Training camp is almost upon us and the Detroit Red Wings have very few holes in their lineup heading into camp. The signings of Mike Modano and Ruslan Salei, coupled with the return of Jiri Hudler have solidified the Red Wings into bona-fide Stanley Cup contenders for the upcoming season.
The 2010-11 version of the Red Wings is one of the deepest teams Detroit has fielded in recent years, possibly even deeper than the 2008 Cup team. The Red Wings should have no trouble making a 20th straight playoff appearance. But at this point, one has to wonder: when will it all come to an end?
It's not a question of "if" the streak will end. No team in the history of sports has been able to remain so dominant that they never miss the playoffs. Even the New York Yankees lose occasionally.
The biggest key to Detroit's success over the past 19 years has been the level of commitment it gets from its players. Players don't come to Detroit for a one-and-done year too often. They come to win many, many times.
Of the current roster, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom and Chris Osgood still remain from the first team that won the 1997 Stanley Cup, which was a distant 13 years ago (although Osgood left briefly and missed the 2002 win). Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk missed the first two Cup wins, but both have been with the organization since the late 90s. Before that, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and countless others contributed to multiple championships for Detroit.
In the salary cap era, however, it's become much harder to keep a championship roster together. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who've had to gut their second through fourth lines to fit under the cap this season. The Wings have been able to master the cap, getting players to take less money overall to soften their cap hit, allowing them to stay with the organization longer.
But the Red Wings, even with Ken Holland running the show, can't fight Father Time forever.
The biggest knock against Detroit for about 15 years has been that they are too old to continue winning. Their response? Keep winning. A lot. But as we enter a new decade, the Red Wings are graying at a rate that even they won't be able to just brush aside like they have in the past.
As mentioned before, four players still remain from the original 1997 Cup team. All four are expected to retire in the next 2-3 years, the first of which will likely be the 40-year-old captain Lidstrom. He recently re-signed for a one year deal after pondering retirement. Even though he's still one of the best in the game and can probably play for at least two more years at an elite level, he can't play forever.
Draper and Osgood are both on expiring contracts and are nearing the end of their careers. Holmstrom just signed up for two more seasons, but with the nightly beating he takes they could very well be his last two.
In addition, Brian Rafalski, Todd Bertuzzi, and Mike Modano are all 35 or older and not getting any younger. Soon they will all be gone.
As the veterans start to disappear, younger players will have to take their place. Detroit has molded a solid leadership core to take the reigns, with Zetterberg ready to take Lidstrom's captaincy. Datsyuk and Johan Franzen are also set to be with the team for the forseeable future.
Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are promising young stars in the organization, but they'll need more help. Jimmy Howard emerged as the number one goalie last year, but he's only got a full year of NHL seasoning under his belt. Jonathan Ericsson looked promising in his first season, but he's regressed almost to the point of being useless to the team. Having Salei as his defensive partner will help, but there's no telling if he'll progress enough to take over a bigger role.
Mattias Ritola has to make the team this year or else he'll likely be plucked off the waiver wire. But if Ritola makes the team someone else will have to go. Early indications are the Red Wings would sacrifice Drew Miller, even though he's only 27 and was a big part of the team when the Red Wings were beset with injury issues last season.
In the end, it will all come back to commitment. Ken Holland has a knack for convincing guys that Detroit is the place to win. Can Detroit stay successful? You bet, they've been proving people wrong for the past decade.
At some point, the good times will end. Hopefully, it's just not anytime soon.