A 4-1 loss to Carolina last night mathematically eliminated the Detroit Red Wings from playoff contention, meaning that this spring will be the first since 1990 that the team has not played in a postseason game. There is everything and nothing to say about this fact, which signals the end, after twenty-five years, of what was the longest-active postseason-appearance streak in professional sports. It’s a disappointing note on which to say farewell to Joe Louis Arena, which will close after the current season, and it certainly isn’t the way the team wanted to end the season following the death of longtime owner Mike Ilitch in February.
Under Ilitch, the Wings grew into a powerhouse that thrived first in the free-market days of the 1990s and continued to do so right on through the 2000s in the post-lockout salary cap era that was supposed to break up teams like Detroit’s.
Lately, though, these Wings could be confused for strangers in Hockeytown. They simply don’t play the way they used to. That isn’t a lament about the good old days or an allusion to the loaded cliche about “playing the game the right way,” either. The championship teams under Scotty Bowman, in particular, actually were ahead of their time, both culturally– Detroit was a leader in incorporating talent from outside North America– and strategically– Bowman installed a puck-possession approach years before Corsi was anything other than the surname of an otherwise forgettable former goaltender.
As I set out in graphic detail last December, though, Detroit teams under current coach Jeff Blashill inexplicably abandoned– or proved unable to execute– a possession-oriented approach. (As usual, FiveThirtyEight was both late to the scene and confirmed what anyone who reads ALDLAND already knew.) I don’t have the magic formula for a return to contention for the Red Wings, in part because this team is far beyond the orbit of easy fixes. They are not close, and a last-place finish in the conference this season is a likely reality. With the streak over, the franchise focal point needs to be on building toward another Stanley Cup win, not merely a playoff berth. Changes in the head coach and general manager offices need to be considered, uncomfortable as such changes might feel when they involve company men like Blashill and especially Ken Holland.
I am extremely grateful to have grown up in this era, essentially having known nothing but annual playoff hockey in Detroit during a run that included four Stanley Cup championships and a few of the greatest hockey teams ever assembled. I am very lucky to have been able to travel to the Joe to attend Red Wings games in three of the team’s final four seasons at that arena, including this year, in the final season.
This team is at the heart of my favorite growing-up sports memories. I have no reason to doubt that they will return to excellence in the future, but I also know that this run had more high points than most fans of most teams have in a lifetime, so, if this is it, that’s ok too.
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