Sunday, March 22, 2015

Admiring the Detroit Red Wings

When the Kings won their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons last June, talk of a dynasty was not far behind. Along with the Blackhawks, also winners of two championships this decade, the Kings were the NHL's model franchise.

And here we are with 11 games to go in the 2014-15 NHL season and somehow the Kings are on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. There is still a chance they'll qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but with every lost point, that chance gets slimmer. This supposed model franchise is on the verge of the ignominious distinction of becoming only the 4th defending Stanley Cup champ since expansion in 1967 to miss the playoffs the following season (1970 Canadiens, 1996 Devils, 2007 Hurricanes).

The Kings' struggles this season really put into perspective just how impressive the Detroit Red Wings run of what is about to be 24 consecutive seasons of qualifying for the playoffs is. Since missing the playoffs in 1990,  the Red Wings have participated in the postseason every year since (except of course the 2005 lockout season). They have won the President's Trophy 6 times. They have been to the Conference Finals 8 times (including four in a row from 1995 to 1998). They have been to the Stanley Cup Final 6 times. They have won the Cup 4 times. They were the last team to win the Cup in consecutive seasons (1997 & 1998) and came within a victory of doing it again ten years later (2008 & 2009).

Even with all of their regular season and playoff success, the Red Wings have not been great every season in the playoffs.
  • In 1994 they suffered one of the worst upsets in NHL history when the Sharks knocked them off in 7 games in what was San Jose's first every playoff series. 
  • In 2000 they blew a 2-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 4 lead in the waning minutes to our Kings before falling in six games. 
  • In 2003 they became the first defending champs to be swept the following season when J.S. Giguere's massive pads kept Detroit from earning a single victory in their first round 2-7 series. 
  • In 2006, another 8th seed eliminated them in the form of the destiny-touched Oilers. 

But they have consistently been in the hunt, never failing to at least earn the right to play for the Cup. And despite the praise heaped on the Blackhawks and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Kings in the last few years, no team has matched the success of the Red Wings in the last 24 years. Even in the post-lockout era they match Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston with two trips to the Final, and the Canucks with two President's Trophies.

There has been considerable talk about how the Kings have been impacted this year by the loss of Willie Mitchell last season to free agency and Slava Voynov all season to suspension. In 1997, days after they won their first Cup championship, the Red Wings were devastated when Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov were involved in a horrible car accident. Fetisov returned to the ice the following season but Konstantinov is still unable to walk to this day. Not only did the Wings not use that an excuse, they went out and repeated as Stanley Cup champions.

In terms of roster turnover, Detroit has had 3 captains over the course of the streak, and all 3 are recognized as among the greatest players of all time (Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom) if not at least of their generations (Henrik Zetterberg). 3 different goaltenders backstopped them to their 4 Cup championships (Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood, and Dominik Hasek).

Remarkably, during the course of their 23 years (and counting) streak, the Red Wings have played every single team currently in the Western Conference at some point with two exceptions, the Minnesota Wild and the Winnipeg Jets (they played Phoenix when they were in Winnipeg though and several times since their move to the desert; they also played the Stars in both Minnesota and Dallas; needless to say they beat both incarnations of both franchises at least once). They have also played 8 current Eastern Conference teams (Toronto, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Boston), and will almost definitely play a 9th this year in either Tampa Bay or Montreal.

The only teams they have faced in the playoffs during the streak but haven't beaten are Boston, New Jersey, Toronto, and Edmonton.

I thought the Kings were going to have the opportunity to be the next Red Wings. With Doughty and Voynov anchoring the blue line, Kopitar and Richards strong down the middle, Carter, Williams, Toffoli,and Pearson on the wings, and the best goalie in the world between the pipes, it seemed as if they should have no problem putting up several successful seasons. Even if the Kings find a way to make the playoffs this year, there is no denying that something went very wrong this season.

My hat is off to the Red Wings. Truly, they are the NHL's model franchise and the Kings have an awful long way to go before they can be properly compared to them.

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