The Red Wings Have Seen Worse
The greying years do come with certain advantages. Over the course of watching up to 11 Red Wing Stanley Cups, Detroit men of a certain age have earned the ability to forget that in 1976 their team passed on Bernie Federko and Randy Carlyle to use the fourth-overall pick on center Fred Williams.
Williams scored two goals in just 44 NHL games of such a dark time for the Winged Wheel as to make the 2019-20 Red Wings seem resurgent. After all, the other night Detroit was down only 3-2 to the league-leading Capitals with five minutes remaining–just a three-carom shot away from ending what has become a 10-game winless streak.
"We have flashes of being a good team; I strongly believe that we are,” said Robbie Fabbri, the newest Red Wing and currently just about the only productive one. “We're just going through a tough stretch here."
See, even being 31st overall, 7-20-3, and last in both goals for and against becomes relative in the bigger picture. This will be a fourth consecutive year in Detroit without playoffs. But if you want to know bad, try one-playoff-spot-in-13-years-bad between 1970 and 1982, an era when only four or five teams didn’t qualify,
So you can come back Mike Blaisdell. Red Wings fans can take it. All is forgiven now that Stevie Yzerman is home, although not quite young enough anymore to score 87 points as a rookie. His job description has changed from being that Stevie Y to drafting the next one. You don’t have to be as old as Zdeno Chara to see everything in cycles, even for lack of one every once in a while to prolong possession in the Detroit offensive zone. While Filip Zadina, just turned 20, is still young, we mean.
The Red Wings have had a great run. No shortcuts towards the next one. But once you have seen the Penguins go boom to bust and back to boom again twice, the Caps and Blues finally win it all, and now a faster Gretzky coming back to Edmonton, you tend to grow some faith that what once came around will come around again.
Patience is a virtue, even with defenseman Dennis Cholowski, who settled for the best view in the Wells Fargo Center last week of Sean Couturier going to the net to put yet another puck in the Detroit goal, this one with 12 seconds remaining in the second period of what had been a one-goal game. Cholowski didn’t budge, the Red Wings’ crystal psyche shattered and two more Philadelphia goals followed in the first minute of the third period. Holy Doug Barkley! Ruined was another determined Detroit effort, at least of a period or two
“We’re fragile,” said Coach Jeff Blashill. “It’s up to us to decide we’re not going to be fragile.”
It’s up to Yzerman to decide whether he wants to go much longer with Blashill, now 143-165-20 in four plus seasons inconveniently timed to the inevitable end of Detroit’s run of 25 consecutive playoff berths. Until this year, Blashill’s team maintained a veneer of competitiveness so three consecutive wins in earlier November, two of them against Boston and Vegas were taken as progress.
But top scorer Anthony Mantha, best defenseman Dennis DeKeyser, and goalie Jimmy Howard, are injured, resulting in a lineup thin on bodies and, consequently, resolve. Grand Rapids Griffins permeate the roster, and, if this isn’t rock bottom in Detroit, you can certainly see it from the Lodge.
Uneasy rests Mike Ilitch, plus a lot of people apparently still alive, including players on the team, at least until something goes wrong. On Monday night, the Islanders, taking a mental night off against the bottom feeders, took five straight penalties until Detroit finally scored on the fifth to cut a lead to 2-1. Then the Red Wings went to the box just 22 seconds apart and of course the Islanders scored.
This has become a lonely vigil for Dylan Larkin, the first brick in the rebuild, better cast as a good No. 2 center than as a No. 1. Having let Alex Ovechkin go to the empty net to put Saturday’s game away, Larkin took out Ovie’s legs from under him after the light went on, not the smartest or certainly the safest thing to do, but not the most pointless either, as regulation loss after regulation loss mounts up. Anger is no substitute for competence but at least the best player on the team hates losing, a start.
It is the barest of ones, however. For lack of alternatives, Filip Hronek, a second-rounder of promise, is playing far too many minutes on the Detroit D for his 22 years. Zadina, a sixth-overall selection has played five NHL games and already looks like a better No 1 pick than was Cholowski, and Tyler Bertuzzi, 24. certainly appears useful going forward. But if Val Filppula is anchoring the second line and Andreas Athanasiou is playing poorly enough to be demoted to the third on this roster, it’s not only injures that are holding the Red Wings back. They had hoped to forge a personality with speed. But confidence ran out, shock settled in, and now the season speeds down the toilet.
“We have to somehow find an identity very soon,” said Frans Nielsen. “Finding a way of playing hockey where we know that we can be successful is so important.
“Every guy has to knows his role. We have to find a way to do that.”
It’s a long way from dead last on December 1 to April 4. But a terrible first third of the season has become a grand opportunity, tank you very much.
As their remarkable run of three Cups, two other finals berths and 34 playoff series won (1984-2009) ran down, the Red Wings were making the playoffs as much on memory as talent, which did not help their draft position and hasten this rebuild. Since entering the lottery in 2017, luck has not been kind, dropping Detroit from the fifth selection to sixth in 2018 and from seventh to ninth in 2017–keeping the Red Wings that year from Elias Pettersson, Cale Makar or Miro Heiskanen.
An unaffordable mediocre pick of Evgeny Svechnkov at No. 19 when Travis Konecny and Sebastian Aho still were available is not hastening the revival. But few teams rise again without having first sunken lower-than-ever into a position at the top of a draft, or, much better yet, two drafts. The Red Wings need a star more than they need to play significantly better in the second half of this year.
The franchise of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel rose again from the Glenn Hicks days and will again, eventually. Losing gets old but age brings a patience that has been practiced in Detroit, for all that city has been through. All good things must end, then will renew. However painful, that’s just the way it works.