Contrarian Corner: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Conference Finals



It’s incredibly likely, albeit not yet certain, that the Detroit Red Wings are about to be bounced from the Conference Semifinals for the second straight year, leaving the Sharks to advance through them once again.

And now we have to start asking very serious questions about what this means for the future of the best franchise of the last decade and a half.

In reality, the Red Wings are still an excellent team, but one whose success is no longer sustainable long-term. They rely on players who are old and getting older for every one of their pivotal roles, they haven’t drafted especially well in about a decade and they are a towering and monumental salute to everything that the NHL was but now no longer is.

Nicklas Lidstrom is the second-best defenseman that ever played the game, and he hasn’t exactly looked his age even in this, his 15th(!) straight season with 76 games played or more, plus playoffs. But even if he was playing like a guy five years his junior, he’s still playing like a 36-year-old. Bryan Rafalski is another heavily-relied-upon defenseman, and he’s 37. We also like to think of Niklas Kronwall as being that team’s young buck, and, comparitively, he is. But he’s also 30 years old and likely only has a handful of terribly effective years in front of him.

The same is true up front. Guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Danny Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper, range from 30 to 39 and have looked rather creaky at times, while still having the ability to display their collectively overwhelming skill at other.

But waiting to take the place of that ultra-successful old guard? Well, that’s a tougher one to figure. Maybe one player you would count as being an effective offensive forward — Valtteri Filppula — is under 30 years old. No one on earth would consider Jonathan Ericsson the heir apparent to the throne of Niklas Kronwall, let alone Nicklas Lidstrom.

The Wings have, what? Maybe four or five more years of being an above-average NHL team at this rate? I have no doubt they’ll continue to sign solid if unspectacular free agents until the big-money guys come off the books, but the dazzling skill of Datsyuk and the steady excellence of Lidstrom is likely not replaceable by anyone currently living. 

Not that the Red Wings would draft that person if they were, because, partly as a function of the team picking around 27th in most of the last decade, and partly because their drafting record is somehow worse than Calgary’s in that time, they haven’t selected anyone worth mentioning in the same breath as even a Tomas Holmstrom since Johan Franzen. In 2004.

And now, the league has largely caught up to them. Their example of building a strong core of players through a couple spectacular drafts has been emulated — and perfected — elsewhere.

Look at the Sharks’ depth and marvel at how they’ve drafted a player that is playing at least a notable supporting role on the current squad in all but one draft since between 2003 and 2008 (Joe Pavelski that year, Torrey Mitchell the following, Devin Setoguchi AND Marc-Edouard Vlasic in 2005, Logan Couture in 2007 and Jason Demers in 2008).

Look at the Blackhawks’ positional strength pretty much everywhere, and realize that they were only prevented from winning the Stanley Cup with ease again this year because their GM doesn’t think the salary cap applies to them.

Look at the Canucks copping the Wings’ blueprint of signing a core to relatively short money and signing phenomenal support players almost exactly, save for investing a lot of money in an all-world goaltender and drafting their asses off early in the last decade (thanks Brian Burke!).

Don’t get me wrong, the Red Wings are still a power in the West. But no longer are they THE power, clear and undisputed. In a decade or so, we might end up saying they made the same mistake Calgary did: relying too much on players that were too old.

They just did it at a considerably higher level.

  • I have nothing against the Wings, except for my biased view that when they play the Flames, the Wings always seem to get the calls.

    It will be interesting to see exactly how much long these old guys last and how competitive the team will be in the next two to three years. Everyone says that they are the model organization to follow. When they start losing (their cycle is coming), who is the next model organization? Drafting is also a by-product of being flukey and they luck out long enough with late round Europeans.

  • I think the Wings dominance may well come to an end if they can’t replace Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Two of the very best all-around centers in the game those and the very center of the Wings continued success. They hit two grand slams with those late round picks and if they can’t do that again, they’ll begin muddling along with the rest of the middle class.

  • SmellOfVictory

    They still have a few years to discover the replacements. That said, even a team that’s good at drafting is unlikely to pull something like that out of a late pick, much less a team that has drafted less than optimally as Detroit has been doing lately.

  • T&A4Flames

    STILL PERFECT Flames nation. loook up all my predictions, and EVERY ONE came true. I called it, King Kess with a HUGE game! Bring on the Sharks or Wings because It doesn’t matter.

