It’s probably not the easiest time to be a Red Wings fan.
At this point in the season historically, the discussion in Detroit typically centers on potential first-round playoff opponents, or who GM Ken Holland might target at the trade deadline to put the Wings over the top. But not this year.
The Wings are currently tied for the East’s final wild card spot, with the grim possibility of missing the playoffs looking as real as it has in decades.
The last time the Wings failed to quality for the post-season was 1989-90, two years before Nicklas Lidstrom’s debut. Since the run of uninterrupted playoff berths began, the Winged Wheel have defined excellence and consistency, winning 33 playoff rounds and four Stanley Cups.
After losing Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom in consecutive years, the Wings, amid an inevitable changing of the guard, advanced to the conference semi-finals in 2012-13, apparently immune to the loss of two legendary rearguards.
But this season, injuries and inconsistency have hampered Mike Babcock’s club. Pavel Datsyuk has missed 20 games, Henrik Zetterberg has missed 13, Johan Franzen has missed 24, and Jimmy Howard has been on the shelf frequently. However, every team struggles with injuries, and Wings teams of years past have made the playoffs comfortably with incomplete lineups. But regardless of what’s behind the Wings’ struggles, they’ll need a torrid pace down the stretch to prolong their playoff streak.
If Red Wings fans think their team’s struggles are the beginning of a precipitous dropoff for the franchise in the coming years, they can forget that notion. Mike Babcock has thus far pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts in sports: keeping his team competitive while shepherding young players who will carry the torch down the road.
For an indication of the Red Wings’ future, look no further than Gustav Nyquist, who scored a hat trick and added an assist Sunday as the Wings fell 6-5 to the Caps in OT. The Wings dropped an important point and allowed the first goal for the 11th time in 12 games, but the silver lining was a breakout performance for one of the team’s future leaders.
Nyquist tore up the American League with 21 points in 15 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins before his promotion to the big club. After his offensive outburst against the Caps, he’s notched 22 points in 30 games, and looks increasingly comfortable at the NHL level. So much so, his name is being mentioned as a potential injury replacement for Franzen on Team Sweden.
Nyquist isn’t the only Wing with a bright future. Fellow rookie Tomas Tatar has acclimated himself nicely as a pro, scoring at a 20-goal pace. Looking to notable prospects in the AHL, there’s forward Tomas Jurco, goaltender Petr Mrazec, along with D-men Xavier Oullet and Ryan Sproul. All three should be impact players. Detroit’s best junior prospect, right winger Anthony Mantha, is leading the Quebec League in scoring at a historic pace. There’s more up-and-coming Wings worthy of mention, which tells you the franchise is set up nicely for another era.
If Detroit falls short of the playoffs this year, their streak will end, but the culture of winning won’t. By the time Datsyuk and Zetterberg retire, the next generation of Wings stars will be established impact players, ready to carry the franchise torch on another run of dominant seasons. That’s how Detroit has operated for nearly 30 years, and one season out of the playoffs won’t change anything.