Friday, April 25, 2014

The Expectations of a #8 Seed

(Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT); Eastern Quarterfinals, 1-3 
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading a post on this blog-type thing knows I do not have a particularly rosy outlook on anything; least of all sports. To call me a cynical pessimist would be kind. I always expect the worst to happen. But there is no chance I was alone last night in fully expecting the end result to be exactly what it was. The Red Wings came out with the jump in their step - whether it was because of Zetterberg being back, or just the generic fire that comes with being down 2-1 and playing at home, it doesn't really matter. They came out and took it to Boston - and left the first period with a meager 1-0 lead. That should've been the first sign of trouble. That they got it to 2-0 is simply salt in the wound of the final result, because even when it was 2-0, it was clear that the ice began to tilt in the second period. When the Bruins made it 2-1, we scowled. When they tied it in the third, we shook our heads grimly. When they won the game in overtime, we sighed.

But at no point were we surprised.

When the Red Wings stifled the Bruins and escaped with a 1-0 win in Game 1 thanks to Datsyuk's magic, the prevailing emotion was not the relief that comes from dodging a bullet, but the relief that comes from stealing something that wasn't yours. That type of relief is directly connected to the sense of disappointment but not genuine anger associated with the end result of the next three games. This series does not have the feel of what it was like to lose to 8th seeded San Jose in 1994, or to lose the first two games at home to #8 Vancouver in 2002, or to be swept by #7 Anaheim in 2003, or be stunned in the first round by #8 Edmonton in 2006. This series is hauntingly different in that the 1 seed, President's Trophy winner, and Stanley Cup favorite is mauling the #8 seed as they should - except the Red Wings are the 8 seed.

This has been a slow swirling of the drain for the Winged Wheel. The slow trickle of talent leaving the roster and idiotic decision-making by Ken Holland combined with the all-too-common-these-days injury problems that riddle this team year in and year out now have led the fanbase to a place where we can no longer realistically expect a championship, but instead find ourselves rooting for a "gritty" and "scrappy" bunch to maybe pull off an upset or two against a juggernaut. They sort of did it against #2 Anaheim last year, but the Ducks are a lot of glitz without much substance; a typical Bruce Boudreau-coached outfit whose play generates a lot of success in the regular season and then fizzles out in the playoffs. Boudreau won four division championships in four years in Washington, and never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. In two full seasons in Anaheim he has two division championships, one first round loss to the Red Wings, and is currently in a 2-2 dogfight with 8th seeded Dallas. The Red Wings icing the Ducks last year may have been an upset in the sense that it was a #7 seed beating a #2, but Mike Babcock beating Bruce Boudreau is the exact opposite of an upset. If the 2009 Capitals had been able to hold onto a 2-0 series lead or win a Game 7 on their home ice, the Red Wings would have an extra Stanley Cup banner. That's how big of a loser Bruce Boudreau is when the playoffs start.

This current matchup against Boston feels closer to last year's semifinal matchup against Chicago. You watch the two teams play, and it becomes very obvious after a while which team is more talented. Last year Jimmy Howard stood on his head and stopped 86 of 88 shots in Games 2 through 4 to put the Red Wings up 3-1 on the Blackhawks. Over the course of a 7 game series, talent usually rises to the top, and Chicago showed that in winning the final three games to take the series, but it was apparent even in the games Howard stole that Chicago was better. The Red Wings themselves have fallen victim in past years to losing to the "less talented" team with the hot goalie. Last year the roles were reversed; just as this year, the roles are the opposite of what we are accustomed to. The arrogance that 20 years of lording over the NHL has instilled in Red Wings fans (myself included at times) cannot withstand the blatant reality that exists as we watch this series: Boston is simply better at hockey. This isn't a scrappy team deploying some godless trap and riding their hot goalie to an upset over our faster, stronger, more talented Red Wings. No. This is the best team (or one of the best) in hockey imposing its will on a depleted, undermanned, and mediocre Detroit team that simply doesn't have the talent to match up. The Red Wings scoring four goals in four games against this Boston team is not a result of laziness, aloofness, or the Bruins mucking it up with a neutral zone trap, or the referees conspiring against Detroit; it's a result of one team playing like an 8 seed, and the other playing like one of the two or three favorites to hoist the Cup 6-7 weeks from now.

