So You've Made The Playoffs
The Detroit Red Wings are in the playoffs for the 25th straight season, a feat that is both remarkable and totally expected depending on your perspective.
This season has been nothing short of a roller coaster, with much higher peaks and valleys than any year in recent memory. There were times that it looked like the Wings could compete for the top spot in the division, and others where they looked like they'd have a shot at a lottery pick.
Regardless of how you think they got in, the Red Wings are in the playoffs, and they earned it by accumulating enough points via ROWs to finish 3rd in the Atlantic, setting up a rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that ended the Wings' season last year.
The final couple of weeks of the season have been total echoes of the entire year: inconsistent play, baffling decisions, and flashes of what could be. Immediately after the trade deadline, the Red Wings were 3 points behind Tampa and Florida for 1st in the division, and a point up on Boston. An 8-11-0 record over their last 19 games resulted in them finishing tied with Boston for 3rd in the division with 93 points, 10 points behind Florida and 4 behind the Lightning.
It's difficult to define what type of hockey the Red Wings played this year. Early, it looked like the low event style we had come to expect under Mike Babcock was gone, replaced with a new system implemented by Jeff Blashill that was designed to allow a little more creativity and increase offensive chances, at the expense of giving up more shots. Early results were mixed, with the Wings needing time to adjust both to a new system and new players. However, the Wings seemed to hit their stride with the return of Pavel Datsyuk and Mike Green coming back from an early season injury, playing better hockey through the winter months.
This season saw the Wings get younger than they have been in quite some time. Dylan Larkin made the team out of training camp as a 19 year old, while Alexey Marchenko was called up very early in the season and earned one of the 6 defenseman spots. Other younger players were given varying degrees of opportunity to play, with Tomas Jurco, Teemu Pulkkinen, Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha all getting ice time. Not all of them made the most of it, and the leashes put on them by the coaching staff were very short.
As the season wound down and the Wings were hard pressed to make the playoffs, Jeff Blashill and his staff did what any coach does: they rode the veterans and tried to play a safer game that minimized mistakes. Lauren said it best when she explained that Jeff Blashill was doing everything he could to make the playoffs, and his belief was that playing older, more experienced players that were, in theory, less likely to make mistakes was the best way to accomplish that goal.
But here's the thing: that goal has been accomplished. The streak has been extended, at least for this year, and the Wings were able to do that in spite of riding veterans at the expense of developing prospects. Except now the Wings are, in a way, playing with house money. With the news of Pavel Datsyuk's decision to retire after this season now public, there might be a "win it for Pavel" mentality that pervades the room, which could result in the same decisions that we've seen the past few weeks: ride the veterans, don't make mistakes, play safe and not to lose. In other words, focus on the short-term goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
That's admirable, but if Datsyuk does end up leaving, and with other UFAs potentially headed out the door, the Wings should be just as if not more worried about the long-term future of this franchise, which means allowing the kids to play in the playoffs. And not play 6 minutes and hope they do something cool; play meaningful minutes in pressure situations. Because if this is Datsyuk's last year, then that should accelerate the transition from this team from the old guard to the new generation, because next year could, by necessity, see the team get even younger due to salary cap restraints. If that's the case, and assuming the Wings are still interested in competing for a Cup, then there's no reason not to remove the training wheels from the kids and see what they can do. They might falter at times, they will make mistakes, and it might result in the Red Wings losing in the first round for the 3rd straight season and 4th time in 5 years. But Larkin, Athanasiou, Marchenko, Mantha, and even Smith, Jurco and Pulkkinen aren't going to develop into better players by sitting on the bench or in the Cleary Cabana at the expense of older, slower, "safer" veterans. This isn't about turning the team over to them completely and playing them 20 minutes a night; but having strong offensive players only playing 6 minutes a night makes absolutely no sense for a team that struggles to score goals, regardless of their defensive shortcomings.
The Wings are pretty much in a win-win situation. Despite the injuries the Lightning are facing, they remain the favorites over the Red Wings in a lot of people's eyes. Many predicted before the season that this was the year the streak ended, and it wasn't a sure thing until the 82nd game of the season. The Red Wings did what they had to in order to make the playoffs, but this season saw many young players step up and show they are ready to make this team better. There's no better time to see if that's true, both for now and the future, then the next 4-28 games.