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The Evil Empire?

In providing you with the most comprehensive Blue Jackets coverage, we are starting a new feature, covering the Central Division, and its other teams. We begin with the reigning Western Conference and Central Division champions, the Detroit Red Wings (hold off on the boos, please)…

Cause for Concern?

There is no doubt that the Detroit Red Wings represent, in today’s NHL, the closest thing to a Montreal Canadians-esque dynasty. Be it Stanley Cup championships 1996-97 and 1997-1998, The Russian Five/Steve Yzerman dynasty years from 2001-02, and, most recently, 2007-08, the Red Wings – OK, for those of us who’ve experienced it, no, not their fans – personify excellence and class. However, there may be signs that the preeminent dynasty is starting to shows some chinks in their armor.

Although it’s very early in the season, and the Wings did just come off of the dreaded European (season opening) trip with an 0-2 record — having since gone 3-1-1 — there are reasons for some potential concern in the Motor City.

First off, there’s the issue of Ozzie (Chris Osgood), who carried the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup title in 2007-2008. The question I have, as mentioned in a previous article previewing the Western Conference, is this: Which Ozzie are we going to see? Will it be last regular season’s Ozzie, who many Red Wings fans proclaimed as the worst goalie in the NHL (His statistics, including goals against average and save percentage, support that claim.)? Or, will it be the Ozzie of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, in which he returned to the Ozzie Red Wings fans knew and adored? If it’s the former, all is good; if it’s the later, it could result in a very long season.

Which leads me to my next questions: Who’s the backup? Moreover, where’s Conk (Ty Conklin)? Gone are the days in which the Red Wings could rely on having not only one, but two stalwart goaltenders – Ozzie and Dominic Hasek, Ozzie and Ty Conklin, heck, Osgood and Mike Vernon (that’s serious knowledge, Red Wing myopians). But the cornerstone, in addition to their world class talent, was their consistent one-two punch of netminders. Jimmy Howard might be the answer. Lord knows Ken Holland has uncovered and developed some pretty decent, previously unknown, talent. Some guys named Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Holmstrom come to mind, but the lack of a dependable backup could present a problem.

Ken Holland was criticized in some NHL circles for not acquiring a backup or starting goaltender during the March trade deadline or during the UFA signing period. So, should Ozzie and Howard falter, expect a possible trade to take place.

Then there are the injuries. Already, injuries have claimed Johan Franzen — scheduled out for 4 months, with a Torn ACL — and Andreas Lilja — out for the season, with a severe concussion. Although a team like the Red Wings has stellar players waiting in the wings (Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson), they will be required to step up and fill the void left by these dependable veterans.

Another cause for concern is simply one that goes with the spoils of success — the salary cap. While Detroit is, and will be for years to come, a destination for interested players, in order to retain their elite players, they began to experience the restriction that is the NHL salary cap. And while players like Hendrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom, Johan Franzen and others have taken the “hometown discount,” in order to remain with this championship team, as recently as last season, it resulted in having to keep Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm in the minors when they could have been gaining valuable experience.

And while they were able to re-sign Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams, they had to do so at a considerable hometown discount. Thus is life in today’s NHL.

Finally, there were stretches late last season — the 8-0 shellacking by the Nashville Predators, then, on the following Saturday, the 8-2 loss by the Columbus Blue Jackets — that had more than a few Red Wings fans concerned about whether, come playoff time, they could, once again, “flip the switch.” Well, naysayer’s, they certainly did, but not without some consternation, particularly in their second round war against the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks, taking it to a game seven showdown in which the Red Wings prevailed.

I believe, had the Wings faced a more seasoned first-round opponent – sorry to say, but, for the CBJ, it might have been a case of the “deer in the headlights” – say, their 2nd round opponent, the Ducks, perhaps Ozzie would have had his confidence and abilities tested, and that would have definitely factored into how things actually turned out – meaning, an earlier sendoff. But, as the CBJ didn’t pepper Ozzie, for games 1-3, the result was a return of his confidence, and, as we all know, confidence, for a goalie, is 90+% of the battle (and this comes from a former collegiate pitcher – trust me, I know).

Now, in reviewing all of my points, it would lead one to believe that I am in the camp of the impending downfall of the Detroit Red Wings. To quote Lee Corso, “Not fast, my friend!” Need I remind anyone that this was the same team who was one post-hitting shot away from reclaiming the Stanley Cup? Need I also remind all that they still have a world of talent, and they, above all, have one Niklas Lidstrom, quite possibly the premier defenseman of his generation? At 39, Lidstrom, so long as he stays healthy, is the piston which makes the Red Wings run.

So, while there’s reason to believe the Red Wings will be in the mix come SC Finals time, there are also signs that, if the goaltending situation isn’t stabilized, it could potentially spell trouble in the Motor City.

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