By: Mike McCann
Twenty-one years is a long time. Babies turn into legal drinkers, your average pop star goes from relevant to rock bottom (and sometimes back to relevant), and sports careers often expire. Thus was the case last night, when Tomas Holmstrom officially called it quits at the arena where you learned to love him. What’s odd though is that for the last twenty-one years, that same arena has hosted a playoff game. Four U.S. Presidents, four coaches, and four Stanley Cups later, a lot of fans believe the Red Wings are flirting with golf in late April for the first time since Mark Wahlberg was making (decent) music.
A lot has changed since 1991. Marky Mark has since found that his true calling is without the funky bunch. Yet for the most part, the Red Wings have changed very little. Aside from the very few years where the results in the postseason have left fans upset, this organization has been the class of the NHL. From a success standpoint, there is an argument that it has been the class of professional sports. Three games into the season, it’s pretty clear that the Hall of Famers we are all accustomed to seeing are not there. That does not mean this team can’t keep the streak alive, though. It doesn’t even mean they are bad, although they have not looked themselves thus far.
You’re spoiled, because when you entertain the idea of a team missing the playoffs after three games, then you are pretty used to the playoffs. When Steve Yzerman retired, many felt that the Red Wings would be fine. They had guys who certainly revered Yzerman as a captain, but also guys who had played with him for many years. Nick Lidstrom had been on that blue line for a majority of Yzerman’s career. Pavel Datsyuk had won a cup with Stevie, and many of the younger guys had been playing with Yzerman for some time. Lidstrom assumed the role of captain, all was well, and the Wings won another cup in 2008. Part of the reason they won that cup was because guys like Henrik Zetterberg and Datsyuk became Zetterberg and Datsyuk. They elevated their games to a level that still makes us go “wow” on a nightly basis.
Now Lidstrom is gone, officially ending my childhood, but not necessarily ending the Red Wings playoff streak. When Lidstrom became the captain in 2006, a lot of the players that needed to step up were still relatively new to Lidstrom. He had been there since 1992. He had never missed the playoffs. He had won four Norris Trophies, and a Conn Smythe, but aside from a short list of guys, many weren’t used to Nick. There was still this mystique around Nick that he was one of the best to ever do it. Now with Hank wearing the “C,” things are a little bit different. The list of guys who have been playing with Zetterberg for a while isn’t as long as we are accustomed to seeing, but the guys who must step up have been with Hank. This is a new time. That’s fine, teams change over the course of time. But for the Wings to be the Wings, the names that we aren’t as familiar with must start to become household.
The start has not been the greatest. But you have to remember, this team is a shell of itself right now. They are missing guys who play integral roles in numerous situations. They are getting guys back, like Mikael Samuelsson, who are a few years older, yes, but still can make an impact. And if you’ve watched this team so far, you know how talented Damien Brunner can be. But it’s going to be the guys like Brendan Smith, Drew Miller, Jonathon Ericcson, and Darren Helm that must make this team go. Valteri Filppula must continue to be that hybrid version of Datsyuk and Zetterberg that he has shown flashes of, and he must advance on that. No, he’s not quite as good as the other two, but Val’s got a lot of talent, and it’s time for him to take a bigger role. Johan Franzen must also take a bigger role, and be that stubborn mule that all of us know and love; and Jimmy Howard HAS to be the rock behind it all.
Dennis Fithian raised a good point during his show last night about Mike Babcock. This is Babcock’s eighth year with the Wings and he has not won a Jack Adams Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best coach. As Dennis said, perhaps the reason for that is because the team’s expectations have been through the roof, and I agree; Babcock’s teams in Detroit have never finished below 100 points. Very rarely do you see the coach of the team expected to win it all getting recognized. Well, here’s your opportunity, because the Wings aren’t expected to win it all. This gives Babcock his chance, perhaps to do his best work as a coach, and get these guys playing together and playing well.
Ken Holland and company have built this team into a winner that the city has been very proud of, for a long time now. In an industry where stability means you’ve been at the same job for five to seven years, Holland and his guys have defied all previous expectations. If there’s any GM who has earned our trust, it’s Holland. He’s put a consistent winner on the ice, and kept his name and his team’s name away from trouble. So I’m putting my faith in Holland this year. Yes, they have not looked great after three games, and yes, they only have forty-five games left. But so does every other team and GM. A nice ray of physical play for the Wings has been Jordin Tootoo. I find it only fitting that he wears number twenty-two. After all, what comes after twenty-one?