It’s officially over.
The Detroit Red Wings, the one constant in playoff hockey for the last quarter century, were officially eliminated from the playoff race last night. It did not end with a bang or even ceremony, they were handily dumped by the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, in front of less than 10,000 people.
The streak lasted 26 years, 25 seasons, and more than 9,000 days.
It’s over, and it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise.
I know that with a brand new arena opening next year fans and the team would want to enter that building with momentum, with hope that this building is a sign of things to come, but such is life.
I previously outlined what went wrong for the Red Wings, so we won’t re-hash that, instead, let’s try to look at why missing the playoffs is a good thing.
You can stop pretending that the streak was a good thing. Yes, I know that any team who makes the playoffs theoretically has a chance to win it all, but in the last three years Detroit has been dusted aside rather easily, winning a total of five games in those three playoff series.
Really, the team was in decline all the way back in 2012 when they were crushed by Nashville in the first round, and then they blew their last real shot the following season when they coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Blackhawks in the second round.
When you’re in decline like the Red Wings were and barely clinging to playoff berths, that’s detrimental to the team going forward. You go from wanting to win Stanley Cups, like they did for say the first 20 years of the streak, to just hoping you hit the minimum qualifier, making the playoffs, like they have for the last three seasons.
Except for rare cases like the Oilers and Maple Leafs, your goal should not be to just make the playoffs, you should think you are going to win it all or have some hope of doing that. Be honest, over the last three seasons, did you think the Red Wings had any real shot at beating Pittsburgh, Washington, or Tampa in the playoffs and winning it all? Probably not.
There are two numbers I think of now that the streak is over, and Red Wings fans will be happy to be rid of: 0 and 38. Zero is the number of Top-10 draft picks the Red Wings have had since 1991, when the streak started. And 38 is the average position of their first draft pick over the past 26 years.
Gone are the days when Mike Ilitch could simply open his checkbook and sign whatever player he wanted to make up for that lack of high draft picks. In the salary cap world where nearly every team (except Colorado and Arizona) are a handful of bounces from either firmly in the playoffs or on the outside looking in, you need to get talent as cheaply as possible, and the draft is the way to do that.
I know the Red Wings nailed it with late-round picks in the form of Zetterburg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Fedorov, Konstantinov and others, but at some point you need high picks to build the team, like the Penguins, Blackhawks, Capitals, Maple Leafs and Oilers have done.
And guess what, because the streak is over, you’re going to get a high pick, probably Top-5, and that means a chance at a really good player who might lead the turnaround the team needs quicker than expected.
Now, that alone won’t fix everything because there are 5-6 terrible contracts on this team (hey Justin Abdelkader, how you doing?) that are going to be hurting the team for the next 3-4 seasons, but it’s a step in the right direction.
And by missing the playoffs, it has given young players a chance to show what they have, something the Red Wings never did for 24 years because of the streak. How good have players like Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and Tomas Tatar been? A hell of a lot better and more fun than watching shitty Darren Helm, Drew Miller, Steve Ott and whatever over-the-hill bum they would normally trot out there because of “intangibles” that brought nothing other than experience in the playoff chase.
This is going to sound weird, but hear me out. I grew up listening to Blackhawks games on the radio when they were terrible. Oddly, that’s how I became a fan of them. They were almost never near the playoff race, let alone in the actual playoffs. But it was fun to watch them rebuild. To see players flash a bit of brilliance here and there, to see what pieces the team could use going forward, to see what moves the team might make to take the next step.
Now you get that chance. In a brand new arena. The playoff streak might be over for the Red Wings and their fans, but think of it as a new chance to fall in love with the team again.
Yes, they are probably going to be bad to middling for the next two or three seasons, but at some point there is a light at the end of that tunnel, I promise it won’t be bad forever.
All good things must come to an end, but in this case, that good thing coming to an end might be the best thing that could have happened to the Red Wings.