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Roots of Red Wings’ demise run deep

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ken Holland

Detroit – Amid some of the earliest moments in the Red Wings’ decline, the NHL postponed a game due to injury for the first time in history.

When Jiri Fischer collapsed in cardiac arrest Nov. 21, 2005 playing the Predators, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan and Brian Rafalski were on the roster.

Pavel Datsyuk played in his fifth season, Henrik Zetterberg in his third.

Mike Babcock coached in his 22nd game for the Wings, with 764 to go.

The Red Wings’ 11th Stanley Cup came two seasons later.

But Fischer’s injury deprived them of a critical player in place when Lidstrom and Rafalski retired.

A decade later, the Wings defensemen continue to struggle. Fischer is 36 years old and probably would have played next season in Little Caesars Arena.

“You had to deal with losing players,” Scotty Bowman said last Sunday night, as the Red Wings left Joe Louis Arena. “Jiri Fischer was one we lost.”

The diminished Wings have been brought low by a variety of afflictions, including the ravages of time, different personnel rules, big free agents signing with other teams, deteriorating results in the draft and mistakes judging players.

Like Fischer, some players were either done prematurely or have experienced early declines.

Jiri Fischer

The result is the first season out of the playoffs in a generation, the worst record in 26 years, selling at the trade deadline and a rebuild evolving as a more vigorous undertaking than the past five seasons of trying to do it on the fly.

It did not help that the NHL changed the rules.

Complaining that they paid 75 percent of revenues to compensate players, NHL owners locked them out of the entire 2004-05 season.

The players agreed to something they vowed never to accept, a hard salary cap.

It arguably affected the Red Wings more than other teams because Mike and Marian Ilitch spent more on players.

Suddenly, it was no longer an advantage.

By 2006, the Red Wings were just another team when it came to resources for personnel.

They also had become just another team scouting in Russia and Europe. For years, the ace scout Hakan Andersson or former assistant manager Jim Nill were often the only people, especially in Russia, scouting many of the players.

By the beginning of the Wings’ decline, they were no longer alone.

“We were just talking about European scouting,” Holland said, of Andersson last week. “He was saying, ‘Ken, every team used to have one scout in Europe. Every team now has four, five, six scouts in Europe. They’re all over the place!’

“You know, when you have success,” Holland said, “you’re copied.”

More ominous signs

With the money constricted and facing far stiffer competition scouting, time took its toll on the lineup.

Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan retired in 2006.

While two seasons later, Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Babcock led the Red Wings to an 11th Stanley Cup, the current string of success was nearing an end.

Marian Hossa knew it.

Marian Hossa

In 2009, the Wings diminished their chances of keeping the big offensive threat, signing Johan Franzen to a 10-year, $43.5 million deal before offering Hossa between $37.5 million and $40 million for 10 years.

The Blackhawks signed him for 12 years at $63.3 million.

It was a lot more money.

But it is also true that with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane just entering their third seasons, Hossa knew Stanley Cups were more likely in Chicago in the coming years.

"When I look at the Chicago team, it's an exciting team,” he said when he signed. “They are big, they are strong, they are fast and they are young guys.

"I see a nice future in Chicago."

The future in Detroit continued to dim.

In the first eight seasons of Franzen’s contract, a knee injury and his great misfortune with concussions limited him to two full seasons, in which he scored 28 and 29 goals. His career is likely finished.

Native son, Brian Rafalski, who arrived as a free agent in 2007, retired early in 2011. The offensive, sturdy defenseman’s back and knee would not allow him to fulfill the last year of his contract.

Nicklas Lidstrom retired the following spring.

The Wings have been searching top-pairing defensemen ever since.

They hoped in 2012 it would be Ryan Suter. But Suter signed with the Wild along with his friend, Zach Parise. Parise’s family lives in Minnesota and Suter’s wife’s family does, too.

“We lost out to family,” Holland said, “It’s hard to beat out family.”

The Red Wings had diminished success with free agents. Defenseman Ian White and the forward Mike Modano were busts.

The Wings signed free-agent forward Stephen Weiss and dispatched Valtteri Filppula in July 2013. Filppula wanted $5 million per year, and the Wings signed Weiss for a shade less, $24.5 million for five years.

