To many, 2016 was a very difficult year. It was no exception for us Red Wings fans. In all this frustration, I’m trying to find some hope for 2017 and beyond.
If we’re measuring simply in 365 days, the story of this new era of Red Wings won’t be completed December 31. The slide to the inevitable did start in that latter half of 2015-16, ironically with a just strong enough March to squeak into their 25th consecutive playoff appearance. It was cute seeing the commemorative playoff streak logo in the middle of the Joe Louis Arena ice, but ominous seeing Pavel Datsyuk skate off it.
On the back of a backed-in playoff appearance and perhaps panic Datsyuk was officially gone, Ken Holland doubled down on the delusion he had a competitive core.
He doled out a long extension to Danny DeKeyser, replicating the cap-era folly in re-signing Abdelkader, Franzen, Kronwall, Ericsson and Zetterberg. He also gave a five year extension to the oft-injured—middling at best, Darren Helm. And because someone somewhere asked “PLEASE SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?” we got Frans Nielson as our UFA prize—a fine, versatile forward, but also age 32, on a six freaking year contract. Mind you, Holland was also outbid for Matt Martin. Had it not been for the Maple Leafs swooping in and saving Holland from himself, that would’ve been another four year contract for a fourth line player.
Abdelkader and DeKeyser are young enough to make it to another contract. However, Nielson, Helm, Ericsson, Franzen, Kronwall and Zetterberg will most likely retire as Red Wings or have some portion or their salary paid by the team until they retire. Other than Zetterberg (and the extenuating circumstance of Franzen), I don’t know how anyone could find this reality palatable.
Had I known the Red Wings wouldn’t even get a meeting with Steven Stamkos before re-signing in Tampa Bay, I would’ve rather the Red Wings retained Datsyuk’s $7 million cap hit. This team is going to eat a dumpster full of dead money anyway. One year of Datsyuk’s contract would’ve been more economical than the reactionary off-season Holland ended up having.
If you want to reassure yourself at the end of this brutal calendar year of Red Wings hockey, think this is the pivot toward bottoming out. The Red Wings have finally reached the point where they must bottom out.
Breaking the post-Lidstrom cycle of mediocrity means accepting a lottery pick and fighting every instinct in your fandom to accept the hurt and tell yourself it will ultimately get better.
This is hinging on the premise, missing the playoffs heading into a sparkling new arena will be embarrassing enough to Ilitch family they demand a fresh approach.
Even with the promise of new young players, there’s growing pains and some (well, most) nights where this team is unwatchable. These are experiences many of us Red Wings fans have never gone through before. We’re damn lucky for that of course. Even I feel guilty taking part of this article to bellow for us “poor, tortured Red Wings fans”. Especially us younger folks who literally only know playoff hockey, who grew up watching legend after legend fill out their Hall of Fame resume in our jersey every night. In the dregs of the NHL’s winter we still got to see Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom, Shanahan, Hull, Larionov, Datsyuk and Hasek with Scotty Bowman leading them on an average night.
As fans, we can’t cling onto this. Our general manager believed it was his job to cling to this and it’s dug the hole six feet deep.
There could be a bright future for the Red Wings, not even that far away. I believe in the current young group of players and prospects like Joe Hicketts, Vili Saarijarvi, Evgeny Svechnikov and Givani Smith (just to name a few). Holland has to believe in them and embrace them too. How exactly that will happen with all the morass in the cap situation, I honestly don’t know at the moment. It wont be swift or easy.
I do know it has to start with this team staying in the bottom of the standings, hopefully moving assets like Thomas Vanek, Mike Green and Tomas Tatar, then hitting on their first top ten pick in 25 years. From there, the process will be difficult and there will probably be some very bad hockey played in that time. We can believe there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
I can’t think of a fanbase who’s been more fortunate than us the past 30 years. That’s over now. I believe 2016 has cemented that with many other harsh realities whether they be personal or public. It’s time to move on and look toward the future.