By Stu Hackel
When free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter surprisingly signed with Minnesota last week, Al Muir wrote on SI.com how the two stars suddenly made the Wild relevant. I noted the ramifications for their former clubs, the Devils and Predators respectively. But the duo's decision had a huge impact on another franchise: the Detroit Red Wings.
Of the teams in the hunt for the two premier free agents, the Wings were considered their most likely destination and may have been most adversely affected by failing to land even one. The Flyers, Penguins and Blackhawks were in the running, but they all still have good young cores of talent, including some of the NHL's top superstars. You can't say that about the Red Wings' roster now, as talented as it may be. With the exception of goalie Jimmy Howard and forward Valtteri Filppula, Detroit's best players are all over 30 years old and the team lost its top defenseman, future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom, to retirement. Injecting a pair of elite 27-year-olds like Parise and Suter into the lineup would have mattered greatly.
For the past 18 seasons, dating back to 1993-94 when the NHL realigned into its current divisional and playoff format, the Red Wings have worn the mantle of the league's most successful franchise. Probably not coincidentally, that was the season the Wings lured Scotty Bowman to run the bench, make hockey decisions for the organization and instill a championship culture. Since then, through four Stanley Cup championships and two more trips to the Cup final, the faces may have changed behind Detroit's bench and on the ice, but the Red Wings have remained a dominant organization.
One hundred point seasons are expected in Detroit, and apart from the lockout shortened 1994-95 campaign, the Wings have had only had one season during the past 18 in which they didn't hit the century plateau. In fact, expectations of ongoing excellence still surround the franchise. This is a team that has been called 'The Harvard of Hockey" because of its continual high level of play and the cerebral style that Bowman installed and Mike Babcock maintains.
History seems to follow the Winged Wheel around. Even during this past season, not one of the Wings' best, Detroit reeled off a league record 23-game home winning streak. But even during that great run, there were signs that all was not well. The Wings were merely .500 on the road during that early November to late February stretch and they ended the regular season in third place in the Central Division. They hadn't finished that low since the 1990-91 campaign. Their power play, regularly among the league's best, thanks to their supreme skill and skating, fell to 22nd (one reason Tom Renney was hired to be Babcock's new associate coach; Renney's Oilers had last season's best power play).
As good as they were at home, the Wings couldn't win a playoff game at Joe Louis Arena this spring and fell to the Predators in five first round games. With injuries starting to plague the aging roster -- among them, outstanding forward Pavel Datsyuk, now 33, has been slowed for two consecutive seasons by various infirmities -- and Lidstrom hanging up his skates (although, as announced on Sunday, he's staying with the organization as a scout), the loss of pending free agent shutdown defenseman Brad Stuart via trade, the departure of UFA winger Jiri Hudler, the likely retirement of crease dweller Tomas Holmstrom, and questions about just how talented some of Detroit's younger players are, the unmistakable impression is that the Red Wings' status as one of the NHL's best clubs may be in question.
In The Detroit Free Press, columnist Jeff Seidel wondered last week if the Wings are "at the start of a horrible downward spiral." He quoted GM Ken Holland, who said last week, “The mood out there seems to be we are slipping, which we are slipping a little bit, with the loss of Lidstrom."
It's true that no team could suffer the loss of an irreplaceable player like Lidstrom and not feel the effects. But Holland is a realist, and while he would have loved to get either of the Wild's new stars in red and white (or Matt Carle for that matter), he knows the quality of his current roster.
“Any team that has Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Filppula, Franzen, Kronwall, Howard, and Helm on it isn’t a bad team," Holland told Dave Waddell of The Windsor Star. That's still an impressive core and why the Wings can't be counted out, at least in the near term. Holland didn't mention Dan Cleary, another injury victim last season. If Cleary returns to form, his speed and scoring will give Detroit a boost.
Holland added, “There’s also got to be an opportunity for some of our kids and the guys we’ve just signed to play. It’s not a high-profile, big-star team that we’ve had in the past." The consequence of finishing so high in the standings for so many years is that even though Detroit has been able to pluck some little known but excellent talent from Europe, eventually other teams loaded up on the high draft picks and developed strong, deep organizations.
So the Wings' GM must be content with counting on improvement from some of his younger players, like Kyle Quincey, Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist. “We have to have internal growth and development," Holland says. "That has to be part of the solution." He also noted that the Wings added Jordin Tootoo, brought back Mikael Samuelsson to play wing, signed goalie Jonas Gustavsson to back up Howard, and inked speedy Swiss forward Damien Brunner, who impressed Babcock greatly at the World Championships. "They’re not sexy signings, but they’re good fits for our team,” Holland said.
A 2007 first round pick, Brendan Smith is one prospect the Wings believe could become a force on the blueline -- and you don't give a young guy sweater Number 2 if you don't think he's got potential. "We’re going a little younger,” Holland said. “Will we be younger in October? I don’t know."
Still, he knows his team needs to at least land a veteran defenseman for now. "I’ll work the phone and see where it goes," Holland told Waddell. "We have the makings of a good team. I’d like to improve it. Up front, we’ll have offense by committee.”
They may not be the flashy, dashing Red Wings next season. Maybe, as Kukla's Korner Wings blogger George Malik believes, they'll adjust and become more of a chip and chase team -- sort of like many other NHL clubs. That would be too bad for the Harvard of Hockey and fans who have loved the Wings' high-octane game for so many years. There's way too much of the same style being played in the league today.
But, having lost out when two young studs put their family situations above other considerations, Detroit may not have much choice in the new world of the NHL.
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