The Red Wings have missed Filppula’s defensive ability, and he also played in 234 more games than Weiss over the next four seasons, outscoring him 57 goals to 11 and 122 assists to 18.

Daniel Alfredsson worked out, but only for one season.

He tied Kronwall for the team lead in scoring in 2013-14. But Alfredsson’s back prevented him from further play.

Limited opportunities

Regardless, with Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall in the lineup and Babcock behind the bench, the Red Wings remained intent on Stanley Cups, with little thought of rebuilding.

After the offseason in 2014, when no big free agents were signed, once again, Babcock went public with players’ concerns.

“My phone was ringing,” Babcock said. “Players were calling me, asking if it was true.”

Pavel Datsyuk

Along the way, the Wings traded prospects and draft picks for Kyle Quincey, David Legwand, Marek Zidlicky and Erik Cole. They got some reliability from Quincey, but hardly the sort of performance worth trading a 2012 first-round pick.

Cole played 11 games before a bruised spinal cord ended his career early. Legwand and Zidlicky were barely effective, and gone quickly.

To Holland, continuing to compete for the Stanley Cup while two big stars remained on the roster was worth delaying development.

“As the manager here, when we had Zetterberg and Datsyuk, I was spending futures to try to win,” he said.

“I knew there was a price to pay.

“You only get so many opportunities in sports.”

The failures in free agency accumulated while the disappointments in the NHL entry draft became more apparent.

The Red Wings were able to make only two first round picks of defenseman from 2005 to 2015. Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith never attained more than spot appearances on the top pair.

In 55 games in Lidstrom’s last season, Kindl scored a goal, assisted on 12 others and provided spotty defense. The first season without Lidstrom, Kindl scored four goals, had nine assists and did not improve much on defense.

The 19th player drafted in 2005, Kindl now has trouble staying in the NHL lineup for the Panthers.

Jakub Kindl

The 27th player drafted in 2007, Smith worked out better. But the Wings traded him to the Rangers this past season for second- and third-round draft picks.

The 21st player selected in 2010, forward Riley Sheahan did not score a goal until the last game of 2016-17, after a cold stretch over the first 60 games of the previous season.

“When you’re dealing with 18-year-old players and you’re dealing with a lottery draft, there are no guarantees,” Holland said. “It’s not an exact science.

“Zetterberg and Datsyuk were sixth- and seventh-round picks.”

By 2014, Datsyuk had enough.

Among the players who had called Babcock that summer about the lack of free agents, Datysuk had signed a three-year contract extension the year before, for $7.5 million per year.

But Datsyuk approached Holland trying to get out of it, expressing unhappiness and a desire to be with his teenaged daughter in Russia.

The two-time Stanley Cup winner and offensive wizard left in 2016, with a year remaining on his contract.

Add Kronwall, whose balky knee has limited his performance for two seasons, and the premature diminishment of the roster is even clearer.

Meanwhile, lucrative, long-term deals for Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser and Darren Helm seem ill-advised.

“Certainly a number of players regressed, or had off-years,” Holland said.

“While we’re trying to draft and develop and get better long term, our short-term goal is to try to make the team as good as it can be and hope that that team can qualify for the playoffs.”

Plainly, the next Stanley Cup contender in Detroit is some seasons down the road.

“We’re not going from here to there in two or three months,” Holland said. “We’ve got to work our way slowly up the ladder.”

Red Wings in decline

Here's how the Red Wings have fared each season since 2005-06

2016-1733-36-1379Missed playoffs
2015-1641-30-1193Lost in first round
2014-1543-25-14100Lost in first round
2013-1439-28-1593Lost in first round
2013*24-16-856Lost in conference semis
2011-1248-28-6102Lost in conference quarters
2010-1147-25-10104Lost in conference semis
2009-1044-24-14102Lost in conference semis
2008-0951-21-10112Lost in Stanley Cup finals
2007-0854-21-7115Won Stanley Cup
2006-0750-19-13113Lost in conference finals
2005-0658-16-8124Lost in conference quarters

*-Season shortened by lockout