This is the first week of the rest of the Detroit Red Wings’ life. Their new life. As ground dwellers. They let go of the mountain last week, trading all easily movable players to stockpile draft picks. It is the kind of move teams make when they realize the seasons to come are more important than one they’re in now.
“When I looked at the standings,” Ken Holland, the GM, admitted to me last week, “I had to make decisions. At the trade deadline, we were seven or eight points back (of the last playoff spot) and we had to climb over the whole league. It’s a monumental task that’s ahead of us.”
He could say that twice. Making the postseason would take a minor miracle now. But becoming a Stanley Cup contender again? That’s unchartered territory. Because for years, the Wings just had to reload, not rebuild.They were always pretty close, very close, or there.
And now they are on the ground, looking up.
What a run it was
Which begs the question: Are Red Wings fans now like Lions fans during losing seasons – hoping for the worst record and the highest draft pick?
Not quite. There’s a huge difference between the NHL draft and the NFL version.
“The NFL draft, for the most part, is seniors – it’s 22-year-olds,” Holland notes. “We’re drafting 18-year-olds. The results, for the most part, show up four, five, six years from now.”
So don’t expect immediate impact from the 11 picks the Wings have stocked in the 2017 draft. (They still only have one first-round selection.)
What, then, does this venerable franchise do? The Wings have a brassy new building to open in the fall, lots of excitement, and …
And a team going nowhere at the moment.
Well. First of all, you cannot throw rocks at this franchise before you throw hosannas. Even if the Wings miss the playoffs, it will be the first time in 27 years (since 1990, a ridiculous record) and they’ll be the last team in the salary-cap era to do so. Both marks mean the Wings have accomplished more with their talent (six Stanley Cup finals, four rings) than any team in the last quarter century.
But at some point, gravity takes over. Detroit made a calculated move a few years back to try to win with aging stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Hank Zetterberg. Their last real hurrah was the 2013 Western Conference semifinals, when they blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago, went to overtime in Game 7 and lost. The Blackhawks went on to win the Cup.
In hindsight, the wind came out of the sails that night, and a riskier front office might have cut bait. But with a history like Detroit’s, you always believe your pedigree can carry you.
Sometimes it can. But it can’t score goals. Or stop them.
New era, new challenges
You know the rest. Three straight first-round playoff exits. Pavel Datsyuk departed. Johan Franzen suffered a series of concussions. Mike Babcock left for Toronto.
This last point often gets forgotten. Babcock is the one piece the Wings could have kept. There was no salary cap on coaches. But for whatever reason – a change, a challenge, a massive paycheck – he was allowed to go, with nearly everyone (media included) singing the praises of the man in the wings, Jeff Blashill, who’d never head-coached an NHL game.
So far, Blashill hasn’t spun lemonade from lemons. The Wings have gone backward under his whistle, and that is definitely not because of him, but you can’t say it’s in spite of him, either. It’s all part of things that conspired – along with injuries – to bring the Wings to mortality
Which is where they are now. It is a far cry from the old days, when the trade deadline was like standing under a piñata, waiting for candy. Remember 1997, when the Wings picked up Larry Murphy from Toronto for next to nothing? Or 1999, when they snagged Chris Chelios? Or even 2008, when they sent draft picks to Los Angeles for Brad Stuart?
Murphy played four years for the Wings and won two Cups. Chelios became a Detroit stalwart and won two Cups as well. Stuart arrived and went right to the top, hoisting Lord Stanley months after his arrival.
And don’t get us started on the pre-salary cap free agency. The Wings added names like Hull, Robitaille and Hatcher thanks to an open checkbook. And they didn’t have to worry about losing stars like Steve Yzerman or Nick Lidstrom, who were always going to get paid well.
“These days, free agency is not stars,” Holland lamented. “The free-agent market is good secondary players. So if you want to build a foundation, it’s homegrown.”
Which is what the Wings must do. The good news is they have a long history of finding talent. The less good news is that other teams have caught up.
It’s strange. We are not used to meaningless March and Aprils around here — or trade deadlines that are about what you give away.
“I’d rather be a buyer,” Holland admitted. But when you always buy, you always have to pay. The Wings are paying a different price now. Hopefully, it’s a short tab.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.