agency.
That last point seems to be their most glaring issue this summer. Remember when Detroit was one of three or four premium NHL free agent destinations? Well those days appear gone. As a free agent, what’s attractive about Detroit other than their history? They are a team on the decline with aging stars and some decent kids who don’t appear ready to claim those star roles. They may find stopgaps here and there, but the days of luring star players to Hockeytown are gone for now.
That’s not to say the Wings are a bad team, mind you. Again, they’ve been to the playoffs 23 years and running, but they just managed to squeak into the Eastern Conference playoffs with 93 points. And sure, they dealt with a ton of injuries (something that isn’t likely to repeat) while posting the 11th best record in the league in score-close situations.
But even if the team keeps the streak alive, what’s the point? They’re not really contending for much other than a playoff berth and simply making the playoffs will hamper their long-term efforts in regards to becoming a championship contender again.
It seems pretty clear that if the team misses the playoffs this year, big changes will be coming down the pike and that would ultimately be the best for the franchise no matter how many small-minded fans want to keep the playoff streak alive.
There needs to be some suffering before Lord Stanley returns to Hockeytown, USA.
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