Remember the “Black Aces” from the Wings championship years in 1997 and ’98? That’s when guys like Jamie Pushor would finally put on a game jersey and parade with the Cup, all while champagne-filled regulars provided lip-service such as “They’re a big part of this team, too…”
Well, here’s a few of your modern-day Black Aces: Cory Emmerton, Justin Abdelkader, Dan Cleary, Gustav Nyquist, Drew Miller, Joakim Andersson, Ian White, Brian Lashoff, and Kyle Quincey. Most belong in the AHL. They would be “healthy scratches” on 95 percent of NHL teams. Yet the Wings have been forced to play them considerable minutes because the franchise is in a flux, a transition period.
The 1998 Black Aces rarely saw the ice. It was a privilege to practice near superstars Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov.
Meanwhile, the 2013 Black Aces lose pucks in the corner, cannot sustain pressure in the attacking zone, and generate minimal scoring chances. In their defensive end, they often run around like hyperactive-kids who forgot their Ritalin.
They’re the integral reason why the 21-year playoff streak is on life support. Blame Ken Holland, who seems adamant to pull the plug considering his head-scratching transactions – most recently, the demotion of Tomas Tatar.
It leaves minimal blame for Mike Babcock, who’s managing a make-shift roster. Yes, it’s silly for him to play Abdelkader alongside Pavel Datsyuk, but overall, he’s stuck with a blue line and a group of forwards who cannot win races to loose pucks, nor the all-important battles in the corners.
Babcock’s modus operandi is a relentless, grinding work ethic – and that’s not the problem with these Wings (exception: Johan Franzen). The real issue is a lack of talent, and that falls on Holland’s shoulders.
Don’t be fooled
Oddly enough, the Wings can pound the Vancouver Canucks, although they own an inflated record in the conference’s worst division. But what happened when Detroit faced the younger, quicker Blue Jackets? Back-to-back losses. How about Calgary? A 5-2 embarrassment. Edmonton? Outshot 26-14 through 40 minutes, then Oilers defenseman Jeff Petry – a Michigan native – decided to help his hometown friends and score on his own net.
“Now I hope we’re unstoppable like a red machine,” Datsyuk said to NHL.com afterward.
Keep dreaming, Pavel. The Wings are closer to the bottom of the conference, rather than the top.
Their inconsistent, Jekyll-and-Hyde trend has been evident for more than a year. They played well at Nashville in Game 2 of last year’s playoffs, then lost three straight games for a five-game exit.
The same trend is unfolding now. Team speed is disgustingly slow, their break-outs are poor and they cannot get into transition through the neutral zone. They’re often out-numbered by the opponent while trying to gain entry across the attacking blue line.
Bottom line: Attrition finally caught the Wings. Besides the obvious void (Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement), it’s tough to replace skilled role players such as Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom, who could lead break-outs and win the puck battles in the corners, where games are won and lost. Their value was highly underrated.
Little by little, the Wings slipped toward mediocrity as their careers came to a close, because Holland has yet to fill those voids. That hurts depth, because four solid lines are needed to contend for a Stanley Cup.
And let’s face it: Henrik Zetterberg and Datsyuk are past their prolific prime, The Mule plays like My Little Pony, and Niklas Kronwall is clearly not a #1 defenseman, as evidenced by his minus-7 rating.
The playoff streak is flirting with death.
Holland may as well trade the best assets for a bevy of prospects and first-round draft picks. That’s the best way to re-build in the salary-cap era.