Thursday, September 01, 2005

How the mighty have fallen?

A strange thing is happening in Detroit: the Red Wings aren't looking like guaranteed contenders for the Stanley Cup. When was the last time you could say that in September?

And don't think Wings fans haven't noticed.

I imagine for fans of a team that have for so long worked under the assumption that their team will be among the league's best, this is a weird time. I also think they're probably cursing the new CBA out worse than Sens fans were two weeks ago, pre-Hossa trade, when it looked as if this team was about to enter dangerous waters.

Want an illustration of just how bizarre the situation in Detroit is right now:

Gone are the days of Hall Of Famers on the fourth line.

Though they did sign bluechip defenceman Niklas Kronwall, they will are without contracts for two of their most important forwards, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg, and things don't seem to be going well in that area. If you believe what you read from their agents - a dangerous act, I know - then bringing both players back would cost, roughly $6.5 million, as Datsyuk is demanding a salary in the $4 million range while Zetterburg wants $2.5 million. As illustrated by the chart, that's money Detroit doesn't have.

The Wings have already lost a bevy of talent. Gone from last year's team are Derian Hatcher (not so sure that's a bad thing), Darren McCarty, Mathieu Dandenault, Curtis Joseph, Ray Whitney, Boyd Devereaux, Steve Thomas and Jason Woolley, who combined for 43 goals and 83 assists last season. Who's going to fill that gap, especially if they are without either Datsyuk or Zetterburg or both?

Their starting goaltending also appears to be an issue. Though every week there is a new rumor about Detroit acquiring a goalie, whether it's some deal that would land them disgruntled franchise goalie Roberto Luongo or some other trade involving a goalie of high pedigree, it looks like they will be going with the combination of Manny Legace and Chris Osgood.

I like Chris Osgood. I think he's underrated, and was too often the scapegoat during his initial run with the Wings. I especially like him for the price they got him for: under a million dollars. And Legace may be the most proficient back-up in the NHL. But for a team that has had a world class netminder each of the last three seasons, it has to be considered a downgrade.

And speaking of which, if they were willing to sign Osgood, why not use that money to bring back CuJo, since he signed for roughly the exact same contract in Phoenix? Was he so bitter about how he was hung out to dry that there was no way he would come back? If so, what does that say about a franchise that otherwise has had a reputation of treating it's players like kings?

GM Ken Holland seems to have been fingered as the villain in this case, as the consensus among Wings fans appears to be that he was not prepared for a salary cap based NHL and thus has screwed the team. And though I think that's a fair conclusion to come to based on their current situation, this is, after all, a guy who's had nearly a blank check to operate the team from day one. Can you blame him for some growing pains when he has to change his whole philosophy for building a winner?

Though I don't think they will be a basement dweller this season, as they still do play in a relatively easy division, which comes in especially handy now that the NHL is emphasizing divisional play, the Wings can't be penciled in as a team that will be near the top of the league with any kind of certainty anymore.

Here's the reality that, I'm sure, won't make me popular with people in Motown: Detroit hockey fans have been spoiled. Spoiled with having a team full of Hall Of Famers, two of which, as I mentioned, played on the fourth line (Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov.) Spoiled with having an owner who would do anything, including overspending on players, to win, a luxury we all wish our team had.

However, in this "new NHL", where parity is of the essence and, in theory, everyone exists on the same playing field, it's no longer an option to outspend the competitors 2-1.

The fact they draft extremely well and develop players better than almost any organization in the NHL, they'll always be in the mix, but now, that mix contains a whole lot more participants.

Detroit calls itself Hockeytown, with the rationale being, I suppose, that no other city in the world loves their team like they do. With one caveat: if they win.

When the team was bad, which from the late 60's to the early 80's was pretty much all the time, as they only made the playoffs twice, fans stayed away in droves. Stories of the team having to give tickets away are infamous. Once Steve Yzerman came to town as the savior, the franchise's fortunes eventually turned around, and thanks to a new owner who was willing to spend for a winner, all those down years were forgotten and Detroit was the best hockey market in the world.

Now that it looks like the days of dominance in Detroit may be coming to an end, or at least existing far less regularly than they've been used to, we'll see how Hockeytown responds.