Every year now when the Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around, I think back to Game 7 in 2009. That arrogance I just mentioned has clouded me into believing that if the Red Wings had been healthy, they would have won three straight Stanley Cups in 2007, 2008 and 2009 instead of just the one they got. I understand how homerish that is, and my distorted belief does nothing to change the reality of what unfolded in 2007 and 2009, but that's what it is. And it seems like nothing has ever been the same for the Red Wings since they lost Game 7 to the Penguins five years ago. The injury bug that has never, ever gone away started to set in the following season, and something in some form or another has felt "off" every year since that godforsaken night in June 2009. The 2008 Cup team was #3 in goals scored (257) and #1 in goals against (184). The next year they were #1 in goals scored (295), but plunged to 19th in goals against (244). If you recall, there was a combination of significant Cup hangover, but even after that wore off, it always felt like the desperation that comes with playing elite defense in the NHL was never there in 2009. The names and faces were largely the same as they were in 2008, with the addition of one of the best two-way forwards in hockey (Marian Hossa), yet the 2009 team was always more offense-oriented and less interested in clamping down on the other team's offense. Chris Osgood's numbers tanked from .914 and 2.09 in 2007-08 to .887 and 3.09 in 08-09; a catastrophic collapse that was fended off in the postseason until the Penguins did just enough to steal the Cup away.

The aftermath of the loss to Pittsburgh saw Hossa leave, along with Mikael Samuelsson (when he was still a semi-useful hockey player), and Jiri Hudler's sudden desertion to Russia for a year. That was 168 points from 2008-09 that wasn't there for 2009-10. On top of that, Tomas Holmstrom missed 14 games, Johan Franzen missed 55, Valtteri Filppula missed 27, Niklas Kronwall missed 34, Dan Cleary missed 18, and Henrik Zetterberg missed 8. The offseason losses and inseason injuries plummeted the Red Wings from 1st in scoring in 2008-09 to 14th (229 goals scored) in 2009-10, while the defense bounced back to 8th overall (216 goals allowed) in Jimmy Howard's first season as the #1 goalie, as it became glaringly obvious that Chris Osgood was finished. That season brought us the first subtle hint that things were no longer the way they once were when the Red Wings had to start a playoff series on the road for the first time in 11 years, and that series went an unnecessary seven games against Phoenix. The team that looked lethargic and injured all season was easy chum for San Jose in the second round. I had very vocal issues with the officiating in that five game loss to the Sharks in 2010, but nothing that could've changed the outcome of the series. The Sharks were very, very clearly the better team.

2010-2011 was an odd year. There were more injuries - Datsyuk missed 26 games, Brian Rafalski missed 19, Cleary missed 14, Filppula missed 11, Brad Stuart missed 15, and Mike Modano only played 40 games. Despite that, and despite Jiri Hudler returning only to play like someone who had spent a year playing nobodies in Russia, the Wings jumped up to 2nd in the NHL in scoring (261 goals)...only to plunge back down to 23rd in goals allowed (241). Howard's numbers in his second year (.908, 2.79) weren't nearly as good as they were the year before (.924, 2.26), but despite that, the Red Wings won the Central with 104 points - exactly one point behind San Jose, who thus got home-ice advantage again in the second round, and got to host Game 7 after the Red Wings won three straight after going down 3-0. Would things have been different if that Game 7 had been in Detroit? Who knows. Would that Red Wings team have been able to beat Vancouver in the Western Conference Finals? I very much doubt it. But it was this year that really began to show the cracks in the Wings' defense. I thought Lidstrom really showed his age in this season, along with Rafalski, whose back would force him into retirement after the Game 7 loss to San Jose.

On the surface, 2011-2012 looked much better. Injury bug wasn't as bad, team finished 6th in both goals scored (248) and goals allowed (203). But this team was 41-17-2 on February 19th, having just beaten San Jose 3-2 to win their 6th straight. At 84 points, they led St. Louis by five points, Nashville by 10, and Chicago by 13 in the Central Division. They led Vancouver by two points for the #1 seed in the West and the #1 overall seed in the entire NHL. They finished the season 7-11-4, barely ahead of Chicago by point, seven back of Central Division champion St. Louis, and two back of first round opponent Nashville. The freefall was so steep, everybody knew the postseason was going to be brief, and brief it was, a very quick five games and out against the Predators. The Red Wings scored nine goals in the five games. Nine.

