Another long year in Detroit

Listen, I’m as devoted to Red Wings hockey as they come. For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched the boys in red and white lace them up, fighting to defend the Winged Wheel proudly emblazoned on their chests. Truth be told, I’ve considered it somewhat of an escape. A welcome getaway, if only for a few hours, from the often frigid temperatures outside.

Of course, they’ve always won. It’s hardly been a burden to sit and watch a band of winners go to work. You see, for the better part of my life, the Detroit Red Wings have been a model franchise, perennial contenders, and a standard of excellence in a league with more turnover than an English bakery. The thought of them missing the playoffs was preposterous, a pipe dream for outsiders looking in. No way, no how I told myself.

That aura of smugness dissipated last season when the Red Wings’ historic 25-year playoff streak came to a screeching halt. No longer could fans like myself puff out our chests with authority while others clawed their way toward the postseason. 2016-17 marked an oddly unsettling new era for Detroit hockey, one where the Red Wings were just like everybody else.

The Red Wings’ model had collapsed upon itself. The club’s insistence on trading valuable draft picks for aging veterans in an effort to preserve the aforementioned streak had backfired. Pavel Datsyuk had departed for his native Russia, and no diamond in the rough was waiting in the wings (pun intended). To make matters worse, young stars in Dylan Larkin and Gustav Nyquist had regressed. Detroit hockey was, by all accounts, in a state of disarray.

2017-18 will mark another new era for the Red Wings’ faithful. For the first time since 1979, the team will skate in a new building, under the bright lights of the newly-constructed Little Caesars Arena, a hot-and-ready trademark that should explain the title to what you’re reading. Joe Louis Arena, the club’s former home, has been laid to rest alongside franchise greats Mike Illitch and Gordie Howe. A bittersweet rebirth for the Wings, for certain, but a necessary step forward for a team in desperate need of a new identity.

A look inside the new Little Caesars Arena

Fancy new surroundings aside, questions aplenty loom in Detroit entering a new year. Will a new home reenergize a group that just last year appeared to be going through the motions? Will the Red Wings figure out ways to score? Will the middling defensive core be enough to even keep the team afloat? The short answer to them all: no. The long-winded version? I’m not sure you’ll have the time, and I’m far from certain I even have it in me.

Call me a pessimist if it helps you sleep, but I believe in being honest with myself. The Red Wings as they stand today are, by and large, a mess. You will not find any wing-shaped glasses here. Once celebrated general manager Ken Holland has crippled the club’s immediate future by rewarding mid-tier contributors with big dollars; a nightmarish scenario for a team in the early stages of a rebuild. Look no further than the seven-year, $29.75 million dollar extension awarded to left wing Justin Abdelkader (7 goals in 2016-17) just a season ago. It’s that kind of lunacy that has become all too commonplace for Holland in recent memory.

It’s those type of signings that have made retaining young star Andreas Athanasiou a more onerous task than it should have ever been. Thanks to Holland and company’s disastrous mismanagement, the Red Wings risk losing the promising speedster to a more lucrative offer in Russia. How the situation with Athanasiou will play out is to be determined. Just the scare alone is enough to convince fans that personnel changes are needed in the front office as much as they are on the ice.

And that isn’t to say what’s on the ice is a bad product, by any means. It isn’t all doom and gloom in Hockeytown. There’s substantial room for improvement, without question. There is also talent to be found inside the Red Wings’ locker room. Budding forwards Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha will once again skate alongside more seasoned talents in Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Frans Nielsen. With the right adjustments, it’s a group that can, at the very least, compete. Consider such an outcome a moral victory for a club expected by most to revive the “Dead Wings” era of Detroit hockey.

The real problem lies in imagining when the Red Wings will be able to contend for more than just those small victories. It certainly won’t be this year, and it more than likely won’t be next. They might not want to hear it, but fans in Detroit will be best served to familiarize themselves with the growing pains.

Let’s just hope they subside before things get any worse.