Almost every year I get more and more practice with playoff disappointment with the Red Wings and every year is a new experience with it. Just think, in just four more decades of it, I'll be as experienced in hockey heartbreak as a Blues fan. Something is different this year. There's a tinge of familiarity to it that I haven't felt in a long time, but this year's playoff ouster and summer outlook are not like those of years past.
I'm more worried for the Red Wings' future than I have been since the Cap Era started. This isn't the first time that I've felt the Red Wings have gotten farther away from cup contention (as there's no way you can have Nick Lidstrom retire and be as close as you were before), but in doing a mental checklist of what needs to happen for the Red wings to get closer to the cup, this is by far the highest number of "ifs" I've had to mark.
- IF Datsyuk can stay healthy
- IF Zetterberg can produce for a full year
- IF Nyquist, Tatar, and Shehan can take the next step
- IF Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen can find a way to translate otherworldly AHL skills to the NHL level
- IF they can find a guy to take some of the pressure off Nik Kronwall
- IF the goaltending situation normalizes
- IF the rest of the defense can play competently for long stretches
- IF prospects like Mantha, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, Marchenko, Ouellet, Jensen, and Sproul can take a job
- IF they can find a consistent #2C option that can hold his own for an entire season
- IF the coaching can find a way to get the most out of the regular season as development time and not simply limp-into-the-playoffs time, and
- IF they get luck on their side
Now the Wings don't need all of those to hit in order to be a contender. Hell, it's the parity hockey league now, so you try to punch a ticket as the team least-reliant on luck and then hope to get as lucky as Anaheim and Chicago have to get the first two rounds as cupcakey as possible (you see, they put themselves in a good position to get lucky and then benefited from that luck... that's the way to do it).
The frightening number of ifs for the Red Wings isn't a sudden awakening though, it's been a slow dawning.
The Diminishing Prospects
When Detroit took the eventual Cup Champion Blackhawks to seven games in the 2013 playoffs, they did it with an injured Danny DeKeyser and something of a plug-and-play roster where guys like Damien Brunner were essentially holding spots for players who would be better in the future. Jakub Kindl finally looked to have turned a corner and Gustav Nyqusit got some much-needed playoff experience to build from. Things looked up that offseason, as the Wings showed they hadn't dropped off as much as people thought they had.
Last season, Detroit was on the absolute wrong side of the luck coin. Large swaths of games were lost to injuries and the hobbled, suddenly inexperienced Wings were bounced hard out of the first round by Boston. Despite the embarrassing showing, the prevailing thought was that with another year of experience and the fantastic performances by the youth, the Wings could really compete if they could stay healthy.
The first half of the 2014-15 season really showed the kind of promise that the previous season hinted. Detroit was able to stay mostly healthy and were able to dominate teams pretty well, keeping pace around the top teams in the league. Unfortunately, the second half and the playoffs showed that Wings simply didn't have the endurance to keep pace. By the time they were eliminated in the first round by Tampa, the kids were sputtering, the defense was sputtering, and two of the franchise's three cornerstone players had all but disappeared.
The Red Wings, for the most part, were a healthy team. Pavel Datsyuk had an ankle injury that slowed him to 5 points in 7 games, Erik Cole and Johan Franzen were missing as the power forward piece, and Marek Zidlicky was concussed by what was almost certainly a dirty late hit. They weren't perfectly healthy, but no team in the playoffs ever is. Detroit was as healthy as they needed to be to be running in a playoff capacity and they failed. Even more damning is that Henrik Zetterberg's disappointing no-goal performance was put in by a player who denied having any injury at all.
The Diminishing Prospect of the Prospects
With Pavel Datsyuk turning 37 this July and not having put in a 70-game season since 2011-12, along with Niklas Kronwall's underperformance and Henrik Zetterberg's near-vertical decline, it's no wonder that Mike Babcock's first real discussion on the team's future centered around needing to find the guys to replace what these three players used to be. None of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, or Kronwall are bad players anymore, but their ability to play among the upper-echelon superstars in the NHL these days is limited to spurts. Spurts will get a team into the playoffs and can win a round, but relying on four consecutive spurts to win the cup isn't a good strategy.
The kids who are right now forming what could be the next core of the Red Wings are fun and exciting, but in terms of superstars' rise to superstardom, the Wings are relying on them to take the path less traveled. It's worked before, as Datsyuk and Zetterberg themselves are proof of concept, but it's a rarer, more-difficult path. Detroit could end up with true top-tier talent out of this bunch or they could end up with a collection of pieces that are more complementary while lacking a real nucleus. This is especially frightening on the back end, where the Wings don't seem to have a defenseman with the same level of hype as their young forwards.
while there are more good-looking prospects in the system and some of them look extremely promising, the chances of them being able to step into true game-changing roles while the old core remains is a big gamble.
The Edge of the Cliff
The last time Detroit turned over the core of their team was a scary time. The end of Steve Yzerman's career and the loss of established veterans meant that Robert Lang was essentially the old man in the room while fans wondered if Datsyuk and Zetterberg had what it took to get the job done. Fortunately, that team had the constant presence of Nicklas Lidstrom to see them through this era without seeing the Red Wings fall off. Lidstrom remained dominant while the Eurotwins grew into the force they were. This team lacks that safety net.
It's painfully obvious that the Red Wings need exactly what Mike Babcock said they need: young guys to step up and play better. It's weird to consider, since the top two goal-scorers on the team were Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, but by points output, the 55-point range is very good for complementary pieces to a strong core. That's essentially the points output Jiri Hudler put up in 2008-09. He was a very good supporting piece on that team, but that team worked because Pavel Datsyuk put up 97 points, two other forwards cracked 70, and two of the team's defensemen were just shy of 60-point seasons.
