Detroit Red Wings’ Struggles Continue – Paying the Price of Loyalty?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Please join us in welcoming aboard the latest addition to our Ice Nation team, Bradley Marsh. Brad is a long-time hockey fan, supporting both his hometown Romford Raiders of the NIHL, and the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. He has experience writing reviews for Gamestyle.com, and we are excited to bring Brad into the fold to cover the Red Wings as Ice Nation UK moves forward into a new era of team-specific coverage, in addition to our usual broad view of the sport.  Welcome, Brad!

Red Wing Captain Henrik Zetterberg has missed long periods this season with injury. (Image courtesy of winnipegfreepress.com)

Red Wing Captain Henrik Zetterberg has missed long periods this season with injury. (Image courtesy of winnipegfreepress.com)

It’s hard to imagine a post-season without Detroit Red Wings in one of the brackets. For over twenty years they have made it and as sure as the grass is green and the sky is blue, there they are. Yet as the 2013-14 regular season draws to a close, there is the very real possibility that the Red Wings will be missing.

Why? What has changed that a team you just assumed would be there, are struggling so badly and are on the outside looking in? Especially after the move to the Eastern Conference, which should have lessened the travel and made things a little easier?

At first glance it looks like there’s a simple answer. The Red Wings have been hit hard with injuries, from the very opening week of the season. There doesn’t seem to be a game pass-by without another player getting a new injury, or a set back for one of the players already out. Whilst it is true that these injuries have taken their toll, it isn’t the only reason.

But before we get ahead of things, let’s look at those injuries for a moment. Datsyuk, Howard, Zetterberg, Helm, Weiss, Alfredsson, Franzen, Cleary, Samuelsson, Andersson, Ericsson, Smith, Kindl, Gustavsson, Eaves, DeKeyser, Abdelkader. All have missed significant portions of the season and have been on Injured Reserve at least once.

Look at that list! That isn’t a bad looking team on the whole, yet for the most part the Wings have been without two or more for weeks at a time. That would have an effect on any team and the Wings are struggling to cope.

It’s not just the names missing that have been an issue. It is the fact that many of those have returned to the team, only to go back out again, which has meant that Mike Babcock has been without settled lines for most of this season…with one exception.

The Kid Line!

Tomas Tatar has been one cause for optimism. (Image courtesy of msn.foxsports.com)

Tomas Tatar has been one cause for optimism. (Image courtesy of msn.foxsports.com)

Gustav Nyquist should have been a full-time Red Wing last season, but injuries have forced hands this season and for once, he cannot be sent down to Grand Rapids time and time again. But he isn’t even part of the line that gives Red Wings fans hope of a bright future.

The line of Tatar, Jurco and Sheahan has been an absolute revelation in Detroit. People knew that the Wings’ front office knew how to draft, but looking at these kids play, their potential, talent and outright desire proves how well this franchise knows the draft-system.

But what this also shows is that a somewhat misplaced sense of loyalty has also held some amazing talent back. When you watch this line play night in, night out, you cannot help but be impressed, but the question still has to be asked…Should they have been in the team on merit a lot earlier, rather than being replacements to cover injuries?

When you look at the roster and see the names of Cleary and Samuelsson, you have to wonder what the logic is behind keeping them? Cleary was as good as gone in the Summer, Philadelphia offered him a contract and he was gone. Yet for some reason he was offered a reason to stay in Detroit and took up a space that could well have gone straight to Nyquist, who early in the season, had to play in Grand Rapids and watch as Cleary stunk up the Joe Louis Arena night after night.

Now Cleary isn’t a bad player, he has had plenty of great years in Detroit and earned a lot of respect. This season however shows the issue Detroit has with loyalty. Cleary should have been cleared out, maybe even hung up his skates, but he got an extra year, so he took it. You look back over the past few years and there are similar stories.

Kris Draper being another example of a great player, who spent one year longer than he should have as part of the main roster. This has a knock-on effect, as you don’t get to push young talent and see what they can do, they sit for longer periods in the AHL and potentially fail to have the impact they should when they arrive in the NHL.

Many wondered how Detroit would replace their legendary captain, have they? (Image courtesy of businessinsider.com)

Many wondered how Detroit would replace their legendary captain, have they? (Image courtesy of businessinsider.com)

The problems though, really started back in 2011 when Brian Rafalski decided that his knees were just too damaged to carry on, so he retired. Whilst it was a shame to lose him, he knew that he couldn’t help the team any more, but his retirement opened up a sizable bit of cap room.

Fans were licking their lips at who they could get to partner Nick Lidstrom, or who could really bolster the team and prepare themselves for the day the great Swede finally called it a day. But nothing really happened, in fact the team ended up with the likes of Kyle Quincey, before losing Brad Stuart and then the shock (and it was a shock at the time) retirement of The Perfect Human.

All of a sudden they were left very short in defence. From having Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, Stuart and Ericsson, to being left with just Kronwall and Ericsson as the top guys. With no disrespect to Jonathan Ericsson, he should not be a top 2 defensemen at this time. Top 4? Fine, but not top 2.

The Wings went after UFA players like Ryan Suter and Zac Parise and it seemed as though it was a case of putting all their eggs in one basket, because there just wasn’t a back-up play when those deals failed to happen. You look at the roster now and have to wonder what direction they should take heading into the summer?

There is no trade bait, who is going to want Cleary, Bertuzzi, Samuelsson? They won’t bring anything in. Do you get rid of the work-rate of a Drew Miller? Can you afford to? Sure other teams are going to want the likes of Nyquist, Jurco, Tatar, but the Wings would be mad to give them up. They won’t trade away Datsyuk or Zetterberg as that would be pure madness also.

Red Wings' GM Ken Holland might have big decisions to make when summer rolls around. (Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com)

Red Wings GM Ken Holland might have big decisions to make when summer rolls around. (Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com)

Do they trust now in the youth? Do they refuse to offer contracts to the upcoming UFA players on the roster?

Samuelsson is on $3m per year and is unrestricted in the summer… A $3m contract for Samuelsson? That is where the budget went. $3.75m for Quincey $1.75m for Cleary, just over $2m for Bertuzzi.

These are players who take up around $10m a season and offer very little to the team any longer. Yet waiting in the wings are the likes of Xavier Ouellet, Anthony Mantha, Martin Frk, Teemu Pulkkinen, Ryan Sproul and so many others. These players would take up a fraction of the cost of those who are UFA’s in the summer.

Now it wouldn’t make sense to bring all of these kids in straight away, but even getting the likes of Tatar and Sheahan onto the roster full time would be a better use of the cap, rather than having players who are now beyond their use still around.

Hell, even the likes of Alfredsson could be let go, the Wings owe him no loyalty and maybe need to be a bit ruthless. That is up to Kenny Holland though. There are some interesting players hitting the UFA market, which could be a decent bridge over the next couple of years, both to give the Wings a boost on the roster and allow some of the talent to start coming through.

If Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen can stay fit, along with Helm, Abdelkader, Weiss, The Kid Line, possibly re-signing Legwand to a short contract and bringing in the right UFA or making the right trade, then there are plenty of reasons to be positive looking forward. But Detroit must be ruthless in the summer, loyalty must go out the window, otherwise it could be a barren few years ahead.

If Detroit were to miss the playoffs this year, it may not be the worst thing to happen, as it finally exposes the problems that have been brewing over the past 4-5 years. Making the post-season even when it was a battle, has papered over many cracks, but those are now fully exposed… Just how good are you when the pressure is really on Mr Holland? We may be about to find out!

Follow Brad on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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