January 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Wings begin sprint to Stanley Cup on Saturday with new-look roster

Detroit -- Thirty years ago, they were still the Dead Things.

For the better part of the last two decades, they were something of a dynasty.

And now, if the Red Wings are to believe their own press clippings, they're back on life support again, in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

All of which, as you'd expect, produces some lively chatter down at Joe Louis Arena where the team wrapped up an abbreviated training camp Friday before flying to St. Louis for their long-overdue, lockout-delayed NHL season opener.

Next stop, mediocrity?

"Isn't that the same thing we hear every single year?" goaltender Jimmy Howard replied, when asked about the doomsday talk in Detroit, where the Wings are five years removed from their last Stanley Cup. "I mean, I'd be very (reluctant) to write us off so soon."

Soon enough, we'll find out if this well-worn script is headed back to rewrite. And a frenetic NHL schedule — 48 games in 99 nights, beginning with today's shotgun start across the league — won't leave much time for revisions, or reversals of fortune, for any team, particularly the travel-challenged Red Wings stuck in the Western Conference.

But given the parity of today's NHL, with a salary cap balancing the talent and an easy-as-1-2-3 point system compressing the standings, there's also no definitive reason the Wings can't keep the streak alive.

Which is exactly what longtime general manager Ken Holland told his players earlier this week as they returned to work following a maddening 119-day labor war. There's no time to lose, certainly. But this is no time to lose, is it?

"Who are the Cup contenders?" Holland asked, before answering himself. "I believe the Cup contenders are the 16 teams that make the playoffs. Just look at the Stanley Cup playoffs year after year after year."

Parity prevails in NHL

Last year, for instance, it was one of the last teams in the playoff field — the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings — that was the last team standing in June, hoisting the Stanley Cup. In the seven seasons between lockouts — work stoppages apparently are like Zamboni rides for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — there were seven different Cup winners and 12 different franchises that reached the Cup final. And where once there were brooms aplenty in the spring, now it seems as if every playoff series is destined for a winner-take-all Game 7.

"It's parity," explained Holland, whose team's playoff run is the longest active streak in any of the four major U.S. pro sports. "People look at our team and I think they compare our team against teams past. Those teams past — those Detroit and Colorado and Philadelphia (teams) from the late '90s and early 2000s — I don't know if there's any of those teams left. The cap makes everybody close."

And while close doesn't always cut it for a fan base that had grown accustomed to coasting into the playoffs, that's today's reality in the NHL, like it or not. Consider that the Red Wings set an NHL record with 23 consecutive home wins last season — they went nearly four months without a loss at the Joe — yet still didn't manage to earn home-ice advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. The margins are that slim, and thinning.

"At some point in time, the Detroit Red Wings are going to miss the playoffs," said Holland, who is quick to point out his team hasn't had a top-10 draft pick since 1991. "It might be 10 years from now. It might be this year. I don't know. We've got to play the games."

Now then, they all know the reasons everyone is doubting them this winter, and it's not merely wishful thinking.

It starts with a third consecutive early exit from the playoffs last spring — to Nashville in the first round — and ends with the continuing exodus of mainstay players from past championship teams. Namely, the retirements last summer of Nick Lidstrom, arguably the best defenseman of his generation, and crease-crasher extraordinaire Tomas Holmstrom, along with the free-agent departure of defenseman Brad Stuart.

Question marks on roster

Again, that's nothing new for this franchise, which survived a 50 percent payroll cut and still thrived despite losing Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, among others, after the last lockout. Henrik Zetterberg, officially named the Wings' new captain this week, and Pavel Datsyuk were the ones elevating their game to fill the void then.

"The good thing about this organization is, they never put players that are not ready out there," Zetterberg said. "You spend a few years, your role gets bigger and bigger, and when they think you're ready, you get the chance."

Of course, the plan was to add another star in his prime last summer via free agency. But the top two on the market — defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise — both signed blockbuster deals in Minnesota. Another Wings target, defenseman Matt Carle, signed with Tampa Bay, where Yzerman is now the team president. That left the Wings settling for relative scraps and saving money — again — for the trade deadline, or next summer.

It also leaves plenty of question marks about the current roster: a forward corps that boasts depth but is counting on bounce-back years from key contributors; a blue line that'll rely on youngsters to play big minutes; a solid goaltending tandem that might need to be spectacular many nights.

"So the bottom line is: Here's more opportunity," said head coach Mike Babcock, itching to get going after seven full seasons in Detroit and nine months off. "Let's see what guys do with it."

20-game mark will be telling

Whatever they do, they'd better hurry, though. Because if you're not careful this season, it'll be over before you know it. Holland usually targets Thanksgiving as the milepost to gauge where his team is at and where it's headed. That's about 25-30 games into an 82-game regular season. This winter, he says, he's pointing to the 20-game mark.

"If you can build yourself a little cushion by then," he said, "you're in pretty good shape."

If not, he adds, "you're gonna be scrappin' for the last 28 games." And for the Wings, that'll mean fighting for their playoff lives while making five road trips out west in the final seven weeks of the regular season.

So it's now or never, I guess, in many respects.

"We're trying to compete with the best teams, we're trying to stay in a playoff spot," said Holland, beginning his 16th season as GM and his 30th overall with the organization. "There's an overhaul, a reload, a new era of players coming along. And if we can continue to be competitive, you're not gonna notice it as much. But when the team falls out of the playoffs, then you notice it."

In Hockeytown, surely, everyone will.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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From left, Drew Miller, Henrik Zetterberg and Damien Brunner drop the puck on the regular season Saturday. / David Guralnick/Associated Press
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