The Red Wings were abruptly bounced from the playoffs by San Jose last week. By Wings standards, the season was a failure by virtually every measure. For the first time in 19 years, the Wings did not have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. For the first time in 10 years, they did not win the Central Division Title. For the first time in 10 years, they had worse than a .650 winning percentage in the regular season (.622). There is certainly plenty of “negative” to focus on when the model franchise not just in the NHL but in all sport has a clunker of a season. However, despite the disappointing second-round exit in the postseason—and a relatively unimpressive regular season—the season wasn’t a total loss. On February 11, the Wings were just 27-21-12 and out of the playoff picture. Since an Overtime Loss (OTL) is just a nice way of saying “loss”, the Wings were essentially 27-33 heading into the Olympic break. They emerged from the two-week hiatus playing a different brand of hockey. They rattled off 16 wins in 21 games after the break to finish the regular season as the hottest team in the league. The show of force wasn’t just for kicks. The Wings were in danger of not even making the playoffs heading into the last six weeks of the regular season. Behind Henrik Zetterberg (22 points in 21 games), Pavel Datsyuk (21 points in 21 games), and Jimmy Howard (16-2-2, 2.2 GAA), the Wings climbed all the way to the 5th position. They quickly acquired the title of “team nobody wants to play in the first round.” Unfortunately, having to play “playoff hockey” for the six weeks leading up to the playoffs ended up taking its toll by way of the defeat to the Sharks.
Not surprisingly, the loss prompted a number of “chicken little” reactions. Art Regner even invoked the “end of an era” hyperbole before eventually providing context. On one hand, it’s easy to fear the worst when a team that has consistently been the model franchise in the NHL unexpectedly lays an egg for the better part of a season. However, we’ve been down this road many times before. The Wings have always had a penchant for first round duds. They lost in the first round in 2001, 2003, and 2006 when they were the #2, #2, and #1 seeds, respectively. They followed up their back-to-back Stanley Cups in ’98-’99 with what still stands as one of their worst regular seasons of the last 20 years. This team has never been shy about sprinkling in mediocrity with heaping pile of greatness. It comes with the territory in a sport as uneven as hockey. One fluke goal here or a skate in the crease there can dictate an entire postseason. I don’t think the Wings are any closer to the “end of an era” than they were the last time we went down this road in 2006 when they were blitzed by Edmonton in the first round.
In fact, I think there is every reason to believe that the Wings are going to continue to add to the successes of this era. If we let precedent be our guide, it’s not a stretch to envision the Wings right back in the Stanley Cup Finals as early as next season. The Wings entered this season as one of the heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Even after a bumpy regular season, they still entered the playoffs as a chic pick to bring home the trophy. In short, the Wings are hardly past their expiration date. Henrik Zetterberg (29) and Pavel Datsyuk (32) are two of the top 5-10 forwards in the NHL and well within their prime years. And we still likely haven’t seen Johan Franzen (30) play his best hockey which is a scary proposition for the rest of the league. I won’t even get into the ray of hope that is Jimmy Howard’s potential in goal. The more the layers of the 2010 are peeled away and analyzed, the more it becomes obvious that the Wings accidentally had a poor season. If we look to recent examples in the four major sports of teams that followed successful stretches with unexpected down seasons, the results are very encouraging. Specifically, there have been six such instances of elite caliber teams that followed championships with unexpected down seasons. Each of the six teams won a championship, were expected to win or heavily contend again, and then suffered an unexpectedly poor season. There have been a number of teams over the years that have been one-hit wonders. This list features teams that were still largely intact and considered to be major championship contenders for not just one season but for the foreseeable future. In every scenario, the team went back to the championship game within three seasons. In all but one scenario, the teams went on to win a championship within three seasons.
The 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005.
The Unexpected Struggle:
In the offseason, Ben Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle accident. After recovering in time for the start of the 2006 season, Roethlisberger had to sit out the opener following an emergency appendectomy. In week 7, Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and was replaced. Not surprisingly, such turmoil at the most important position on the field had a major impact on the season. Roethlisberger never settled in as he threw a league-leading 23 interceptions. The Steelers struggled to a 2-6 record by the midpoint of the season which all but ended any shot at the playoffs.
Like the ’10 Wings, however, the Steelers got hot in the second half. They closed out with a 6-2 record setting the stage for a return to form in 2007. Just one year after missing the playoffs all together, the Steelers won the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
The 2006 Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 with a 98-64 record. They were back in the playoffs again in 2005 after posting a 95-67 record.
