Vancouver and Detroit Remain Defiant to the End

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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports

Geographical displacement made following the Canucks anywhere near as vigorously as I’d hoped in my childhood a near impossibility. There I was in California at the turn of the millennium, and off in the distance was my home and the team I followed.

It was clear, though, even from 1500 miles away that the Detroit Red Wings were the bad guys. With their All-Star Roster and multiple Stanley Cups as a testament to its quality, they were the Evil Empire. The Canucks, a nominally rebuilding franchise on their upswing, an underdog.

And that was before these clubs met in the Western Conference Divisional Playoffs. As the Eighth seed, the Canucks, led by the West Coast Express, stood as David to the Red Wing’s Goliath. They hurled their share of stones. Two of them, to be exact. Then reality came crashing down hard on the Canucks. Detroit won four straight, fairly convincingly, en route to a third Stanley Cup in a six-season stretch. 

That was a stepping stone on the Canucks’ path to contention. A year later that core would reach their crescendo, making it within a game of the Western Conference Final. The Red Wings, on the other hand, maintained a steadily rising trajectory, en route to another two Stanley Cup appearances before the Canucks had even worked their way back to the top of the league. 

There the two clubs sat, perched side by side atop the Western Conference at the turn of the decade. When their moment came and went, they’d represented the Western Conference twice in the Stanley Cup with Detroit winning in 2008.

The late 2000’s weren’t without their growing pains. The Sedins had to step out of Markus Naslund’s shadow, and the Red Wings had to move on from Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek to name a few players past pasture.

From that point, they were the teams to be. Hell, their records indicate they were among the league’s teams to beat, too.

With Henrik and Daniel Sedin leading the Canucks — while Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk led the Red Wings — that’s a position each club maintained in perpetuity for some time. It was untraditional in a number of ways. Each club relied on players on the wrong side of thirty to lead the charge; players from the wrong side of the Atlantic, as the narrative went.

In a league tip-toeing its way to another dead puck era driven by a leaguewide commitment to slowing the game down and the austere players that made that a possibility, the Red Wings and Canucks kept doing their thing. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t do it well, too.

George Harrison said it best, though – all things must pass. Whether one is wont to face that reality or otherwise.

The Red Wings, trying to keep their 25 season playoff streak alive, haven’t endured the requisite suffering to replace Niklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, and the countless others lost to retirement along the way. For that, they’ve finished no higher than sixth in their conference since 2014-15. A team that once monopolized shot attempt share, Detroit’s barely kept above water the last two seasons.

It’s hard to lose consistently with Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the lineup. Especially when small chunks of the future are sold off like clockwork to plug the holes that surface around them.

Canucks General Manager Jim Benning often faces the brunt of the league’s laughter when people broach stubbornness and an unwillingness to face the reality of a rebuild. Whether that’s fair or not is another topic entirely. 

Watching Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland of late, though, you can see an example in place — at the very least, he’s running a parallel program. If you think the Canucks are paying too much to try and sustain a fledgling clutch upon a winning environment, look at their former rivals.

Centreing the Red Wings maligned fourth line, known to many as the “OMG Line”, is Luke Glendening. They carry a 38.5% Corsi For%. Glendening himself sits at 40% on the season. Holland just extended Glendening to a four-year deal with an average annual value of $1.8-million. The players insulating that line cost close to $1.7-million for the season.

They parted with Teemu Pulkkinen to accommodate a short-term restoration bet on Thomas Vanek. They’ve kept Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou from their lineup to play host to the territorially challenged players currently drowning on their fourth line.

Which says nothing of the moves they’ve made in seasons prior. They’ve dealt, by my reckoning, no less than three players on the cusp of full-time NHL duty for 20+ games at a time of David Legwand and Erik Cole in recent years. Something that Dimitri Filipovic made a point of shedding light on in advance of last season’s trade deadline.

Where Holland’s gotten himself into trouble specifically over the years has been on the occasions when he’s seen fit to pony up a collection of assets for a rental player that likely he figured would help push his team over the hump. Making last second moves out of desperation generally isn’t advisable for anyone, but in his case it’s been especially ghastly over the years

Vancouver, more desperate and less prospect rich, has had to get creative at the deadline themselves. They’ve dealt certainty for players deemed at the time of their acquisition NHL ready. They’ve invested serious capital, short and long-term alike, in stopgap measures to buy them time and keep them in the hunt. 

They’re both taking a death by a thousand cuts approach to their future. They have been for years — at least three of them. 

How much longer they’ll rage against the dying of the light remains a question for another time. The Red Wings sit eighth in their conference; the Canucks twelfth. The Canucks limp into Hockeytown having just snapped a nine-game skid with a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers. Detroit hasn’t fared much better of late. They just broke out from a five-game skid of their own with a win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Though the sample isn’t such that we should look too far into either mark, both club sits in the bottom five of the league in score and venue adjusted Corsi For%. 

At some point, one thinks reality will set in on each defiant franchise. Every dollar spent to preserve a culture that’s already drawn up the divorce papers and every new opportunity left in their wake — it adds up.

The General Managers of the league are all running an efficiency contest, whether they know that or not. Balancing the long and short-term fortunes is paramount in every franchise’s plans. You can only sacrifice the latter for so long before you’re living in it. At that point, you’re up a certain creek without a paddle.

Both clubs have a vision on life support. Rage as they may, everyone faces the dying of the light. Whether a year or two separates each club from this grim reality, it’s one they’ll be facing together sooner than later.