END OF AN ERA – THE REALITY

When Steve Yzerman announces his retirement from the Red Wings, and it may be any day now, there will be a toast to his achievements, a flood of nostalgia, a few tears, and some fans who will say still, “No, it’s not time.” But the sports gods will be saying, “Yes, it is.”

It’s time. For changes. Let’s be honest. For the last few years, Wings fans have been warming by a dying fire. A core of this team – Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom – is still here from the group that won that long-awaited Stanley Cup in 1997. And nearly a decade later, their glow still inspires, they still make us feel good.

But their recent results – and the results of all players since the last Cup in 2002 – are nothing to feel good about. It may seem sacrilegious to criticize the beloved Wings, but if you get them in an honest moment, they will tell you they play to win championships, not Presidents’ Trophies. And when they don’t win championships – worse, when they don’t even get close – they are not getting the job done.

So Ken Holland and Mike Babcock face the unenviable task of reworking the most familiar roster in all of Detroit. They needn’t destroy it. But just as Joe Dumars realized that the Grant Hill era was not going to win big, and the Jerry Stackhouse era was not going to win big, so do the Red Wings need to face the facts: This group, talented as it is, has collapsed too early too many times. It doesn’t just need new goaltending – although it certainly needs that – it needs a new feel. New leaders.

It needs to come apart in order to come back together.

Too many early exits

This is not a fun thing to say. The Wings are solid guys, solid citizens, regulars at our golf courses, restaurants and charity events. But this year, with the best record in the NHL, they could win only twice in six tries against an eighth-seeded playoff team. Yes, I know Edmonton played wonderfully, beyond its ranking. But it is the job of the “best team in hockey” to put teams like that in their place. You don’t do it, you’re not the best team in hockey.

Shanahan once told me, back in the 2001-02 season, that when the Wings took the ice for warm-ups, you could see the awe in the other teams’ faces. What awe is there now? What swagger? When you give up four goals in a third period of a must-win game, you don’t have a swagger. You don’t awe anyone. The Wings, in Detroit, float on a near godly reputation. But everywhere else – especially on the playoff ice – they are painfully mortal. Two years ago, the Wings were booted in the second round by an upstart Calgary team. The year before that, they were swept – swept! – in the first round by Anaheim. Two years before that they lost four straight and disappeared in the first round again – this time to the unlikely Los Angeles Kings. In each of the last three seasons, the Wings have won at least twice as many regular-season games as they’ve lost. But their playoff record is a dismal 8-14.

Yes, they won a Cup in 2002. Yes, other top-ranked teams get knocked out early. Yes, the Wings padded their record this season with many victories against lousy teams.

And? Is that an argument for keeping the status quo?

A problem between the pipes

Now, let’s say what fans of losing teams rarely say: The other team played better. Edmonton outhustled the Wings, outskated them and out-goalied them. The Oilers deserved to win. And by doing what they did in that third period Monday night in Edmonton, they more than beat the Wings, they threw dirt on them. An era must be buried. Yzerman may be the gutsiest leader ever to pull on a Detroit uniform. But when he’s nearly 41 and the team is waiting on him to inspire them, there’s something wrong with the chemistry. And it needs to be changed.

It will begin in the net. Manny Legace waited forever for this chance, but chances do not wait forever in return. A playoff goalie has to be good all of the time – and incredible some of the time. Legace was never incredible. He could never steal a victory. Sure, there were moments where it wasn’t fair, the Edmonton player was coming at him all alone, the puck bounced funny, the angle was really tough. But making those stops is what separates a goalie who gets to hold the Cup over his head from one who does not.

Too many times, Legace was just an inch shy, a knee away, a rebound instead of a stop. By comparison with Dwayne Roloson, who looked like a concrete block, Legace looked like an old wooden shed with the odd chipped piece that a puck could sneak under.

And Roloson is hardly a superstar.

So Legace is likely done. Holland will have to make that move. And I doubt Chris Osgood is perceived as any more of an answer. It says something that the last time the Wings and their fans really felt confident going into the playoffs was when the goalie was a proven all-worlder named Dominik Hasek.

Finding someone of that ilk – especially in this new salary cap era – will be difficult. In fact, making changes of any kind will be much more complicated, now that everything has to fit in your ledger book. But this isn’t just about money.

It’s about money players.

Searching for new blood

This is where Babcock comes in. He has now had a full season to observe his personnel. On paper, he has so many good players. But you don’t play on paper.

In hockey – as in all sports – you need guys who thrive at crunch time. Too many years now, the Wings’ offense has dried up in the playoffs. Guys seem to disappear. Babcock knows who they are. He already was talking about his forwards after this elimination game. And I suspect he may have to eliminate some of them.

But Babcock should be most disappointed by the inability of the whole team to show pride or moxie when it needed to. Before Monday’s game, the Edmonton papers were already crowing about the likelihood of facing Calgary in an “all-Alberta” playoff round. The Wings’ veterans should have taken that as the slap in the face that it was. Who are these Oilers to assume they’ve got the thing wrapped?

Yet with the exception of Yzerman, who spilled his guts on the ice, none of the other guys stepped up in noticeable fashion. Maybe they didn’t believe in their goaltender. But it’s a little late to be showing that on the ice. Babcock must take some blame for this. Wasn’t he hired to light a fire under this roster? To shake loose any complacency?

Wasn’t that the problem with Dave Lewis? The guys didn’t deliver for him? Then why were Babcock’s playoff Wings not much different than Lewis’ playoff Wings?

Because something isn’t clicking – on the ice and in the locker room. Which means the biggest trick will be finding or keeping players who can take the torch from Yzerman – and losing those who can’t. For the last 20 years, The Captain has set the tone for this franchise. The tone needs to be reset. The old campfires doused. The scrapbooks closed. The Wings deserve a round of applause for a great regular season, and Yzerman deserves a standing ovation for his career.

But in hockey, as in theater, when the clapping stops, it is followed by silence, the silence that asks, “What now?”

Well?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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