The Unexpected Struggle:
The 2006-season brought a different story. After beginning the year as one of the favorites to win the World Series, the Sox struggled to an 86-76 record. It was the first time in five years that the Sox failed to win 90+ games. It was also the first time in four years that they had failed to make the postseason. This was quite a blow to a team that had just won the World Series two years earlier and still fielded one of the most potent lineups in the league. The Sox didn’t just randomly decide to stink in 2006. Manny Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Jason Varitek, and Keith Foulke missed extensive time with various injuries and ailments. The Sox used 14 different starting pitchers in ‘06 which was in stark contrast to the championship-winning team from two years earlier that saw Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, and Bronson Arroyo start 157 of 162 games. Boston also had to replace five of its eight everyday fielders including Johnny Damon who bolted to the Yankees in the offseason.
After an injury-plagued ’06 campaign, the Boston starting rotation returned to form in 2007. Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield, Julian Tavarez, and Daisuke Matsuzaka started 140 of the team’s 162 games and the Red Sox won the World Series for the second time in four seasons.
The 2002 New Jersey Devils
Just like the Wings did in ’08 and ’09, the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000 and then lost in the Finals in 2001.
The Unexpected Struggle:
Also like the Wings, the Devils followed two consecutive Finals appearances with a disappointing season. The Devils finished with just 95 points in 2002 which was their lowest output in six years. This was quite a downward turn for arguably the best defensive team in the NHL. As it turns out, it wasn’t the defense that was the problem. The Devils allowed the 2nd fewest goals in 2002. It was an astonishing 90-goal drop-off in goal production from the previous season that proved to be their downfall. This wasn’t a team that had reached the end of its era rather it was a team faced with compounding (and temporary) issues. Despite having a solid core and one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history, the 2002 Devils could not account for the offseason departure of Alexander Mogilny who provided a huge boost to the power play. In fact, Mogilny was so pivotal to the PP that New Jersey fell from 3rd in PP goals in ’01 to 26th in 2002.
The Devils countered their offensive struggles by becoming even more dominating defensively. They allowed a league best 2.02 goals per game in the regular season and a league-low 1.62 goals per game in the playoffs on their way to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
The 2002 New England Patriots
The Pats shocked the world in 2001 by beating the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
The Unexpected Struggle:
Unlike the present day Pats, the ’01 Patriots were the quintessential “team.” It relied on superior production from every unit to win football games. As a result, the margin for error was smaller than the average championship contending team. When the running game fell from 13th in rushing yards in ’01 to 28th in ’02, the margin for error proved to be too thin as the Pats missed the playoffs all together.
Just like the ’02 Devils, the Pats used the #1 defense in the NFL to get back on track in 2003 and, you guessed it, won the Super Bowl again.
The 2000 St. Louis Rams
Kurt Warner and the Rams provided one of the most astonishing franchise turnarounds in NFL history by winning the Super Bowl in 1999. Not only were the Rams not expected to contend for the championship heading into the season, they hadn’t finished above .500 in nine years. Behind Warner and Marshall Faulk, the Rams led the league in scoring and yardage and were front and center as the NFL’s new unstoppable offensive force.
The Unexpected Struggle:
With the same offensive cast returning the following season, the Rams were expected to repeat their successes in 2000. The “Greatest Show on Turf” was up for the task as the Rams offense was even more devastating than the previous season putting up the third highest single-season point total in NFL history. It was the defense that proved to be the fatal flaw. The Rams “D” plummeted from 4th in the league in 1999 to dead last in 2000. The Rams still managed to sneak into the playoffs but were unceremoniously bounced in the first round by New Orleans. While the offense was certainly talented enough to carry the Rams to another Super Bowl, it was a lousy defense that forced the Rams to begin the playoffs on the road which led to an early exit at the hands of New Orleans.
The Rams “D” was back to 7th in the league in 2001 and it was no coincidence that they were back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons as heavy double-digit favorites.
The 1991 San Francisco 49ers
Behind Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and a stellar defense, the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1989 and followed it up with a 14-2 regular season in 1990.
