Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall celebrates in front of the Maple Leafs' Cody Franson after the Red Wings' victory. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — Seems a bit odd, after the last couple of decades, that just when the Red Wings get back to playing folks like the Maple Leafs and Canadiens a lot more often, the ancient rivals arrive in town with more talented rosters.
When the undeniably stout Michigan lad Justin Abdelkader became the latest casualty in The Great Injury Plague of 2013-14, the Wings’ playing list Tuesday included one more winner of the 2013 Calder Cup than is currently playing in Grand Rapids for the guys who won it, the Griffins. And the skill-and-experience deficit for the Wings got just that much greater.
Feels a bit like the bottom rail is on top at times, when it comes to the ancient rivals.
But 10 guys injured on a 20-man roster is the sort of math that only naturally leads to a bit of self-pity, and by the end of the day it was clear, once again, there is no need for it. The Red Wings, amid an abjectly depleted roster, continue to have the preparation, the system and the architecture to win.
But it has been a long time since the Red Wings looked up at Toronto and Montreal in the standings, let alone in the same division of the same conference with so much at stake.
A sense of things askew set in early at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday when the large media contingent from across the border entered the Red Wings dressing room just after 11 a.m. and began remarking about it.
The Leafs have not lifted the Stanley Cup in 47 years. But powered by the hottest line in the NHL since Christmas, each player the fruit of roster moves made by the perennially criticized Leafs management in recent years, Toronto is finally approaching official challenger status.
There is no logic suggesting that the two franchises are headed in opposite directions. And by the end of the day, the Red Wings laid claim to being better than the Leafs, despite all of the injuries to a roster already in flux at the start of the season.
But despite the big win and the injection of fresh hope into the Wings’ quest for yet another appearance in the playoffs, these remain delicate times for the franchise.
If the Red Wings brain trust is unable to finesse their partial-rebuild-on-the-fly over the next few seasons in a way that provides the club with at least one more legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup before Henrik Zetterberg eases his back into a Kennedy rocker on some front porch and Pavel Datsyuk yields to inner and outer voices begging him to end his career in Russia, this could be recalled as a time when the Wings lingered while old rivals filled their sails.
Despite their success this season and nearly eliminating the Bruins last season in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Maple Leafs still seek the Red Wings’ formula. And if that fact was hidden in the weeds Tuesday morning, it was obvious by the end of the night.
Several hours before the game, it was clear none of that was lost on Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle
“I look at it and say they are an NHL hockey club and with the youth and enthusiasm that young players play with and the structure that they’ve been able to display, they’re in every hockey game,” he said.
“I’m not here to blow smoke up the Red Wings. But the bottom line is they’re a good hockey club, they’ve got a good coaching staff, they’ve got a storied franchise and they’ve been able to provide lots of youth to their hockey club. We’re a team that has to continue to grow and show that we can play to a high level night in and night out.”
With the usual august preparation from their coaches and more than the usual fortitude to stick with their plans and structure, even into yet another crucial third period, on Tuesday, the kids beat the older pros who are still trying to grow.
“When the puck’s not going into the net for us, we’ve just got to find a way to play a solid 60 minutes,” said Jimmy Howard, before playing a strong game. “We don’t have that much room for error. We just got to continue to find a way to keep working hard, and maybe the puck will find the back of the net a little more.”
Leafs' line powerful
But what Carlyle has that the Red Wings lack are Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, a powerful line that, with 93 points in 31 games since just before New Year’s Day, ranked at the top of the NHL entering play Tuesday.
The Leafs traded three high draft picks for Kessel and a good young defenseman, Luke Schenn, for Van Riemsdyk.
They acquired Bozak in one of the ways in which the Wings are contenting themselves to restock their roster, through free agency, out of college, for an overlooked prospect.
It is easy to see the Red Wings would be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference, with a healthy roster. A viable assertion is that they would slot precisely behind the Penguins and Bruins, if fully staffed.
But it also is easy to see the day when Ken Holland, Mike Babcock and the professional scouts under Mark Howe realize that assembled in Detroit and Grand Rapids is a critical mass of young talent that supports just the kind of trades that bring big guns into the lineup. A ballooning salary cap supported by the massive broadcast contract signed by the NHL in Canada at the start of the season will also afford some room to maneuver.
At that point, the brain trust is unlikely to be shy about the move or two that allows the Wings to be one of the last four teams playing, in late May, creating the opportunity to return to the Stanley Cup Final.
That time will come. The question pregnant in this historic NHL city is whether it is sooner, as in over the next calendar year, or later.
I bet sooner. Regardless, it is on those moves and the future of Zetterberg and Datsyuk that hockey fortunes rest, in Detroit.