The Detroit Red Wings fared well in the first year of the post-Steve Yzerman era, but there is disappointment in Hockeytown over what might have been.
After all, it was only a week ago that the Wings were flying high.
They held a 2-1 lead in the conference final, thanks to a dominating 5-0 win in Anaheim’s building.
The Ducks looked practically defenceless during the lopsided loss May 15 and absorbed another blow when defenceman Chris Pronger – their best player during the playoffs – was suspended for Game 4 after a vicious hit on Tomas Holmstrom.
But Anaheim won the next game as well as the two after that, and the Ducks are the ones who will play for the Stanley Cup, while Detroit is left looking ahead to next year.
“A lot of guys answered the bell, responded to the challenge,” defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said after Tuesday night’s 4-3 elimination loss. “We had four good lines that could step up at different times. That’s why we went this far. We just couldn’t take the last step.”
For some, it was surprising that the Wings made it so far considering the state of uncertainty in which they entered the season.
For the first time in two decades, the newly retired Yzerman wasn’t leading the team. Longtime sniper Brendan Shanahan left for New York. Detroit wasn’t even the clear-cut favourite to win the Central Division thanks to Nashville’s emergence.
But general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock had other plans.
Holland made some savvy moves, including signing 42-year-old Dominik Hasek – the hero of the 2002 Cup run – to be the team’s netminder, and trading for power forward Todd Bertuzzi at the deadline.
Babcock challenged his players to get tougher, and they did.
The Wings soared through the regular season, matching Buffalo for the most points in the league with 113. Hasek, who was injury-prone during his time in Ottawa, stayed healthy and provided superior play in goal.
And they kept up their strong play in the post-season, something that had eluded them since their championship five years ago. The Red Wings lost in the first round last year and advanced in the playoffs only once after winning the 10th title in franchise history.
They moved past Calgary and San Jose, needing six games in both series, before faltering against the Ducks.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” said Hasek, who posted a 1.79 goals-against average and two shutouts in the playoffs. “Even though we didn’t do what was our goal, what we did was a very good accomplishment.
“This team will be very competitive next year,” he said. “There are some experienced guys here and some young guys who are going to be even better.”
The question is: Will Hasek be among the returnees?
Hasek, who last year signed a one-year deal with a US$750,000 base salary, said he will make a decision on his future within a month.
“It’s very possible this was my last game. Two, three weeks and I’m going to make a decision,” he said. “It’s my future, what I want to do. It’s me and my family. I love this game. I love to compete. I hate to have a long summer, but I also have to think what I want in the future.”
Bertuzzi’s contract is also up, and his future in Detroit is in doubt.
Regardless of who comes back, the Wings – who relied on veteran players to help them win three Cups in six years – are now led by a young group of players, including the 26-year-old Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, a 28-year-old Russian who signed a seven-year contract extension before the playoffs began.
Datsyuk, the team’s leading regular-season scorer, came up big for the Wings in the playoffs with eight goals and eight assists, something he didn’t do during last year’s opening-round exit.
“We have a great mix on this team, and the future looks real bright,” Zetterberg said.