At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about Grigorenko? Will he not make the team this year?
He played Europe last year, so he should have recovered.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

Grigorenko is unsigned and will be playing another year in Russia. He was another casulty of Russia not being a part of the new IIHF deal.

And if they don't get him signed for next year, which they say they will, the Wings will lose his rights.

But I do believe he has recovered, yeah.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger James Mirtle said...

With Datsyuk and Zetterberg, I think this is one of the best teams in the league. Even with only one of them, they'll be strong in what will be a terrible division and a very weakened Western Conference.

You'd be hard pressed to convince me anyone other than Calgary has a better lineup than the Wings now that they've shuttled some of their useless veterans.

Without Datsyuk and Zetterberg signed, they've only committed $30-million to their payroll. An extra $9-million can go a long way, and you can bet they aren't going to go into the season with one of the league's lowest payrolls.

In short, this is premature, and they'll be fine. Perhaps even dominant. (I'd take Mark Mowers on my 4th line)

At 5:32 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

With Datsyuk and Zetterberg, I think this is one of the best teams in the league.

I disagree. They'll win their division, because it stinks, but are you positive they'll be in the top 10 overall for the NHL? If you are, I'll call you crazy.

They could very well be there come April, but the point of my post was that the days of it being a forgone conclusion are over, and with their spending being curbed from here on in, may never come back.

You'd be hard pressed to convince me anyone other than Calgary has a better lineup than the Wings

This is all subjective, but:
San Jose

"Without Datsyuk and Zetterberg signed, they've only committed $30-million to their payroll."

Actually, it's closer to $32 million.

At 7:02 PM, Blogger James Mirtle said...

They're Top 10, I'm almost positive. I like their defence and goaltending and Mike Babcock is a good, hard-nosed coach.

Plus, as I said, the West is a free-for-all this year.

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous David said...

I question whether they have the goaltending. Osgood never really was that good and now is a pretty mediocre goalie. Manny Legace is a 32 year old goalie with just 146 games NHL experience. Although he has played well when given the opportunity I am not sure he is anywehre close to being a #1 goalie on a contending team.

They certainly have some talent and depth on defense but lack much experienced depth up front. And we don't know how much Shanahan, Yzerman and Chelios have left in the tank. Shanahan's numbers dropped off steadily his last 3 seasons and you might not be able to count on much more than good leadership from Yzerman and Chelios.

The Wings could be decent to good or they could be in for a huge dropoff.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger miser said...

With Datysuk and Zetterberg, the team will be competitive. The same could be said if by some chance they only sign one of them (preferably Zetterberg as he means more to their offence).

I look to big years from Draper (including a more offensive role), Williams and especially Holmstrom (who I personally believe is extremely under-rated).

Prediction: 5th in the conference

In looking to next year, the salary cap clouds part significantly. I doubt the Red Wings will have Lidstrom, Schneider and Shanahan's numbers as they are now, if at all.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bet Nashville can win the division. They're a solid team.

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't imagine Cujo going back to Detroit after the Hasek fiasco, plus I don't think Cujo's much of an upgrade over Osgoode. His playoff record is actually worse that Osgoode's -- through no fault of his own, Cujo played great in their loss to Nashville. Osgoode's as good as the majority of western goalies (Cloutier, Lalime, Conklin, Markannen, Aebsicher)

At 10:56 AM, Blogger just'cuz said...

But for a team that has had a world class netminder each of the last three seasons, it has to be considered a downgrade. As mentioned above, I'm not convinced that Osgood is a downgrade from CuJo. With their d-men, I don't think Osgood will be called on to be spectacular, too often.

As for Datsyuk and Zetterberg, they can only play for Detroit in the NHL. They could play in Europe but I don't think they'd get the money there that they'd get in the NHL. I think Holland should make "final" offers to them that has to be signed by Sept 10th. After that date, he should sign some inexpensive free agents to short-term deals (Bondra, Damphousse, Francis, Nokolishin, Perreault and Young are still available). There's also the option of "sign and trade." I'm sure there are a few teams that would like to have Datsyuk or Zetterberg.

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Roshan said...

It is indeed strange, upto this year I though that Detroit was a sure thing for 1st, 2nd or 3rd place in the West and could atleast reach the semis without streching. Times have changed. I actually thought that Fosberg was headed there, but it seems to be just a rumour.
Calgary really does look impressive and I can't wait for the season to start.


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