Krupa: Seeing light in Wings' dark season

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Red Wings center Andreas Athanasiou has already had several notable games in his young career.

Detroit – It is a pity the Red Wings will not have the longest playoff streak in NHL history and that the Bruins’ 29 seasons and the Blackhawks’ 28 bested them, this time.

Doggone Original Six rivals!

There are many perspectives about the Wings missing the long tournament for the Stanley Cup for the first time in a quarter century.

A parent emailed me and said he found it more difficult to explain to his inconsolable 10-year-old daughter that the Red Wings do not, in fact, “always make the playoffs,” because he himself cannot remember when they last missed.

Then, there is the Tanking School.

Those are the folks who have been insisting since about Christmas – some since Thanksgiving, actually  that missing the playoffs is progress. This is also the sector of Red Wings' partisans who think the players should intend to lose when they take the ice.

Their point? The franchise is in such a state that “tanking” for better draft position is sound strategy.

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

It has gotten a bit maudlin around the place the Ilitches trademarked Hockeytown.

But the crowds at Joe Louis Arena have been great, and are likely to be as long as the team plays with such heart.

Despite a roster in flux, trading down at the deadline and playing with as many as eight first- and second-season players in the lineup at times, the Wings have played better recently.

Prospectors have noted faint glimmers of gold in the riverbed. Early games in the careers of Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are notable, even if they do not draw the rave reviews of the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews.

Red Wings' young guns step up down the stretch

The Red Wings’ disabled power play has even shown some improvement recently.

Where'd the good days go?

Regardless, for the emotionally invested, it is difficult to escape the notion that a black dog is at the door.

The perception is encouraged by the unusual, sequential nature of dark things.

The best coach in hockey, gone. The best offensive player in the lineup, unhappy, back in Russia.

The best defenseman’s knee betrayed him.

The supreme legend of the franchise, gone. As if anyone ever thought it possible Gordie Howe could die.

An owner passed, too.

Mike Ilitch was the general who, with his wife, Marian, directed a frontal assault on 17 seasons of malaise, stepping up to the microphone on the first day of his ownership to say, “I’m very interested in restoring the tradition we have enjoyed for many, many years.”

Then, they played this season. If ever a team, thinner in both talent and experience at playing as teammates, needed good health, it was these Red Wings.

For a good chunk of the season, they were the most injured team in the NHL.

And on Tuesday, 50 years to the day that Howe became the first player to 1,500 points, the Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Now, they are about to bid bittersweet adieu to a historic arena.

All in a row, the events of the past 24 months are enough to makes some fans realize just how good the good old days were.

Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg, right, knows how Stanley Cup winners in Detroit prepare and play, while center Dylan Larkin, left, is still learning what it takes.

But the new arena is almost built, and the old team is rebuilding

And although some detractors in the current moment fail to perceive it, there is light in the darkness.

The players refuse to lie down.

Amid the decline, their leading goal scorer, a protector and a plucky guy on the blue line were dispatched at the trade deadline. Everything seemed primed for a de facto tanking.

Except for the lionhearted.

“It must be because they've never been in this position before,” Ken Campbell, senior writer and columnist of The Hockey News, joked in a tweet Tuesday. “But the Red Wings clearly have not grasped the concept of tanking.”


Maintaining the culture

And in these moments, what players like Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen, Tomas Nosek, Robbie Russo, Dan Renouf, Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha are learning about playing in old buildings or new for this club is that relinquishing the bit is not an option.

Intending to lose is loathed. Learn how to play the game right, and on every shift.

Rebuilding Red Wings roster could prove tall task

Coach Jeff Blashill talks about “not losing the culture.”

Henrik Zetterberg accepted the mantle from Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman and plainly knows how Stanley Cup winners in Detroit prepare and play. He placed the marker down firmly at the beginning of March.

Asked to observe the bleak horizon, Zetterberg said, “For us, in here, we really don’t care what time of year it is. We still want to win.

“And that’s what we’re going to do every night.”

Or, at least, try.

That is the idea. And it is an idea likely more important to a rebuilding team than increasing their lottery chances for a top-three pick from 20 to 30 percent by trying to lose.

Meanwhile, they think they are part of an exceptional franchise.

They are the Red Wings. There is still such a thing as Red Wings’ hockey, although currently it is mostly conceptual.

My sense is that they want to win, they regret not having done more of it, and while they may be undermanned, they shun conceding.

The hope, in this dark moment, is that they are eventually capable of a great deal more.

Zetterberg sets that mark, too.

When I asked him in early February how he was tolerating the misfortune after so much success in his career, the captain brought me up short.

“Recently, it hasn’t been a success, in my mind,” he said. “Success is going to the conference finals, going to the Stanley Cup Final, being one of the teams that battles at the end.

“Even though we made the playoffs for that long, being out in the first round is not a success for me.”

The Bruins and Blackhawks do have longer playoff runs. They also each have six Stanley Cups.

The Red Wings have 11.

When the playoff streak started, the Wings had seven, six behind the Maple Leafs’ 13. Now the Leafs lead by only two, and the Canadiens’ incredible 23 is still the standard.

Against the Red Wings’ current difficulties, those facts seem trivial. But the sense that the Wings make it happen more than most other teams is a flame that should not be allowed to flicker.

The thought that the last six games of this season are of little consequence is inconsistent with the tasks at hand. And there is little use in calling up “the kids” from Grand Rapids because they are already here.

They are either becoming the kind of Red Wings who win Stanley Cups or they are not.

They must keep the flame.

Twitter: @greggkrupa