And then these last two years, scrambling to get into the playoffs. Last year's abbreviated season was relatively healthy, but a complete clusterfuck of musical chairs on the blueline. Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Ian White, Brian Lashoff, Carlo Colaiacovo, Kent Huskins, Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey. The issue with so many of these names is not just their proclivity for brain-melting defensive zone gaffes, but their complete absence from the scoresheet offensively. That was the often-overlooked part of the system the Red Wings deployed to reign at the top of the NHL for some 20 years and win four Stanley Cups. Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, Coffey, Chelios, Chiasson, Murphy, Duchesne, Schneider. All those guys were defensemen who, at some point in their careers, were serious threats to jump in and score, or threats to make the perfect pass to set up a teammate, or quarterback a power play. Now Kronwall is the only one who seems capable of any such offense on the roster, and the prospects who were counted on to replace the departed vets have contributed nothing. Brendan Smith is still only 25, which is considered brand new in Red Wing years, but has he even shown flashes of doing what he did in college and in the AHL at the NHL level? He had 26 goals and 87 points in 95 games at Wisconsin, and followed that up with 27 goals and 86 points in 152 games in Grand Rapids. So far, in 119 games with the Red Wings, he has six goals and 34 points. Kindl was another first round defenseman pick, but the bloom started to come off his rose even before he arrived in Detroit. By the time he had to stick at the NHL level, the best thing people had to say about him was that he seemed to play better when surrounded by talent. He has nine goals and 49 points in 213 career games, and I know every single one of you that watches the Wings holds your breath when you see #4 jump over the boards, because you never know when he's going to make that ill-advised pinch, or that asinine pass that results in a giveaway. I've often joked that Quincey, Kindl, Smith, Lashoff, and assorted others besides Kronwall (and even him on occasion) have some sort of Wheel of Fortune game going on, to see which Red Wings defenseman will commit the stupidest mistake in tonight's game.

Ken Holland is currently in the process of trying to thread a needle. He's trying to transition this roster from one core of players to another, while remaining competitive at the same time, and doing it without the benefit of multiple draft picks at the top of the draft. The Penguins' championship team in 2009 was centered around a nucleus of four players - Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Jordan Staal - who were drafted 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd overall respectively in four straight years (2003-2006). The Blackhawks are a deep and talented team, but their ascension to the top of the league and two Stanley Cups would not happen without Jonathan Toews (3rd overall in 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st overall in 2007). The LA Kings' championship team of 2012 was largely in part to Jonathan Quick, a 3rd round pick, but they were still led there by high draft picks: Dustin Brown was 11th overall in 2003, Anze Kopitar was 11th overall in 2005, and Drew Doughty was 2nd overall in 2008. Two of the younger, "trendier" teams predicted to have great success in coming years are St. Louis and Colorado. The Blues have players like Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, Schwartz and Tarasenko who were all drafted higher than any recent pick the Red Wings have had. Colorado drafted Matt Duchene 3rd overall in 2009, Gabriel Landeskog 2nd overall in 2011, and Nathan MacKinnon 1st overall last year. They also have former #1 overall pick Erik Johnson via their trade with St. Louis (for Kevin Shattenkirk) a few years back. My point is, all of these teams have had the advantage of being able to draft sure-fire stars with very high draft picks. The Red Wings haven't had a draft pick higher than 19th (Kindl in 2007) since they drafted Martin Lapointe 10th overall in 1991. In EIGHT drafts since the turn of the century, they haven't even had a first round pick at all!

Now obviously I recognize that teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks had to go through some downright shitty seasons in order to draft so high, and the Red Wings were competing for championships while those teams were sucking. But the whole point of this post is to look ahead to the future, and squint really hard to try and see a path for the Red Wings back toward the top of the food chain. It's not easy to see, and Holland hasn't helped himself with some of the moves in recent years. The Red Wings are currently on the hook for nearly four million dollars a year for the next SIX years to Johan Franzen, who turns 35 in December and has completely vanished from the face of the earth. They are on the hook for nearly five million dollars a year for the next four years for Stephen Weiss, who contributed all of four points in 26 games before missing the rest of the season with hernia surgery. They decided to trade one of the best prospects in their farm system for 33 year old David Legwand. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the scuttlebutt from the Wings' beat writers when that trade was made was that Calle Jarnkrok is unhappy in North America and is/was planning on leaving the NHL and going back to Europe. If that turns out to be the case and they simply traded him for whatever they could get, then so be it. But if Jarnkrok sticks around and turns into a player (9 points in 12 games with Nashville after the trade), that is a black mark on Holland's tenure as GM that will never, ever go away.

