Whenever I find myself in Las Vegas (which isn't often enough), I always like to watch players at the craps table. If ever there was a casino game where a person can go on a run and win some big money, craps is it. Seeing the players in their glory, stacks of chips barely concealing their ever-widening eyes as they continue to gamble that they can beat the house intrigues me. Inevitably, one of two things happen: the person starts to lose a little bit before walking away, or they think their luck will continue before ultimately realizing the cold hard truth that the house always wins.
The Red Wings have been on amazing run for the last 20 years, making the playoffs 21 straight seasons, the last 12 after earning at least 100 points in the regular season. We have been witness to the highs and the lows as hockey fans, but knowing that the Wings will at least have an opportunity to make a run and possibly win yet another Stanley Cup year after year is something that Wing fans may take for granted.
Given what has transpired this off-season, I think it's fair to say that no one is guaranteeing that a playoff appearance for the 22nd straight season is a foregone conclusion. No team can overcome the loss of one of the greatest players of all time, even if he was replaced by a star free agent or heir-apparent already on the team, and not avoid some sort of decline. Factor in that the core is another year older and the obvious holes on the roster, and the 2012-13 season could potentially be a long one in Detroit.
Much like the player at the craps table, the Wings have been accumulating chips in the form of wins and playoff appearances, but they're starting to give some of that back thanks to the rest of the Western Conference catching up and the parity that exists throughout the NHL. Going back the last few off-seasons, the Wings have seen numerous members of the old guard retire or move on, and are very close to a transitional period as they prepare to turn the team over to the next generation of stars.
Ken Holland and company remained relatively quiet this off-season despite pleas from the fanbase to lure someone like Ryan Suter to Detroit (although given what is currently happening in the CBA negotiations, perhaps he knew something the rest of us didn't), choosing to add what can only be described as depth players and projects instead of going for a big name to make up for the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom.
Perhaps they saw the way the dice were rolling and starting paring back their bets. Or, maybe he is starting to see his luck turn, and rather than continue to put big money down on the table knowing that it's becoming more of a risk, he is getting ready to walk away and find another game.
Heading into this upcoming season (if there is one, but that's another concern for another day), the biggest question in the minds of most Wing fans is: can this team make the playoffs?
I look at the roster and compare it those in the West, and I see a playoff team. Yes, there are weaknesses, but no team in the West (save Los Angeles, but they're still basking in the after-glow of a Cup victory) looks like a dominant squad.
Still, that little voice of doubt in the back of my mind can't help but taunt me. "This is the year the streak ends" it whispers while I watch highlights of the Cup years on Youtube. No streak lasts forever, and at some point the Red Wings will be on the outside looking in when the tournament to decide who wins the Cup begins. It could be this year, or it could be another 5 years. But it's getting closer by the season, whether we like it or not.
What I hope against hope, though, is that when the streak does inevitably end, it's because the Wings took a chance on the kids rather than the veterans underachieved or hung around too long. I don't want the Wings to become the Brett Favre of the NHL, refusing to acknowledge that their time has passed and trying to hold on to their former glory despite the fact it's as faded as the poorly-constructed jeans that old men wear.
No, what I want is for the Wings to bring along the kids and give them a chance to grow into NHL players and become the next set of stars that bring success to Detroit. If that happens and the Wings end up missing the playoffs, it would be tough to take but at least I can take some solace in knowing that there's a bigger picture, and sometimes you have to sacrifice the short-term in order to achieve long-term success.
Compare that to if the Wings were to bring in veterans who are past their prime or projects who don't pan out and the Wings finish lower than 8th in the conference. That kind of result would make the entire season feel like a waste of time, and that's no feeling I want to experience as a sports fan. I get enough of that when I watch my Blue Jays go through a 162-game season only to inevitably finish 4th in their division year after year.
A season of no playoffs in Detroit would be debilitating to the psyche of a fanbase that is used to thinking ahead to who the Wings will face in the first round as early as November. Unfortunately, in hockey, like at the craps table, the house always wins. It just doesn't have to be by the house's rules.