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Entering the lockout abbreviated season, my attitude toward the Red Wings wasn't one of complacency as usual; I was concerned--deeply, deeply concerned.
My criticism was built by GM (and routine target of my frustrations) Ken Holland leaving $12 million in salary cap space untouched over the past two seasons--with this, a seeming defiance to change and construct to conform with a new rapidly evolving league. We get the same stunting of prospects, the same retreading of veterans, the same undersized make-up, except now decreasing in speed and minus one all-time-great defenseman (Nick Lidstrom).
I figured this would be the end of the 21 year playoff streak, finally there would be a bottoming out. After years of being at least in the top half of the overall league standings, the excuse to be stubborn and stagnant was finally over and an executive hand would hopefully be forced.
Then the bastards went ahead and won their final four games of the regular season, clinching a playoff spot on the final day with a win in Dallas. The playoff streak remained, with it the illusion that 2008 really wasn't THAT long ago. Holland got over--not that he would've likely faced any consequence for missing the playoffs anyway.
With the Wings getting hot at the right time, it didn't create the illusion as so much reinforce the reality; Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are still capable of carrying this franchise, they're still elite hockey players who can overpower with offensive and defensive skill despite being in their thirties and a long history of injury.
Red Wings Veterans
Datsyuk and Zetterberg ultimately provided the bailout for this enigmatic team. You wouldn't figure looking at the roster exiting camp that they would amount to much. Had it not been for injuries to Todd Bertuzzi, Mikeal Samuelsson, Carlo Colaiacovo, Drew Miller, Darren Helm and Dan Cleary throughout the year, the weaknesses of this roster might have been exposed. Oddly enough, it's been the young replacements to these injured vets that kept the Wings competitive when the two still thriving superstars actually felt their age and the weight of mortality through small stretches of the season. If it weren't for the effectiveness and energy of the young(er) Grand Rapids Griffins call-ups, I doubt the Wings would've qualified for the playoffs.
Of course I don't know for sure but my assumption is--especially with how he's be CRAMMED into the line-up--that, Samuelsson, The Amazing Money-Pit On Skates, would've been floating around the ice conning this team out of $2 million. A man who clearly should be playing in Europe and would be if it weren't for Holland making what I'll argue as the worst signing of the salary cap era, would've been playing 15 minutes a night in what I imagine has to be some kind of strange black-mail situation between Holland and head coach Mike Babcock.
In Samuelsson's absence --due to his inevitable groin-pulls and various assortment of knick-knack injuries-- emerged Tomas Tatar. The undersized yet strong skating Slovak made an emergency appearance in the line-up all the way back on New Years Eve 2010. It was his first NHL game at an uncommonly green age of 19, that a Helm wrist shot redirected off his stick for his first career goal, sending him into a jubilant and prideful celebration tugging on his winged-wheel. This was the westward breeze that needed to blow in, instead of the stagnant recirculated AC that Holland has been insistent on ventilating Joe Louis Arena with. While Tatar didn't stick with the big club for the 2013 playoffs, this season, he made his time in Detroit count, with 7 points in 16 games including getting major time on the power play first unit. He served as the framework for what was to come these playoffs.
You could make a case that Bertuzzi or Samuelsson are playing in Tatar's place but to counter-act my own narrative, Gustav Nyquist seemed to have gotten the call in the playoff line-up, playing on his wing and his ice time. Nyquist only had two points in the first round series against Anaheim, but both points were on overtime goals, rescuing the Wings from Maple Leafs-esque collapse in game 2 and then setting up fellow rookie Damien Brunner with an emotional winner in the raucus game 4. His third line which includes Brunner--who had a quality 26 points in 44 games--is complimented by Joakim Andersson, who led all rookies in face-off wins during the first round of the playoffs.
The Red Wings attrition hasn't hindered them, it forced them to change and has improved them. Now the question is, with Drew Miller due to come back from a broken hand within the next couple weeks, and the lingering possibility of Helm returning from his troubled back, what changes will Babcock be brave enough to make or not make? While the Ducks appeared susceptible entering this series, they're still a talented and physical group that should've beat the Wings on paper, yet they didn't. This Wings squad is fresh, hungry and you can throw whatever intangibles you want in there--this is a different team that isn't necessarily broken, why fix it at this point?
While Bertuzzi has played some quality shifts and Samuelsson was able to score a soft goal, I think they've done more to slow the pluckiness of this young group. If any changes were to be made, I'd prefer Samuelsson out (then waived and deported) and Tatar in. If Darren Helm were to ever recover, I think he'd work better against the Blackhawks than current fourth-line center Corey Emmerton. If the Wings can develop a tangible edge, it won't be done with size or even raw skill, but speed that comes from youth. Tatar and Helm could add that attribute.
Entering the playoffs my attitude toward the Wings wasn't complacency as usual; I was excited-- very, very excited. I never thought this was a Stanley Cup team, I thought this was a team that could win a series and they've done exactly that. Unfortunately I'm not expecting them to do more against Chicago. This was something we haven't seen in Detroit in 22 years though; a true transition year--though one that was certainly unplanned. The kids were forced into the line up and continued to brighten things when we all expected them to get much darker. Two superstars and an all-star goalie (Jimmy Howard) is a great base, but they're actually winning and building with youth this year.
Again, I'm expecting the Red Wings season to end against the Blackhawks in a short series. Unlike the previous three seasons where a tired and bloated squad failed to exceed round 2, simply making it past the first round is an accomplishment for this young core . It's fun being the underdog for once. It's fun watching a group of young players maturing rapidly before our eyes, especially knowing Danny Dekeyser will emerge through a full season next year and prospects Teemu Pulkkinen and Tatar are still stewing in Grand Rapids. FINALLY we've seen the future and it's brighter than I expected.
For this reason, even if they go down in a sweep to Chicago, I am left feeling excited about the Red Wings future because I've finally been allowed to see one. Hopefully Holland will continue to build up this young core that accidentally got a chance and not revert back to (old) ways.
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer