It’s never easy to find consolation in losing. It’s especially tough to find a silver lining when your team is up three games to one, only to taste defeat in overtime of game seven. But when the dust has settled on the 2013 season, there is a lot for the Detroit Red Wings to be proud of.
This was supposed to be- and was- a rebuilding year for Detroit. Having lost captain Nick Lidstrom, still one of the steadiest defenseman in the game, as well as veterans Brad Stuart and Thomas Holmstrom, the team that started the lockout shortened season had plenty of holes to fill. GM Kenny Holland made the decision early on that the team was going to retool, and that this was the year that they would promote several of the prospects in the organization, rather than trade them for veteran players who might be able to squeeze another season out of a dying dynasty.
This was all new for Red Wing fans, especially those under the age of forty, who have known nothing but supremacy for the past two decades. Being used to locking up a playoff spot early, then waiting for others to scramble for the last few playoff spots, we weren’t used to riding back with the pelaton, having to win the last four games just to keep the magical streak of playoff appearances going.
It certainly wasn’t easy. The Red Wings set sail with a group of defensemen with little to no experience in the National Hockey League. Suddenly, Niklas Kronwall was the veteran of the group, and the much maligned Jonathan Ericsson stood beside him on the blue line. The inexperience showed, especially early in the season, as they struggled to clear the puck out of their own end under pressure.
In the end, inexperience of the defensemen was one of the key factors in their exit from the playoffs, but one could clearly see the improvement as the season progressed and they became more confident each game. It was hard to miss the fact that this was a team that was learning, and improving on the fly. Brendan Smith, Brian Lashoff, Jakub Kindl, and Ericsson all showed steady improvement, and the errors were reduced in frequency. The experience that they were getting will be invaluable going forward.
This was a team that struggled to score goals, ranking 19th in the league, but they were able to shut teams down, buoyed by Jimmy Howard in goal, ranking fifth in the NHL with a 2.29 goals against average. Not bad for a bunch of inexperienced kids on the blue line. I hasten to add that the Wings have some pretty good defensive forwards that helped out in that effort, not to mention a proven system.
Up front, the Red Wings lost one of the best front of the net forwards that the game has ever known in Tomas Holmstrom. They struggled to find players to go with their skilled forwards who would stand in front of the net and absorb the punishment that it takes to wreak havoc on opposing goaltenders. That is a hole that they still need to fill, despite the emergence of Justin Abdelkader as a front line force who fits the bill on one line.
They sustained key injuries to Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi, and Darren Helm, and they survived them, mixing and matching all season long. They discovered Damien Brunner, who will be the off season’s top priority free agent, and Gustav Nyquist, who is perhaps the most promising, and exciting of the rookies promoted during the season.
At the end of the regular season, Detroit was one of seven teams who finished within four points of the third best record in the Western Conference, and sixth best in the NHL. Six of those seven teams qualified for the playoffs. That the Red Wings were one of them is a credit to the organization, their GM, coach, and players. They can be proud of that accomplishment.
The turning point in the season came in Anaheim, in a rare two game series. The Ducks were on a fifteen game home winning streak, and had just beaten the top seeded Chicago Blackhawks. The Red Wings dismantled the Ducks, led by Abdelkader’s hat trick, then came back and beat them again. They proved something in those games, to themselves, to their fans, and to the league, that the Red Wings weren’t going to go quietly.
The addition of Danny DeKeyser was, in my opinion, exactly the right move at the trade deadline. He brought poise beyond his years, to go with size and skill that the team needed. He is already one of their top four defensemen, and brings something that would cost a bundle to acquire by trade or free agency. His loss in the post season was a big one.
So this was a rebuilding season. I’ve seen rebuilding seasons before. I can remember cold winters, standing outside the old Olympia on Grand River at 6:30 in the morning on the 15th of every month to buy tickets for a couple of games the next month when Ted Lindsay was GM and aggressive hockey was back in town. We were happy just to have a shot at making the playoffs after so many seasons of drought. Every year was a rebuilding year, it seemed.
When you add it all up, and take stock of how the Red Wings stack up vs the rest of the National Hockey League, you have to be encouraged. Despite all the holes they had to fill, and despite the injuries and the five trips to the west coast within seven weeks, they kept going. They finished with the pack, knocked off the number two seed, and took the number one to within an inch of their lives. They’re just outside the final four. Not bad for a rebuilding year. Be proud of it.