It is almost a given during the middle of April, about the time in most non-lockout NHL seasons when the playoffs are usually in their first week. Each year, as people scramble to file their taxes, the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings begin their annual march towards another run at the Stanley Cup. For the past two decades, one event has been nearly as reliable and inevitable as the other, the remittance of hard work cashed in by teams that always seem to know how to give just enough to play on before raising the stakes when it matters, just as championship teams do.
Since 1990, long removed from the days when an NHL icon could liken them to Mickey Mouse, the Devils have won three Cups and missed the playoffs only twice. It has been just a year since they last played in the final, losing in six games to the surprising Los Angeles Kings last June.
And since 1991, well past the era when fans often referred to the team as the Dead Things, the Red Wings have won four titles, lost in the final twice, and qualified for the postseason each year.
But to the long list of similarities, add this one: Detroit and New Jersey, the two most consistently successful NHL franchises over the past two decades -- even the Penguins went from 2002 to 2006 without making the playoffs -- may both miss the postseason this spring, a notion that has seemed almost unimaginable since the days when Nicklas Lidstrom and Martin Brodeur first broke into the league.
Few teams in any sport are fortunate enough to have lifers on their rosters. At the ends of their careers, even Ray Bourque, Michael Jordan and Brett Favre ultimately wore different jerseys that looked like the work of a clever Photoshopper. But Lidstrom and Brodeur each set a mood, a comportment, and levels of accountability, preparation, achievement and expectation for their franchises, without much flash and dash.
As of this writing, Detroit stands tied for ninth place in the Western Conference, with 47 points, two behind surprising Columbus, which has played two more games, and the same number as Dallas, which has more victories and would own a tiebreaker, in case of a deadlock.
The Red Wings put together 12 straight 100-point seasons, although really their run of consistency dates to the early 90s, when they built a team that was swift, smart, skilled and could counterattack better than anyone else in the league. They embraced European influences, and since Ken Holland took over as GM in 1997, they have been willing to outwork teams physically without necessarily being physically intimidating. Bob Probert had departed and even Joe Kocur was urged to tone down the scrapping during his second stint with the club.
But many of the more talented Wings have moved on, including Lidstrom, who retired last summer after 20 years, and Tomas Holmstrom, one of the league's more annoying presences in front of the opposition's net.
Injuries have taken their tool, too. Forward Darren Helm has played only one game because of a back problem and has frustrated his team, coaches and training staff with his inability to return. Todd Bertuzzi has also been out with a pinched nerve n his back.
Sure, the club has shown flashes of the old Wings. It crushed the Canucks, 8-3, on Feb. 24, with the kind of performance that only an '80s fan could love, and they went into Anaheim, where the Ducks had been untouchable on home ice, and bounced them, 5-1, on Mar. 22 before beating them again at the Honda Center two nights later, 2-1.
Although the Wings have gotten some good minutes from Czech defenseman Jakub Kindl, who is +10 in 36 games, the team's leader in ice time, veteran Niklas Kronwall, has struggled at times, posting a -10 rating, after eight seasons of no worse than -2. In Lidstrom's absence, Kronwall, 32, has tried to assume more of a leadership role, but the transition from being a strong No. 2 or 3 backliner to team leader has not been easy.
"You don't replace Nick," says coach Mike Babcock, "and that isn't something our other D should try to do."
But for all the brilliance they've shown in designing a roster for others to admire, the Red Wings have been lucky in finding some of the few bright spots they have. By Babcock's admission, Kindl, who is yet to appear in an NHL playoff game, has been "a pleasant surprise." Justin Abdelkader has shifted from being a bottom-six forward to a front-liner, usually teaming with veteran Pavel Datsyuk, who is still one of the league's premier two-way forwards and the rare Red Wing who has remained on top of his game all season. Babcock has raved about Abdelkader, who rebounded after a slow start -- no goals in his first 23 games -- to put up nine goals while upping his minutes and leading the team in hits. Even his emergence was kick-started by a good run of fortune. His first goal this season was an empty netter and he followed it with a pair of tallies against the Canucks on deflections, one off his shoulder and the other off his foot.
But good luck rarely trumps age. With players such as Bertuzzi (38), Datsyuk (34), Mikael Samuelsson (36), Henrik Zetterberg (32), John Franzen (34), Daniel Cleary (34) and Kronwall (32) getting up in age, the Wings are not only faced with an uncertain spring, but more uncertainty next season. Holland may have to be especially shrewd and nimble if he is to restore the team it is customary glory, but he's begun taking steps by signing goalie Jimmy Howard, 29, to a new six-year, $31.8 million contract extension, and landing defenseman Danny DeKeyser, the top college free agent, out of Western Michigan. But big changes are inevitable.
Sympathy for the Devils
Before posting a 3-0 shutout win in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Devils had gone on an un-Jersey-like skid of 0-6-4, dropping them to 11th place in the playoff chase, six points behind the rival New York Rangers and the Winnipeg Jets, who are tied for eighth and two points behind the Buffalo Sabres who are also giving chase.
Yes, the team misses forward Zach Parise, who was lost to free agency during the off-season, but others have not filled in sufficiently, especially while Ilya Kovalchuk, the club's leading scorer a month ago, has been out for the past 11 games with a right shoulder injury. Though he had practiced during the past few days with Dainus Zubrus and Adam Henrique, Kovalchuk did not make the trip to Philadelphia.
"We're not going to put him in a spot where he feels uncomfortable," coach Peter DeBoer said. In his absence, scrappy forward David Clarkson leads team with 13 goals. Zubrus, a 17-goal scorer a season ago with 207 for his career, has played 17 games and managed only one tally all season.
Meanwhile, ace goaltender Martin Brodeur has a year left on his two-year contract that will take him to age 42, but his performance has been lacking for the last month. When he went down with a sore back on Feb. 21, his record stood at 8-2-3. He came back exactly a month later, won his next two starts, and spent the next four weeks unable to get a win in 10 more games. Granted, that included four overtime or shootout losses, but since Brodeur took over the reins as New Jersey's starter a million years ago, that is the longest stretch of his career that he has gone without posting a victory while healthy.
Even the sunny Brodeur admitted this week that his team's postseason hopes were "a long shot."
With Brodeur out and slowing down, back up Johan Hedberg has seen more action and not fared well. His mediocre numbers (5-9-3; 2.73 GAA; .886 save pct.) are a good indicator that New Jersey will need to upgrade the position with or without Brodeur next season.
It isn't as if the Devils have abandoned their defense-first mantra. New Jersey leads the league in fewest shots allowed (23.6 per game). Yet the goaltending, once a fixture of strength, has not bailed them out as it has in past years.
Despite periodic talk about the Devils opening up and becoming more offensive-minded over the years, their identity of discipline and restraint, both on the ice and in negotiations with players, has come from Lou Lamoriello, the club's chief architect who has run the tight ship since coming over from Hockey East in 1987. Lamoriello is 70 now. As President, he named himself general manager and twice appointed himself interim coach, among the 18 coaching changes he has overseen since Doug Carpenter was behind the bench when he arrived.
Both Lamoriello and Brodeur give off the impression that they can stay around forever. Yet at some point, the club's key personnel will inevitably be altered. Use whatever phrase you'd like, from an overhaul to rebuild, but no team will likely feel the weight of change as much as the Devils will when Brodeur and Lamoriello move on.
For now, though, in New Jersey and Detroit, two teams that have been standard bearers of consistency are now trying to keep pace with a changing league and with their own resumes, and when the playoffs open at the end of the month, they could have a rare view as outsiders.
It's going to be a strange feeling.