How the mighty Wings have fallen

Updated: October 26, 2006, 12:45 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, could be forgiven if he decided to ask Major League Baseball to further investigate Kenny Rogers' dirty left hand.

Yep, that's right. His own pitcher.

And not just a quickie investigation. Something long and drawn out. The World Series could even be postponed for a few days, or a few weeks, Ilitch might suggest, until all the facts were known.

Why, you might ask, would Ilitch possibly want any of this to happen?

Well, while all is well and good with his Tigers, such is not nearly the case for the NHL club he owns, the Detroit Red Wings. The spectacular success of Jim Leyland's ballclub has overshadowed an uncharacteristically weak start for the Motown skating set, and Ilitch might be well served to keep the Tigers playing until his hockey club gets itself sorted out.

Assuming that happens.

Soon, the Tigers won't be a smoke screen for the Red Wings, who went on a four-game western road trip last week and returned having scored just six goals, including three in their final three outings, all defeats.

For more than a decade, the Wings have been one of the classiest squads in the league with a lineup that more often than not played gorgeous, puck-controlling hockey and featured dominant stars with magical talents.

There were three Stanley Cups along the way in 1997, '98 and 2002. Sure, there were occasional ups and downs as well, such as the '03 playoffs, when the Wings couldn't sneak a puck past Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere and were rudely ushered out of postseason play while trying to defend their title.

For the most part, however, the Wings remained one of the top four or five teams in the league with blessed consistency.

But the majority of the marquee names that once graced the Detroit lineup are gone, and that which is left is looking, by comparison, pretty darn ordinary.

And Detroit, which loves to call itself Hockeytown, isn't used to darn ordinary.

Mike Babcock

Not since the 1990-91 season, when the Wings finished four games below .500, have the Red Wings' faithful had to deal with anything close to average.

In the 14 seasons since then, the Motowners have finished either first or second in their division. In 10 of those seasons the team managed 100 points or more, an unparalleled run of success in team history, and that doesn't include the 48-game, lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, when the club registered 70 of a possible 96 points, finishing first overall.

Folks in Denver and New Jersey might quibble, but this has been hockey's most successful and appealing team since the league began expanding beyond the Original 21.

Suddenly, however, not so much.

Going into Wednesday's home game against San Jose, the Wings sit a rather disturbing fourth in the Central Division, a division they have ruled with a dominant, uncompromising hand in recent years.

They've already lost four games; last season, it took them until Nov. 16 to reach that total. In three home games, they've come up with a single victory: a 9-2 demolition of the dreadful Phoenix Coyotes.

But beyond the points, there's a greater sense that the swagger has been lost in Detroit, that this is no longer a franchise that begins games with a one-goal lead just because the opposition knows it doesn't have the same talent quotient as the Red Wings.

If Philly's Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s intimidated with muscle, the Red Wings of the past decade intimidated with a swashbuckling combination of passing and shooting and stickhandling and speed.

Right now, however, they no longer intimidate anyone. Indeed, on their swing through the new power centers of San Jose and Anaheim last week, it was the Wings who looked as though they understood they didn't have the talent to keep up with the powerhouse Sharks and Ducks.

Once upon a time and not so long ago, the Wings could put five future Hall of Fame players on the ice for a power play and have a couple others sitting on the bench.

Today, their power play is ranked 27th out of 30 teams, and the team's leading scorer, defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, is 83rd on the NHL's scoring parade.

It seems clear the Wings are on a downward spiral. The question is whether that will simply take them to the middle of the Western Conference pack for a couple of years, or whether the fall will be much greater than that.

To be sure, this was a hockey team that had to face a decline of some kind at some point. Along with the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils, the Wings were one of three franchises that refused to share the Stanley Cup for all but one season from 1995 to 2003.

In that span, the Avs won two Cups, the Devils won three and the Wings put their names on the grand old trophy three times as well. Only the Dallas Stars, in 1999, managed to squeeze in a Cup win during that time.

Well, today the Avs are experiencing the same types of problems as the Wings, struggling to stay competitive, having seen so many brilliant stars depart or retire in recent years. The Devils have lost Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and others along the way, but the constant excellence of goaltender Martin Brodeur and management expertise of Lou Lamoriello might help Jersey stall for time until talented new blood is brought into the organization.

But while the Devs still have Brodeur and the Avalanche can build their team around captain Joe Sakic, this is the first year of the post-Steve Yzerman era in Detroit, forcing the Wings to deal with a serious leadership vacuum Colorado and New Jersey have thus far not had to face.

Yzerman, of course, wasn't just any old captain. He'd worn the "C" in Motown so long that the identity of his predecessor (Danny Gare) had become a challenging trivia question for even longtime Detroit fans.

No. 19 was an institution, with as much influence in the Red Wings operation as any general manager or coach by the end.

His replacement, Lidstrom, is a future Hall of Famer. But you just don't put the third letter of the alphabet over your heart and replace Steve Yzerman.

And it wasn't just Yzerman. Brendan Shanahan, a player the Wings wanted to keep, left after nine years for New York.

"I had an instinct that it was time to move on, and with Steve retiring, that kind of tipped the scales," Shanahan said. "My feeling was that the core players in Detroit were identified with what had been accomplished in the past more than the present or the future. I think Detroit had a desire to hand the team over to their younger stars."

Seven players are left on the Detroit roster from the '02 championship squad, and that includes Dominik Hasek, a goaltender so disliked by his teammates during his last stint with the Wings that many took pains to aim at his head during practices.

Even a smart, experienced general manager like Ken Holland can't just patch over those kinds of personnel losses and warts.

That said, given the success the Wings have enjoyed for so many years, the quality of young talent the club has is remarkable, including Pavel Datsyuk (28 years old), Henrik Zetterberg (26), Jason Williams (26) and defenseman Niklas Kronwall (25).

This is a team, don't forget, that hasn't had a top-10 pick in the draft since 1991.

Smart drafting, excellent coaching and the ability to outspend the majority of clubs to fill crucial roster holes -- particularly in goal -- kept the Wings on top.

When the Carolina Hurricanes faced the Wings in the '02 Stanley Cup finals, Detroit could ice a starting six with greater combined salaries than the entire Hurricanes roster.

"That's got to be worth at least a minor penalty," joked Carolina head coach Paul Maurice at the time.

That spending advantage is now gone, courtesy of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement that introduced the salary cap to the NHL. The Wings still have respected scouts and a good coach in Mike Babcock, but the roster holes are now gaping after the loss of so much talent over the past three years, and it will take time to fill them.

And more holes will soon appear. Just look at the blue line, for instance. Kronwall is a comer, but Lidstrom is 36, Mathieu Schneider is 37 and Chris Chelios is 44. Even Joe Louis Arena, wretched compared to the Tigers' spiffy home, is 27 years old and in need of either extensive renovations or replacement.

Yzerman is now a vice president with the Wings, and he'll be part of the front office team that will chart a new course for the club. Along with Holland and others, he'll have to decide whether Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall constitute the type of core that can lead to championships, or whether the Wings have to fall a little further in the standings to draft the kind of player who will lead them back to the top.

The Wings, to be fair, aren't that bad a team today, and playing in a division with St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago will probably prevent them from falling out of postseason contention.

But compiling 124 points last season largely by beating up on their division brethren didn't prevent the Wings from being exposed as a rather pedestrian team by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the postseason.

If that wasn't tough enough to swallow, the start of this season has been indicative of a team that no longer is a top-10 club.

The Tigers, of course, had to fall awfully far before becoming a pennant winner with a chance to win a World Series.

The Wings have no plan to fall that far. But they might not have a choice.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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