    So Flames fans, when it’s a Tampa vs Nucks final who WILL You cheer for? The best team in hockey today or the team that stole your cup in 04?

    What will do you when Tanguay leaves for the Wild?

    What will you do with Hagman and Kotalik?

    What will you do with your goaltending?

    Where will Regher get traded?

    • 1) Send Ivanans out to break his legs

      2) Ship them off to Siberia to work in a hard labor camp

      3) Feed him a crate of Finnish cigarettes, purchased from the money we save by trading Hagman and Kotalik for their weight in coal, and play him another 70+ games

      4) Probably Toronto

      To respond to the article AT HAND, and not some childish gloating, it seems like Detroit has done well. Somehow, Jimmy Howard has gone from being an utter failure whenever called up to being a moderately good goaltender.

      I agree with the article though that once that core group of 30+ers is retired, there may not be much left. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are amazing to watch, but it is unlikely Detroit will be picking anybody like that up anytime soon.

      Detroit also seems very averse to making trades. I think they traded Ville Leino for… Ole Kristian Tollefsen and a 5th rounder back in 2010. Tollefsen is playing in the SEL now. Their signings are more than questionable. Derek Meech? Mike Modano? Sparklepants?

      I fully expect the Wings to return to pre-90s success… which was very little. But at least 3 or 4 years off.

  • T&A4Flames

    I wouldn’t count Detroit out just yet. They still have depth and a winning culture that attract UFA. Every team makes mistakes, they make less than a lot of others do.

    Plus, Detroit is well-known for letting prospects dangle on the vine until they’re “over-ripe” as Holland likes to say so it’s entirely possible that they have a couple of guys already in the system who will be abov-average players in the next 3-4 years. Maybe not Datsyuk-calibre, but judging their future now is a lot more uncertain than it is with other teams. They always seem to have an ace up their sleeve.

    • I agree totally with this. Players want to go to detroit because they have “a winning culture.” I think if they really wanted to they could replace datsyuk or zetterberg, maybe not to the exact skill level but probably close. And I believe that winning has more to do with having a strong supporting cast than it does having one or two superstars i.e. columbus with Nash, Atlanta with Kovlolchuck. I don’t think detroit will fall into serious decline, they’ll continue to make the playoffs for another decade. I wouldn’t be suprised if they slip to around 5th – 7th place but their managment/coaching is too good. You can’t overstate how important coaching is (look at nashville) and Detroit has one of the best in the game.

      • I’d say that winning has more to do with having a couple of very good players than the supporting cast. Realistically you can’t be heavily deficient in any area, but decent/good supporting players are a lot easier to find than great star players.

  • T&A4Flames

    Does it really matter who the Nucks play? Detroit is old, and San Jose has no D. Nucks vs Tampa Final calling it right now.

    I hope the Wings win tonight, so that means more rest for my team.

  • That douche Todd is the exact same guy who said the Canucks weren’t going to win the cup in another post after they barely beat Chicago. He, like every canuck fan, has no confidence in his team.


  • DET certainly has a great organization, but there’s really no “replacing” guys like Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, particularly if we’re talking about free agency in a capped environment. They are top 5% talents in this league.

  • Not to come off as a Lambert hater, but seriously, what was contrarian about this post?

    The Red Wings are getting old is the established opinion, so a contrarian opinion would be one of ‘No, no they are not getting old.’

    Anyways, it was a good read, just not a contrarian one.

  • There are FAKE Todd’s out there, because Kent blocked me a while ago. I never once said we would never lose to the Hawks.

    WOW kudos to Pav for stepping up, and what a punch!

    I’m not worried about the Sedins, but would rather have the matchup against San Jose now.

    Daniel Sedin has 10 points in 13 games! Why is the media keep piling on him? Henrik has 9 in 13. That’s not bad at all.

    As for today’s 960 question, honestly Flames fan would any free agent want to come to your city? YOur core playres are on the wrong side of 30, you have no depth, you have bad contracts for at least one more year, and you ARE not contenders at all. Yes your city is nice, and your laides hot, but that’s about it. I feel bad for Iggy, just trade the guy and let him go win a cup. He’s the only player I can respect on your team.

    Do you really think Tanguay is going ot come back? He’ll cash in somewhere.

    Oh yeah who is your number one center? If you say Backlund I am going to bust a gutt.