Obviously it's not all about point-producing, but Pavel Datsyuk's point-per-game pace isn't going to be around much longer and even then, it's not around for full seasons anymore. He and Henrik Zetterberg can't be expected to continue to maintain their level of production. As that disappears, its replacement has to come from somewhere.
Pull the Sword or Chisel the Stone
Mike Babcock has been talking for a couple years about teams that have gotten back to success by tanking. Those organizations put out a bad team that sucks enough to be handed the rights to draft an 18-year old hockey genius. Some teams do that for multiple years until they have a core of can't-miss kids who need very little development to turn into productive NHLers and only need a little bit of luck to become game-changers. You collect enough of these cost-controlled super-kiddies and make a few wise roster moves with veterans, give them a coach capable of developing them properly, and viola! Instant contender!
Unfortunately, for the 99 percent of the 0.01% of hockey players good enough to even crack the NHL, they didn't win King Arthur's lottery and they have to work every bit as hard as those top-pick superstars to even be above replacement-level. If you're lucky and/or savvy while mining the hockey ranks, you'll find a diamond in the rough kid who's just a late-bloomer and he'll turn into something special.
The thing is that with a lot of these kids, if they're not lucky enough to grab onto an unquestioned spot in the lineup, they've got to get to work constantly proving and reproving that they're worthy of an opportunity to even try out for it. A kid who scores at will in lower levels but finds trouble scoring in the NHL has to round his game out to at least make it so he doesn't constantly get scored on before he can even show that he's learned how to use his natural talents in a meaningful way at the NHL level. Unfortunately, it's also very hard to get enough practice at the higher level. It's the constant conundrum of an entry-level employee who can't get a job without experience and can't get experience without a job.
Babcock and the Rebuild
Mike Babcock is a great hockey coach. In his years at the professional level, he's shown that he can take a collection of highly-talented players and make them dominate at an unprecedented level. That seems like damning with faint praise, but it can be very difficult to convince a collection of the world's greatest talent that they have to work harder than they've ever worked before to achieve success. Babcock has done that multiple times. He's also taken teams going through serious adversity and has driven them to compete like nobody expected them to. We know from watching him do it that Babcock is able to evolve his coaching to get the most out of the team he has. We know that Mike Babcock is as stubborn as any coach in the league too.
What we don't know is whether Babcock can take a team two years from the precipice of rebuild and steer them away from it. We've seen seemingly overmatched Babcock teams put a real big surprise into three teams over the last three years, but we've seen only one series closed out in his favor. Did his magic run out or is that the limit of his capabilities? The numbers are always going to work against the underdogs, but how much of Detroit's underdog status of late has been due to his stubbornness? He can make a good team perform better but can he take a team and make it an actually better team?
Handing Over the Reins
On the one hand, we've been told flatly by Babcock that the Red Wings need their youth to step up. On the other hand, we've watched kids who have shown promise in top-pairing defensive duties denied chances to prove themselves in those roles due to improper fits in dissimilar usage patterns. We've heard sound bites about kids needing to get used to how much less time and space is available in the NHL and then plunked into the most-crowded areas of the ice with teammates who aren't as good at finding a player in space.
Mike Babcock is going to use the players he thinks is best in the positions he thinks are best to make the team win hockey games. He's told us himself that the GM's job is to look to the future while the coach's job is to win games. We definitely want the Red Wings to win games, but the point of the regular season is to make the playoffs. You have to win enough of those to get to the dance, but once you're there, you need to be in a position to win playoff games; that's something the Red Wings have done woefully little of in the last half-decade. Would it be worth it to win fewer regular season games to ensure that your team has overcome the growing pains necessary to make them competitive again? My answer is yes, even if it brings along a higher risk of the team missing the postseason altogether.
The First Step to Recovery
The problem with the Red Wings' plan to reload rather than rebuild is that they're essentially the only team that has made it work and they have exactly a one-cycle precedent of ever making it a viable plan. To accompany the one time Detroit has made a reload work, we have an equal and opposite (not to mention more-recent) example of a team failing spectacularly at it. The Calgary Flames held onto an aging core and dreams of being an outside threat at the cup while stumbling into the playoffs year-after-year. By the time they recognized how bare their own cupboards were, it was too late to get appreciable value for their aging assets to jump-start the rebuild. Even worse for Calgary is that they chased a lucky run into this year's playoffs while getting essentially no closer to being a real contender. They're a zombie team right now and their refusal to recognize it frightens me, because it's incredibly easy to be fooled by the promise of results.
Detroit isn't a dead team walking just yet. At least I don't think they are. Pavel Datsyuk has two more years on his contract and I believe he's capable of being a point-per-game dynamo through most of it. I have to admit I have less faith in Henrik Zetterberg's ability to be a dominant two-way center anymore, but I think he's more than capable of scoring from the wing and shutting down good players from the middle. Nyquist and Tatar are pacing pretty similarly to how Datsyuk and Zetterberg did at their ages; Riley Sheahan continues to impress while also showing a lot of room for improvement. Tomas Jurco can't possibly be as unlucky in the future as he was this year, and Teemu Pulkkinen is simply too powerful a goal-scorer to be kept quiet at the NHL level. Anthony Mantha had good production in a year that was called "very, very, very disappointing." Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet both look comfortable skating up ice against NHL level competition while Nick Jensen's development is coming along nicely.
Do these players have the ceiling to get the job done? That's something we won't know until they're fully tested. Is Mike Babcock the right coach to administer that test? I'm not so sure about that either. We're at a crossroads where the Red Wings' best hasn't been good enough. Mike Babcock will get the best out of whatever team he coaches, but if he can't make them a better team, it's time for a change.