The Christmas season is certainly a time for giving, and it shouldn’t take long for the Detroit Red Wings’ Christmas season schedule to “give” the Red Wings and their supporters more perspective on just where this team is going — and going refers to two journeys, one is the short-term 2016-17 season which ends in months, and the other is the long-term vision of the franchise which seems to have taken an inconvenient backseat at times over the past few seasons.
You’ve heard it from me before, the illusions provided from being a playoff team for 25 straight seasons have made it very difficult and taxing to determine what are real accomplishments, and what are rewards for just kinda “being there” in terms of mediocrity.
The facts are the facts — almost universally, The Streak has been impressive, unthinkable, and is extremely unlikely to be repeated. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the second-longest current postseason streak in the NHL, and it’s a mere 10 seasons — they missed the playoffs in Sidney Crosby’s 18-year old 102-point rookie season, and the year before Evgeni Malkin joined the team as a 20-year old. Chicago’s done it eight seasons in a row and have won 3 Stanley Cups in the process, but no other NHL team has qualified for the postseason more than six straight except those three teams. It’s supposed to be a cyclical league in terms of success, and for the most part, it is.
But the Wings haven’t won a division since the Central in 2010-11, haven’t hosted Game 1 of any of their past six playoff series (of which they’ve won one), and have given up more goals than they’ve scored in two of the past three seasons, something they’re almost certainly to do again, whether they squeak into the playoffs or not.
Now, the case we don’t often make — a lot of their current predicament hasn’t been their fault. I mean, where do we start?
1. The salary cap. It limits them spending their way to success (smartly, so, in most cases) as they did from the mid-1990s until the final buzzer of the 2003-2004 season.
2. Trading draft picks. Because of #1, teams are far more hesitant to use draft picks as high-leverage currency. Ask any Red Wings, Avalanche, Rangers, Stars, Devils, or Leafs fans and they can give you multiple examples of trading first and second-round picks, almost on an annual basis, because development of those picks wasn’t as crucial as “winning now”, and that’s hard habit to break, and practically all those franchises except the Red Wings (and especially the Leafs) had to suffer some acute doses of reality once the salary cap came into existence. If anything, take a team like the Rangers — it forced them to rely more on scouting and development and drafting better, whereas prior to that, James Dolan and Glen Sather could just throw millions after millions onto the fire in search of the proper amount of superstars, but to no avail. Sather got better at his job (ok, ok, Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, I’m seeing you here) after his budget became much more limited.
3. Coming East. The Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference left them able to be much more competitive in terms of making the postseason than had they stayed in the West. This hypothesis isn’t debated too terribly much, is it? After qualifying for the 2013 short season playoffs by just a single point in the West, the shift to the Eastern Conference has seen them make the playoffs by 3 points over Washington, 1 point over Ottawa, and they won last spring’s final Eastern spot by virtue of tie-breaker with the Boston Bruins. You’d be hard pressed to find many people thinking that without getting 14 games against the trio of Ottawa/Buffalo/Toronto and going 10-3-1, they’d be squeaking ahead of the Minnesota Wild for the 8th seed in the West. Detroit gave up 13 more goals than they scored and Minnesota scored 10 more than they gave up, playing notably superior opposition, and feeling the travel grind of the West as the Wings used to. If anything, the Red Wings’ players who had long careers while the franchise was in the Western Conference (basically from Yzerman’s rookie season on forward, and a couple years before that) don’t get enough credit for how taxing and grueling that was. In 1998-99, the Red Wings as two-time defending Cup champions played only 15 games in the Eastern time zone that weren’t at Joe Louis Arena. This year, they play 26 such contests. If you travel for work, you feel it, no matter how conditioned or youthful you appear. It’s small potatoes, but I once flew to Phoenix on a Friday for an NFL/BBC broadcast, then back to Toronto Monday morning, right back out west to San Diego for another game that Friday, and back to Toronto on Monday. Lovely work if you can get it, but I didn’t feel quite right for about an entire week after. No player I ever interviewed post-Nagano Olympics who played there felt they got their game back for between 2-3 weeks after coming back. Extreme example, but travel matters.