The Unexpected Struggle:
Montana would miss the entire ’91 season with an elbow injury but expectations were still high with Steve Young—not only the best backup in the league at the time but one of the top quarterbacks in the league—set to take over. The offense had a hard time gelling initially with Young under center as the Niners started the season just 4-5. Young suffered a knee injury in Week 10 giving way to the team’s 3rd string QB, Steve Bono. Bono’s debut the next week at New Orleans was a disaster as the Niners produced their lowest scoring output in 14 years. Despite turmoil behind center, the Niners were still very much the same team that had racked up a 28-4 regular season record over the previous two seasons. This was clearly a case of a team having a hard time adjusting without its leader. By Week 12, everything started to come together. Bono and Young would lead the Niners to a 6-0 record to close out the season outscoring their opponents 189-94 over that stretch. There is little question that by the end of the ’91 season, the Niners were one of the top teams in the league. Unfortunately, even a 10-6 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs.
While not making the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons was a disappointment, the Niners—much like the ’10 Wings—ended the season playing brilliantly. It was little consolation at the time but it no doubt foreshadowed a return to glory for the Niners. Behind Young—who took over at QB permanently the following season—the Niners would go on to make the playoffs the next seven seasons and win the 1994 Super Bowl.
A veteran team like the Wings isn’t accustomed to making excuses, but I have no problem doing it for them. The level of consistency that the Wings have demonstrated over the past 20 years is unprecedented not just in the NHL but in any sport. Wings fans have been spoiled and they know it. In fact, most assumed that the era was D.O.A the minute the hard salary cap was instituted in 2005. Detroit’s demise was cast prematurely then and people are doing the same now. The Wings didn’t magically turn into an old and talentless team in one off-season. Remember, they were the hottest team in the NHL over the last six weeks of the regular season. Let’s ignore the late-season surge for a second. The Wings are entitled to down seasons. We’ve seen it before. What people need to understand is this wasn’t just a random down season. It was inevitable from the get-go because of various factors beyond Ken Holland, Mike Babcock, and even the players’ control.
Each instance highlighted above where a team in its prime unexpectedly dropped off was the result of extenuating circumstances. The 2010 Wings trump them all in that department. First, no contending team in the NHL had to contend with the sheer amount of injuries the Wings had to deal with in 2010. In fact, based on the total number of games lost to injury, it’s a miracle they even made the playoffs. All told, the Wings lost 312 player games to injury. Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Dan Clearly all missed significant time. It wasn’t a coincidence that when the Wings finally got healthy post Olympic break, they were the best in the NHL.
Injuries weren’t the only factor. The 2010 Wings were a tired team. Over the previous three seasons, the Wings played 63 playoff games which were, by far, the most in the NHL. The next three highest totals were Pittsburgh (49), Anaheim (40) and San Jose (30). Aside from two teams—Pittsburgh and Anaheim—the Wings played more than double the number of playoff games over the last three seasons than every other team in the league. In fact, the Wings played the equivalent of ¾ of a regular season more than the average team in the NHL over that span. Compounding the issue was a brutal travel schedule. Since the Wings are an ill fit geographically in the Western Conference, a whopping 17 of those 63 playoff games were played at least two time zones away. Not to mention the Wings had seven players participate in the Vancouver Olympics which was the second highest total in the NHL. All of these factors contributed to an exhausted team. Tired legs and injuries were largely responsible for why the Wings found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at mid-season. By the time the team got healthy, it was forced to play playoff hockey for six weeks just to get into playoffs. Even then, they had to play on the road in the first round three time zones away in Phoenix and again in the second round three time zones away in San Jose.
As well as the Wings played to close out the regular season, it’s amazing to think how much offensive production was lost in the off-season. Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, and Jiri Hudler accounted for 82 goals in 2009 which was 28% of Detroit’s scoring. That sort of personnel loss is hard to deal with regardless of how talented the rest of the roster is. Those losses became an even bigger burden when the Wings were faced with mounting injuries. The depth that was the team’s cornerstone before had vanished. At the same time, Jimmy Howard took over the #1 job in goal making 2010 one whopper of a transitional season.
The 2010 Wings shouldn’t be remembered for underachieving. In fact, I would argue that—considering all of the factors involved—they ended up overachieving. The 2011 Wings should have no problem following the precedent set by the teams I referenced above. Jimmy Howard should improve on his stellar debut as Detroit’s starting goaltender. Jiri Hudler is expected to re-join the team after spending the season overseas. The early exit in the playoffs will give the team more than a month of additional rest compared to the previous three seasons.
The takeaway from 2010 is that it was a blip and not a trend. Take solace in the number of factors that were working against the Wings and then take even more solace in the way they finished the regular season. If precedent means anything, the Wings should be a heavy favorite to return to the Stanley Cup Finals in the next season or two. That doesn’t sound half bad for “the end of an era.”