It wasn’t all that long ago the Detroit Red Wings – the mere mention of them – struck fear into the hearts of NHL teams. Built by Ken Holland, and maintained by coaches like Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock, the Wings were the gold standard for hockey organizations, with players lined up to don the winged wheel and play for the Motor City.
Times have changed, and not for the better of the Wings. They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2012-13 season. For the past five seasons, they haven’t made the playoffs at all. And the highest they’ve finished in their division is fifth – and that was only one year; in each of the other four years, they’ve finished either seventh or eighth. The basement. The pits.
Talk about culture shock.
Detroit’s ownership has been lauded for its hands-off approach, and it got even more compliments when it brought back former on-ice star Steve Yzerman to take over as GM and right the course the team had lost its way from. But those who thought Yzerman would instantly replicate the success he had remaking the Tampa Bay Lightning in his first GM job were mistaken. For a number of reasons, the Wings have continued to struggle in Yzerman’s first two years as their GM, and this coming season doesn’t look like that is about to change.
Now that they’re back in the Atlantic Division, the Wings aren’t close to being as competitive as the back-to-back-defending-Stanley-Cup-champion Lightning. They’re not as deep or as talented as their fellow Atlantic teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Florida Panthers. Yes, they’re better than the Buffalo Sabres, but that’s not saying much at all. Heck, they may not even be as good as the Ottawa Senators, who have been in a painful rebuild for about as long as Detroit has.
This is not to say the Wings are bereft of talent. Certainly, center Dylan Larkin is a first-rate player. Yzerman also pulled off a minor-and-potentially-major coup when he traded to acquire former Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic this summer, and he added some veteran help on defense with a deal that brings Nick Leddy into the fold. However, the fact remains the Red Wings aren’t a deep team, and that means one or two injuries to key components this coming year could send them into a tailspin, and guarantee another bottom-of-the-pack finish.
None of this is Yzerman’s fault. He’s like the GMs of many teams – unable to land a franchise cornerstone by the good fortune of winning the entry draft lottery and winding up with an Auston Matthews-Mitch-Marner type of combination, and unwilling to take risks on larger transactions that could leave the team in worse shape than he found it. He can’t sell potential acquisitions on the weather and the income tax situation, the way he could in Tampa. He doesn’t have a head coach who can boast of being a Cup-winner, the way he did when he was a player. All these factors make it next-to-impossible for the Wings to make the leap from pretender to contender.
For now, there is no Pavel Datsyuk-caliber of forward on the horizon for Detroit. There is no Nicklas Lidstrom-quality of defender, either. That’s as much a compliment about Lidstrom and Datsyuk as it is a negative comment about the prospects Detroit has in its development system. Sure, they have bright lights such as forwards Jakub Vrana, Tyler Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri, and defensemen Moritz Seider and Filip Hronek to indicate the cupboard isn’t completely bare, but they remain a longshot at best to earn a playoff berth. And maybe that’s for the best in the bigger picture; does anyone envision them winning a playoff round this season? What they need is more high-end young skill, and you don’t get that by finishing eighth or ninth in the Eastern Conference. You have to go through more pain, and five years of pain clearly hasn’t been enough to position them as a team to keep your eye on.
Yzerman proved in Tampa Bay that he could build a champion, but the situation in Detroit isn’t nearly the same as it was when he started out his managerial career with the Bolts. He has the full confidence of Wings ownership, but all the confidence in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have the assets to back it up. And as it stands, they don’t look capable of making that competitive jump into the mix with the bonafide Cup frontrunners. You know that has to gall Yzerman, but what can he do? He was a superhero on the ice, but that doesn’t translate to team-building. His reputation is among the best in the league, but that doesn’t mean squat through an 82-game season.
Who knows – perhaps the Wings will surprise us all and knock one of the Atlantic’s top teams off their perch on their way to a Cinderella-type finish to the year. But veteran hockey observers don’t expect them to do much of anything of consequence this year. And they’re not the only formerly fantastic squad to experience this: ask the Chicago Blackhawks how difficult it is to recapture the glory of their Cup-winning years. It doesn’t come back just because you have a loyal fan base and superb alumni. Ask the L.A. Kings how easy it has been to return to prominence following their pair of Cup victories. It’s brutal out there for all rebuilding teams, and once your competitive window slams shut, it takes great luck and excellent prospect development to pry it open once again.
For now, all the Wings can do is step up to the batter’s box and swing as mightily as they can. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult slog, and there’s no guarantee they’ll come out of the other side looking as superb as they did in their most recent glory days. All they can do is trust in Yzerman, hope for a small miracle or two, and build from there.
Detroit fans aren’t used to that reality, and that is a compliment about their past. But it sure stinks when it comes to the present and the immediate future. It’s great to be atop the NHL, but when you fall, you can fall fast, and fall far. Ending that fall, and turning around the Wings’ trajectory, may be the toughest challenge Yzerman has faced, as a player or a manager. If he can do it, he might be headed back to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder’s category. But it won’t be an easy or linear voyage. And that’s a fact that must sting for fans accustomed to seeing the best the sport has to offer.