4. Drafting high, even just somewhat higher! Eventually, after a quarter-century, not drafting terribly high (or in the 1st round at all some years) does catch up with you. The last Top 10 pick for this franchise? 1991’s Martin Lapointe. Yeah, he’s almost 43 years old now. Time flies, right? The Red Wings didn’t have a single pick in the TOP TWENTY from 1992-2004, and only broke that run drafting Jakob Kindl with the 19th pick in 2005. I’m well on-record thinking they got a steal in Kindl, but that’s because I broadcast his Kitchener games four times a year when his Rangers were usually steamrolling the Saginaw Spirit, so I almost had too much information. In fact, you’ll be shocked to know that Jakob Kindl, Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, and Dennis Cholowski are the only Top 20 picks the Wings have had since 1991. Utterly remarkable.
5. Free agency. Look, I lived in Michigan and loved it, and many NHLers have come to Michigan and loved it the same way, and during good times with the Tigers and Pistons, players have been very excited to come and play in Detroit, but the Red Wings haven’t done terribly well attracting A-listers for some time now. The pursuit of Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012 is truly the closest they’ve come towards being a destination point since Marion Hossa basically pleaded with the Red Wings to snatch him up on a one-year contract in the summer of 2008. I’ve been told by current and ex-players that the Joe Louis Arena hasn’t been a real desirable place to play home games and set up shop for some time now, and I can understand that. Maybe, and hopefully, it changes when the new arena opens and there’s more optimism — and maybe even this summer was a pull in that direction. I wouldn’t have given Frans Nielsen what the Red Wings gave him in term or dollars, but someone was going to, and he chose it to be Detroit. The one-year deal for Thomas Vanek couldn’t have been the only one-year offer for that player, but he chose the Red Wings also. We’ll see if the tide turns. I’ve watched it here in Toronto and so many theories about the media and the fans and all that mumbo jumbo perpetuated by some just doesn’t add up. If things are going well and the franchise can win, players will find a way to get there and even make some sacrifices to do it. In Toronto, Curtis Joseph, Gary Roberts, Shayne Corson, and Joe Nieuwendyk all made it a point to be a Maple Leaf at a time when the organization was competing for Stanley Cups, and Toronto has swallowed hard and moved in that direction the last 18 months. At some point, the Red Wings may face similar tough questions.
Now, all that said, and in the glare of another low-scoring Red Wings loss to Los Angeles, after another low-scoring loss to Phoenix, there’s considerable confusion about who and what the Red Wings are again, and what they could be in that short-term spotlight of just this season. 30 points in 31 games sounds about right for how they’ve played. Again, with anything near “average” NHL goaltending, they’d have far fewer points. They’re currently tenth in even-strength save-percentage at .927. But their deficiencies are glaring, aren’t they?
26th of 30 in Shots For/Shots Against
22nd of 30 in Goals For/Goals Against
26th of 30 in Corsi (attempted pucks towards the net, if you like!)
28th of 30 in Fenwick
19th of 30 in Shooting Percentage
Then, the basic meat and potatoes: 4 goals in the past 5 home games, all losses in one form or another. And yet, the Atlantic Division is utterly caked in mediocrity from positions 2 thru 8, separated by only 7 points, with just the banged-up Canadiens having gained separation and playing much as they were two seasons ago in 2014-15, when they won the division with 110 points. So, I’m well-aware there are skeptical fan bases, especially in real passionate markets like Toronto, Buffalo, and even Ottawa. But nearing the end of the calendar year and towards the 41-game halfway mark, no one can wave the white flag of surrender and claim to be out of it, least of all Detroit.
We know there are Red Wings fans who want this team to make the playoffs, because, of course, playoff hockey is great fun — it’s a decent reward for attending/paying for a lot of regular season games where the results can affect your mood slightly in one direction or another, but don’t seem of paramount importance, especially on those nights when one team gets two points, and the other gets one.
