On Sunday night, the chorus rained down on the ice at the United Center as it always does:
For years, if we can permit ourselves a moment of honesty, the chant has been more envious than hateful. Detroit has failed to qualify for the postseason only twice since 1983. With four Stanley Cup championships in the last 20 years, the Red Wings have been a model of consistent excellence in the NHL. In other words, they have been more than a worthy rival; on the whole, they’ve been the better team.
But times are changing. Though Detroit played the Blackhawks tough before falling, 2-1, in overtime, they’re not the same team. And they probably won’t be again for a long time.
There is no denying the impact a salary cap has had on the NHL landscape; the last team to win back-to-back championships was the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. No team felt the pain of the cap more than the Blackhawks in 2010, when they saw almost half of their championship roster depart. Now, the cap is catching up with Detroit.
The 2013 season will be the first since 1983-84 that the Red Wings play without either Steve Yzerman or Niklas Lidstrom in their lineup. The retirement of Lidstrom, arguably the finest defenseman since Bobby Orr, left the Red Wings with a hole both on their blue line and in the sweater bearing the “C.”
Free agency hasn’t helped them, either. Defenseman Brad Stuart left the Red Wings to move closer to his home, accepting a deal with the San Jose Sharks over the summer. And forward Jiri Hudler, who was one of the team’s leaders in goals scored last year, left for Calgary.
In other years, Detroit would have used the cap space on any number of free agents. Yet last summer, while the Red Wings were reportedly major players for the top two free agents on the market last summer — forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter — the team lost out on both of them.
That leaves them with an older and thinner roster. One sign of trouble: The Red Wings are 2-26 so far on power plays after failing to score in six tries last night with the man advantage. Credit Nick Leddy (who scored the game-winner), Michael Frolik, and Corey Crawford for bailing out a tired Blackhawks team last night, but don’t forget about all the missed opportunities by Detroit to score.
Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary, and new captain Henrik Zetterberg are all on the wrong side of 30 (Zetterberg is the youngest of that group at 32). Without Lidstrom and Stuart, the Wings blue line group features Niklas Kronwall and a largely underwhelming cast of supporting players. When they took the ice in Chicago on Sunday evening, both Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo were out due to injuries, forcing coach Mike Babcock to skate youngster Brendan Smith almost 22 minutes against the Hawks.
Smith is one of two younger faces the Red Wings hope to make an impact this season; forward Damien Brunner, 26, has stepped into a primary scoring role this season and has made a few highlight-caliber plays.
But after losing to the Hawks on Sunday night, the Red Wings find themselves at 2-2-1. Five of their 11 goals through five games came on Friday night in Minnesota.
In a lockout-shortened season, injuries will affect every team. So far, the Red Wings have struggled to keep their key players on the ice. In addition to White and Colaiacovo, Detroit is missing Mikael Samuelsson and Jan Mursak, while Jonathan Ericsson played almost 22 minutes despite a bruised shoulder.
The young Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues present two tough road blocks in front of the Red Wings in the Central Division this year, but the future presents even more questions. Rumors are swirling that superstar center Pavel Datsyuk could return to his home country again when his current contract expires after the 2013-14 season.
If Datsyuk opts to play in Russia after next season, as he did during the lockout, the Red Wings would be left with another enormous hole. And the more holes they develop, the less attractive the team becomes to free agents.
Detroit sucks? Yes, they might. And soon.
The question is: If they slip, will it still be fun to abuse them?