TORONTO – There was something surreal, even a little magical, about seeing the current Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings rub shoulders with the alumni legends of their respective franchises in the chilly Toronto air during Centennial Classic weekend. The experience was different for each team, however.
It was almost cute seeing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the talented young faces of a budding Toronto organization, sharing dressing room stall space with Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour. It’s been so long since this city fielded a winning hockey team and especially a Cup contender that it feels like Gilmour and Clark played a hundred years before today’s high-flying young Leafs. The whole experience was warm and fuzzy.
Contrast that to the Red Wings room, in which the likes of Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg shared space with Nicklas Lidstrom, not a legend of a bygone era but a legend who happened to be their old teammate. In the hallways after Detroit’s practice Saturday, Kronwall joked that his old ‘D’ partner Lidstrom looked like he could step right into the modern NHL lineup and make an impact.
It’s a bittersweet thought, a reminder of how amazing Lidstrom was but also of how lost this Wings franchise is. Kronwall, Zetterberg, Jonathan Ericsson, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Jimmy Howard are the only remaining Wings with Stanley Cup rings from the 2008 triumph, which was Detroit’s fourth in an 11-season span. They now sit 16-16-4, their 36 points placing them six points out of an Atlantic Division playoff berth and eight back of a wild-card entry, albeit they have games in hand on the teams they’re chasing.
Detroit’s 25-year playoff streak appears to be in jeopardy. Pavel Datsyuk left the franchise after last season. Kronwall is 35, Zetterberg 36 and Ericsson 32. It feels like the end of something. Even though GM Ken Holland fought against that idea this past off-season, throwing money at free agents Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek, the notion of Detroit finally missing the playoffs shouldn’t scare or disappoint the team’s fan base at all. Scoring a top-10 draft pick for the first time in 25 years would be amazing.
But old habits die extremely hard. The Wings can’t wire their brains to tank. That couldn’t be a more obvious statement, but it’s more than that. Detroit sees something pretty much every team in the NHL sees these days: tantalizing parity. Every team has a shot. The laughing stock that was the Columbus Blue Jackets last season now owns a 14-game winning streak in 2016-17 with virtually the same roster. Just 11 points separate the bottom 12 of the 16 Eastern Conference clubs right now.
“There’s nobody at the early stage of a rebuild,” said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill Saturday afternoon. “There’s nobody that’s hit rock bottom. Everybody’s really good. So every single night is a battle. One thing that does is make it a playoff game every night. The other thing it does is, if you’re not in the playoff picture, it means if you play great hockey you can win games, because you’re right there with everybody else every night, and all of a sudden you can string some along. So let’s make sure we’re taking care of business and playing great hockey.”
The Red Wings would likely be better off tanking in a perfect world, sure. They’re the NHL’s second-oldest team, with an average age of 28.08. Of their 10 players carrying cap hits of $4 million or higher, seven are 29 or older. They can build around young center Dylan Larkin, but their farm system lacks can’t-miss star power, especially on defense. They rank in the NHL’s bottom third in 5-on-5 Corsi.
But the point is moot. Nobody can hard-wire players and coaches to take dives. The only way to tank in today’s NHL is to do it from the front office end and build a team that simply isn’t good enough to win, no matter how hard it wants to, as the Leafs did in recent seasons en route to winning the 2016 draft lottery. Holland continues to ice a roster good enough to hang around the playoff bubble, and the players seem content to do just that, especially when so many teams have a chance in the East. Still, the current state of affairs does feel surreal to holdovers from the glory days.
“There’s no doubt things are tougher every year,” Kronwall said. “Ever since the lockout and the cap came in in 2004-05, there’s so much more parity in the league. Everybody’s thinking when they go into the season that they have a shot. They’re making the playoffs and they’re going for it. I think a lot of teams feel that way. It’s a tight league. It’s harder to come by points. And is it a grind? Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. But if you do things right, do your special teams work, you’ll do just fine.”
Kronwall hit the nail on the head with that last point. Detroit’s power play is a disaster, ranking dead last in the NHL at 12 percent, a huge tumble from finishing 13th last season and second the year before. Defenseman Brendan Smith tried to study the problem while missing most of December with a knee injury and thinks he knows what’s wrong.
“It seemed like we weren’t getting that puck luck, but away from that, we just have to generate more opportunities and get more shots to the net,” he said. “I think I heard a stat saying we’re among the lowest in shots on the power play. So that’s an area we can get better at.”
The path to improvement starts with the Centennial Classic Sunday afternoon at BMO Field, temporarily renamed Exhibition Stadium. There’s no need to hype the game as a special event or a New Year’s Day measuring stick. It’s a big enough game because it’s against the Leafs, a divisional rival hovering three points above Detroit in the playoff hunt. These are the games the Wings must exploit going forward. They embark on a five-game Western road trip after Sunday but play 29 of of their final 40 games against Eastern Conference opponents after that.
Whether it’s a good thing for this team to keep wheezing its way to low-seed playoff berths doesn’t matter to the guys wearing the winged wheel crests. They’ll keep fighting until reality finally sets in. They believe the league’s unprecedented parity will help them triumph.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin