Krupa: Slow start a bad sign for Wings' playoff chances

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Yogi Berra’s game is not played in the NHL.

If it was, Berra might have rethought his axiom, “It ain’t over till it’s over!”

For decades it has been observed that teams out of the playoffs on Thanksgiving Day usually begin golfing and fishing in early April, when their better peers prepare for the first round.

There are exceptions. The current Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins, are a classic example.

But the Red Wings roster is not of that caliber.

Not these days.

Few teams break through the well-established pattern, season after season.

In the past decade, teams in the playoffs by Thanksgiving play in them at rates ranging from about 77 percent to 81 percent, according to a variety of sources.

That leaves chances of about a 1-in-4 to 1-in-5 for the teams with worse starts.

Not good news for the Red Wings, who struggled against the Sabres on Wednesday for their first victory in five games and their third in 12.

Entering play Thanksgiving Day, with three Atlantic Division rivals playing, the Red Wings were four points behind the second wild-card team

The five clubs between them and paydirt present an additional, formidable obstruction.

Tough enough passing one or two. But five?

The Wings have a bit of a reprieve from the usual standard, with the season starting a week late. The consequential date might be more like Dec. 1.

Between now and that evening, the Red Wings play the Devils on the road ronight, and the Canadiens, Stars and Panthers.

For the Red Wings, all the games are critical now.

Rebuild stalls

Used to squeezing into the playoffs recently in the last days of the season, the big squeeze is already upon the Red Wings.

From the blue line to the front office, the Wings know their circumstances are ominous.

Frans Nielsen was both wise and courageous to sound an alarm this week, despite only a month and a half on the roster.

Shortly before Detroit took the ice in Buffalo on Wednesday, general manager Ken Holland also provided a stark appraisal.

“Well, obviously, we’ve put ourselves in a bad spot,” Holland said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do.

“We got off to a great start, the six-game winning streak and we were 6-2.

“Now, we’ve lost a lot of games in the third period. So we’ve got to find a way to turn those games into points at least, or wins.”

The Red Wings rebuild-on-the-fly, launched in 2012 has faltered.

The best free agents did not come.

The stock of prospects was not rich.

The vaunted scouting that produced late-round draft miracles like Henrik Zetterberg (210th pick, seventh round) and Pavel Datsyuk (171st pick, sixth round) has been considerably less effective.

“We’re not the first team in the league to be struggling,” Holland said, acknowledging a reality so foreign for so many fans, especially anyone under the age of 30.

“This league is: You’ve got to build it, you’ve got to draft it, you’ve got to develop it.

“Watch the league. How many trades are going on?”

The fact is, the eras of free agency and the hard salary cap diminished trades as a route to success, especially for teams, like the Red Wings, struggling with a comparative dearth of talent.

To get, you have got to give. And giving is more difficult when resources are somewhat spare.

“It’s a hard league to make trades in,” Holland said.

It is a harsh reality.

The awareness grows that an improbably long playoff run is not only in grave jeopardy, but it might well lead to several seasons of diminished performance.

Once out of the playoffs, it is not always easy to get back in.

Just ask the Oilers, Hurricanes and Sabres.

I thought a disappointing season last year offered hope for improved performances by some players.

And with an admittedly unhappy Datsyuk gone, replaced by Nielsen and Thomas Vanek, my sense was that the sum of the parts might well surprise observers, expert and casual alike, who predicted the end of the playoff run.

Team regresses

Approaching an important juncture of the season, it is clear I might well have been wrong.

There certainly is no evidence of season-to-season improvement at the quarter pole.

In fact, quite to the contrary.

If not for Jimmy Howard’s marvelous play, in a few games in particular, the Wings might well be in the basement of the Eastern Conference, a few points below the Islanders.

Right now, this is a below average offensive team and a below average defensive team.

Looking ahead, when they open their new arena, the interlopers, the Pistons, might prove to be the more interesting, competitive team.

Berra, then a manager, was in a tough spot in July 1973 when his Mets trailed the Cubs by 91/2 games, and he uttered the now famous saying.

The Mets won the pennant that year.

His top reliever Tug McGraw authored the ball club’s motto, “Ya gotta believe!”

Unless the Red Wings start playing better with a consistency they have not shown in two seasons, faith will be hard to come by.

And, unfortunately, it may be some seasons before it is much easier. @greggkrupa