In addition, I really can’t claim you to be a “bad fan” if you’re hoping the Red Wings fall out of it for the long-term good of the team. To sell assets at the deadline, to have the reality and necessity of more long-term planning come to the forefront. Who the hell cares if they open up in a sparkling and brilliant new barn in October 2017 as a playoff team or not? You might prefer to see a 4th or 5th overall pick that the Wings actually make be IN THE LINEUP Opening Night, instead of knowing your 17th overall pick will keep playing CHL hockey, might get good minutes for Grand Rapids when he’s 21, and might see some time for the Wings when he’s 24 or 25. And that’s in a best-case scenario.
In any case, keep an eye on the Red Wings the next few weeks. This is a brutal part of their schedule to come. One home game left against a more-talented Anaheim team, then a staggering 10 of 11 on the road including the outdoor game at BMO Field in Toronto January 1st. Following the hype and pomp of that game, it’s a quite unfair three in four nights in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose followed by Chicago and Dallas. Oh, and that sluggish first home game (almost always how it works) back at the JLA? Only the Penguins, less than 48 hours after dropping the puck in Texas.
At some point, a team or two in this Atlantic pack will join Montreal and separate, and given it would appear that 5 teams will come from the suddenly-dominant Metropolitan Division, and only three postseason invites will go to Atlantic teams, maybe the reality of things hits home also for fans of the Sabres, the Sens, the Leafs, possibly even the Bruins. But for now, Detroit is strangely in a playoff race, no, not for the simplistic take that “hey, they’re the Red Wings!”, but more because there’s a lot of teams playing with exactly the same consistency in their division, meaning very little.
*** A brief but significant aside — I wanted to use this forum to add to the multitude of people who have been touched by the loss of 23-year old Jamie Daniels, son of Red Wings broadcaster Ken Daniels.
Ken is a friend of mine, a good friend. I’ve probably gotten to know him better since moving to Toronto nine years ago, and being a former Torontonian, and a Fan 590 alumnus, Ken and I have grown close, having colleagues and co-workers in common, and also because the Wings visit a little more than they used to as a Western Conference team.
I was younger and watched Ken on CBC Toronto doing sports, then Hockey Night in Canada, then various Olympics, and when I moved to Windsor for my first-ever job, with considerable and quick-moving aspirations to get across the border and work in Detroit, Ken ended up doing the same (with slightly higher prominence!) landing the Red Wings play-by-play job in the fall of 1997.
He’s always been supportive of me, listened to my show(s) and weighed in with agreement or even outrage at times. When circumstances last February found me in the position of a free agent (well, not even, given a lengthy non-compete) after six great and fruitful years at the Fan, he was one of the first people I heard from, and we’re constantly in touch with each other.
So, the news last week of Jamie’s passing was an absolute gut-punch to me given how much I knew Ken cared for his kids, and how much Jamie looked up to him with awe and admiration. I’m the father of two growing, brilliant, funny boys. I looked up to my dad as a god of sorts — most of us do, and then we transition into friends, while still maintaining and growing that respect and admiration. The physical aspect of that has ended for Ken and Jamie, due to Jamie’s passing, but the memories and admiration will always remain.
Ken and i messaged each other last week, and when there are no words to comfort someone, you don’t know how much or how little to say, but Ken should know by how the hockey community and all those close to him have reacted, firstly, how much we all know Jamie meant to him and his family, but also, how much Ken means and how we will try and be there to support him in any way imaginable going forward.
I feel there are blueprints that get you through tough times: losing a parent, getting divorced, tough economic times, losing a job, being stuck in a job you aren’t happy with, and on and on. There’s no road map for losing a child, because they’re supposed to stand over you, sadly, when you die, not the other way around. But, Ken, if you’re reading this, it was great to have you back at work last night, where you’ve done amazing work for nearly 20 years, there’ll be an army of friends to listen, to talk, and not to move on (because you can’t and won’t and shouldn’t), but to take small steps forward. Rest in peace, Jamie.