There is room for optimism. The Red Wings have, by all accounts, drafted well despite drafting late more often than not. They're thought to have a top 10-ish farm system, even without Jarnkrok. Gustav Nyquist was a revelation this season, and even that was (for me anyway) somewhat soured by the fact that he was stuck in the AHL for 25 games because of Holland's cap mismanagement and bizarre fascination with exhumed corpses like Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson, and Dan Cleary. Regardless, he's here to stay now, even though he and Tomas Tatar aren't quite "there" enough yet to cope with a defensive leviathan like Boston. We've been given teasing glimpses of defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, and goalie Petr Mrazek. I wonder how much rope the organization will give players like Smith, Kindl, Quincey, etc. when younger defensemen like Ouellet, Sproul, Adam Almquist and Alexey Marchenko are waiting in the shadows. Mrazek's star has been on the rise for a while now, too; he posted a .916 SV% and 2.33 GAA in 42 games in Grand Rapids last year, and followed that up with .924 and 2.10 in 32 games this year, in addition to the .927 and 1.74 he put up in nine appearances with the Red Wings this season. If he continues to progress at that rate, he may end up making Jimmy Howard's contract look very stupid. And I'm not a Howard basher. I think he's had some absolutely braindead moments (including in this series against Boston), but I think overall he's done a splendid job considering the defense he's had to put up with over the last few years. But if Mrazek develops into a legitimate #1 goalie, what happens?

A dozen years ago the Red Wings anointed Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as the future of the franchise; the kids to whom the torch would be passed from Yzerman and Shanahan. They had their troubles at the beginning, but grew up in the 2006-2007 postseason; not soon enough to save the season in the Western Finals against Anaheim, but enough to set the stage for the magic of 2007-2008. Now, years later, as Datsyuk and Zetterberg inch toward the home stretch of their careers, the next crop is being groomed. You would think Nyquist will develop into a 30-35, possibly even a 40 goal scorer over the course of a full season. Tomas Tatar put up a respectable 39 points in 73 games at age 23 this year. Riley Sheahan is just 22, and he had 24 points in 42 games. Tomas Jurco was a point-per-game player in Grand Rapids this year, and had 15 points in 36 games at the NHL level. Anthony Mantha had 120 points in 57 games in juniors this season; how soon will the Red Wings bring him to Grand Rapids? At 6'5, 205, he certainly has less physical maturing to do than previous prospects in the system.

Between those names, and Ouellet, Sproul, Marchenko and Almquist on defense, and Mrazek in net, is there a foundation for a successful, top-tier NHL team years down the line? Hell if I know. I'm just a fan. I watched Brendan Smith put up 5 assists in the national semifinal at the Frozen Four in Detroit against RIT and thought he had the look of a top 4 offensive dynamo of an NHL defenseman at worst. So I don't know too much about this whole scouting thing. But I know that it's no fun being in the unfamiliar position of tomato can waiting to be stomped by the Cup favorite in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet here we are.


doctor_kaz said...

Boy was that a big loss back in 2009. I wanted that one last Cup so badly. We knew this dropoff was coming and that there's no guarantee we'll get back there in less than 50 years.

This franchise hasn't been the same since they won the Stanley Cup. The intensity and work ethic haven't been there. That 2008 team dominated not just because they were the best, but because they worked their asses off. I can't believe how bad they got defensively almost overnight after 2008. The '09 team made it to the Finals with their insane talent.

All things considered, things aren't so bad. If this damn franchise could ever have a decent injury luck year, we could at least get first round home ice again. For the first time in ten years, we have a crop of young talented forwards that are worth getting excited about. I liked the Legwand trade and it helped us keep the streak alive. I hope that we will keep him to center the third line behind the #2 (Sheehan, Jurco, and Tatar).

Defense corps needs a good offensive defenseman pretty badly, and the forwards need a garbage goal scorer to replace a broken down Franzen.

barnpaper said...

who cares about the redwings? the um section was right on. i'll be dead before um beats osu and msu.