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.