The Detroit Red Wings bid farewell to legends but never seem to change. Steve Yzerman has been retired for nearly eight years. Nicklas Lidstrom is gone, too. Yet the Red Wings have reached the postseason 22 years in a row, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
But look at the ice now, and the turnover stuns like a slapper to the shin. Many of the names you remember have left, and some of those who remain are injured. Captain Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t played in two weeks. Danny DeKeyser, perhaps the team’s steadiest defenseman, has missed a month. Key forwards Justin Abdelkader and Johan Franzen were lost to concussions last weekend.
Such is the transient state of the Red Wings’ roster that even press-box regulars struggle to keep up. When Daniel Alfredsson opened the scoring Thursday night against Calgary, a voice on the loudspeaker credited Dan Cleary with the goal … before correcting that, no, Cleary wore No. 11 last season.
Detroit had gone winless in six straight games before Thursday. Just as a larger sports audience turned its attention toward them — thanks to HBO’s 24/7 documentary series advancing their appearance in the Winter Classic before a possible world-record crowd — the Red Wings stopped playing like the Red Wings. But for one night, albeit against the struggling Flames, they showed that those 22 straight playoff berths may well become 23.
After a sloppy loss to Anaheim Tuesday night, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said his team needed “better leadership” in order to win. It was, perhaps, a message to the three able-bodied players with letters above the winged wheels on their sweaters: alternate captains Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Alfredsson. Their response was emphatic: In a 3-2 victory, Alfredsson supplied the overtime winner — a blistering one-timer from between the circles — on assists from Datsyuk and Kronwall.
Their names blanketed the final scoresheet: two goals and an assist for Alfredsson, three assists for Datsyuk, two for Kronwall.
“That’s what you need,” Babcock said afterward. “You need guys to … not talk, necessarily. You need guys to lead by example on the ice, make a play when you need one so everyone else settles down and relaxes. You know, our captain, Zetterberg, is a hardheaded guy. He’s got sticktoitiveness. We miss that part of his game, and so other guys have got to step up.”
Among the Detroit diehards, no amount of present mediocrity could obscure the fact that Datsyuk and Kronwall are career-long Red Wings who have won the Stanley Cup. But this might have been Alfredsson’s first great night as a Red Wing at Joe Louis Arena. Alfredsson is one of the NHL’s most revered players — “icon” is an appropriate term — although not because of his tenure in Detroit. His legacy will live in Ottawa, where he spent 17 seasons as a Senator, 13 as the captain.
Alfredsson, who turned 41 earlier this month, could have gone back to Ottawa for one more season and then retired. Instead he signed a one-year contract with Detroit, saying he wanted the best chance to win a Stanley Cup. He knows his new team belongs to Zetterberg, a fellow Swede. But Alfredsson is more than capable of leading quietly, determined shift by determined shift. He was that way with his old team. And that was a Red Wing hallmark long before he arrived.
“Score on my first shift today — it makes you feel a little bit better,” said Alfredsson, whose assist was the 700th of his career. “I thought I had my legs a little bit more than I have had lately, which helps. Great chances. Be strong on the puck. Being on the receiving end of some unbelievable passes helps, too.”
Datsyuk was the principal originator of those feeds — on the power play and during the first half of the game at even strength, before Babcock split the pair to more evenly distribute the Wings’ offensive horsepower. The move worked. Datsyuk willed an innocent 1-on-2 into a hooking call on Calgary’s T.J. Brodie in the final minute of regulation and weaved an impeccable set-up to Alfredsson during the overtime 4-on-3.
Datsyuk, recently back from a concussion, looked more like his supernatural self as the game wore on. In general, though, these Red Wings generate fewer “OOOOooooohhhhhhhs!” from the crowd than their forebears. Particularly with much of the roster in triage, the Red Wings don’t possess enough skill to survive on playmaking. Potential odd-man rushes are evaporating in the neutral zone. You won’t find many creative drop passes or artistic goals on the season highlight reel. Out of necessity, the Red Wings have started chipping. “We have to play a little bit more north-south, get the puck out of our zone and into their zone, keep grinding away, get some chances off the cycle,” Kronwall said.
Translation: These are not Brett Hull’s Red Wings. That was obvious less than seven minutes into Thursday’s game, when Babcock’s top power play unit included Tomas Jurco, a 20-year-old Slovak playing in his third NHL game. Yes. Third. Scotty Bowman likely required a more extensive NHL résumé for prime ice time in the era of Robitaille, Shanahan and Fedorov.
But while HBO’s cameras roll and the Red Wings prepare to face the Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium, Babcock is ad-libbing magnificently with the Jurcos and Tomas Tatars and Luke Glendenings. As Kronwall pointed out Thursday, the kids are getting experience that could pay major dividends in the spring. On a related note: The Red Wings, even in their wounded state, would be seeded fifth if the Eastern Conference playoffs began today.
Do the Red Wings have a future Hall of Famer on the ice every time a new line hops over the dasher? No. Will they be favorites to win the Stanley Cup when the NHL starts playing for keeps in April? No. Will the Red Wings win as often as they once did? No. But they haven’t forgotten how. If the old ways stop working, they’ll invent a new one.
“We’re not playing perfect hockey,” Alfredsson said. “But when you see everybody grinding, it rubs off.”
Take it from the new guy: The Red Wings are the Red Wings after all.