When it comes to NHL discipline, we’ve always gone from expecting the “right thing” to be done, to hoping the “right thing” might be done, to emotionally disengaging from the entire process.

From Matt Cooke, for all intents and purposes, ending Marc Savard’s career with as blatant a targeting of the human head as we’ve seen in the sport in the last several years, to countless other weak suspensions for similar hits, it’s really difficult to take things seriously which the NHL comes down with.

So I think all of us who saw Shea Weber’s disgusting actions of a punch to the back of the head of Henrik Zetterberg, followed by the slamming of Zetterberg’s skull into the glass at extremely close range, are all HOPING the right thing is done, but it’s so tempered by expectations.  The NHL loves to talk the talk about wanting violence out of the sport.  Trust me, it doesn’t.  They feel like they have to target the younger demographic that is so infatuated with the NFL, and especially the group (note I didn’t say “subculture”, that’s a bit heavy-handed) that enjoys the UFC/MMA cards.

Shea Weber certainly DESERVES more than one game, and that’s even taking into account who he is, and of course, who Henrik Zetterberg is — and that’s for the last six or seven seasons, the Red Wings best forward in the playoffs.  I love Pavel Datsyuk as much as the next hockey fan, but Zetterberg usually outscores Datsyuk in the postseason and also draws a much tougher checking assignment — he gets assigned the other team’s best shutdown defender, and during those shifts, has to check the other team’s best centre.

But I can honestly say this is the first year I’ve looked at the Red Wings since 1993 and not seen a Stanley Cup contender.  The first year if you’d give me only five teams that could/should win the Stanley Cup (and usually there aren’t any more than five) that the Red Wings aren’t on the list.  That’s a hell of a run, and I’m not sure the Red Wings are going to miss the playoffs any time soon, but I really do believe that more talented teams than Detroit (San Jose, for example) have missed recently, or almost missed this year as the Sharks nearly did.

San Jose’s roster was lauded in two tight series against Detroit for having many more talented younger players, and some of those have been high draft picks, but others have developed through their system.  Who’s Detroit’s best player under 30?  Well, it’s either Val Filppula or Ian White and both are 27 years old.  There’s really no other options, and nothing against Jimmy Howard, who’s one of the best twelve or fifteen goalies in the NHL, but I’m not so sure he’s elite either.  That’s not even to say Howard may not be better than Chris Osgood as a “skilled” goalie but he hasn’t got near the team in front of him any of Vernon, Osgood, Hasek, or, yes, Curtis Joseph had, in the last 18 years or so.  Let’s not forget this team made a star out of Manny Legace, a journeyman goalie before he got to Detroit, and a journeyman goalie after he left Detroit, with no playoff round wins, I should add.

San Jose’s players under 30 who are better than any of their under-30 Red Wings counterparts when they played the last two springs?  Sit down, I don’t want your joints to stiffen up.  Logan Couture (22), Joe Pavelski (27), Ryane Clowe (28), Brent Burns (26), Jamie McGinn (moved to Colorado this spring) (23), and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (24).  That’s not to say Filppula isn’t “better” than McGinn right now, for example, but it speaks to what a seemingly now “average” Western Conference team like the Sharks had/have as a young commodity that the Red Wings don’t.

Are the Wings to blame for this?  If you can’t sign young players via free agency, and for the most point, you cannot as UFAs anymore, and teams aren’t stupid enough to trade elite talent in their early-to-mid 20s to your team, then how do you get them?

The draft seems the only way, and the Red Wings haven’t drafted in the Top 5 since they took Keith Primeau 3rd overall in 1990, and haven’t drafted in the Top 10 since Martin Lapointe became a Red Wing in 1991 at 10th overall.  That’s unbelievable but not surprising.  In the past 21 years counting this upcoming draft, the Wings drafted in the 1st round 11 times, and traded the pick the other 10 times.

Who are the Red Wings’ 1st-rounders since 1992.  It’s an ugly list.  Behold:

1992 – Curtis Bowen (22nd)

1993 – Anders Eriksson (22nd)

1994 – Yan Golubovsky (23rd)

1995 – Maxim Kusnetsov (25th)

1996 – Jesse Wallin (26th)

1998 – Jiri Fischer (25th)

2000 – Niklas Kronwall (29th)

2005 – Jakub Kindl (19th)

2010 – Riley Sheahan (21st)

Eesh, right?  Kronwall’s been a steady presence in the Red Wings Top 4 defence core for several years now, and though Jiri Fischer’s career was tragically cut short because of a heart ailment in that famous Nashville/Detroit game in November 2006, I’m sorry — he was an average defender, not as tough as his size would suggest, and he constantly turned the puck over.  He was serviceable when surrounded by star defenders, but few people whose views I respect ever thought he was going to become much better than he was.

As far as forwards go, after getting Johan Franzen in the 3rd round in 2004, and Jiri Hudler in the 2nd round in 2002, they have neither drafted nor developed (yet) any frontline talent who can play in ANY NHL squad’s Top 6 forwards, let alone the Red Wings.  This isn’t a “hey, we’re too deep to play talented kids” situation, the Red Wings would play talented kids if they could.  But I think Jan Mursak’s size is an issue to get up to an elite forward status, and Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm are both bottom-end checking forwards or penalty killers.

It’s hard to be great forever.  We see cracks in the foundation of great teams after long periods of time.  We see them in other sports with the New England Patriots and the New York Yankees (and the Yankees, unlike the Red Wings or Patriots) aren’t slaves to a league-wide salary cap.  I’d argue among pro sports teams, the Red Wings, Yankees, and Patriots have set phenomenal standards to be matched by teams.  The Red Wings with four Stanley Cup wins and six Finals appearances in seventeen years, the Yankees with three straight World Series wins and a near-win in 2001 against Arizona, and the Patriots winning three Super Bowls in four seasons — we have yet to see a team GO BACK to the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons once since that run.  Sixteen great NFL teams have tried, and sixteen have failed.

It’s an amazing dilemma for Ken Holland and his staff.  I don’t blame Holland for the lack of depth, but they aren’t re-stocking the system with Zetterbergs, Datsyuks, Franzens or Kronwalls like they did when Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Lidstrom and (insert elite goalie here) were the Red Wings core.  They’ve needed a break in the Draft and haven’t gotten one.  Every other team they fight and compete with has at least a few Top 10 draft picks on their roster they have to battle against.

The Wings do have former 1st-rounders on their roster, like Danny Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, and Brad Stuart (#3 overall) no less, but no one would make the argment that Bertuzzi and Stuart are in the twilights of their respective careers, and Cleary still will go down as a career underachiever, who was thrown a lifeline by Detroit several training camps ago and made the most of his opportunity.

Nashville meantime rolls with a #2 overall (1998) centre in David Legwand, a #7 overall (2003) D-man in Ryan Suter, #15 overall (2004) electric forward in the just-returned Alex Radulov, #7 overall (2008) playmaking solid centre in Colin Wilson, and likely-won’t-miss 1st rounders like Ryan Ellis (7th/2009) and Austin Watson (18th/2010).

Ken Holland’s been a fantastic general manager in Detroit, and likely has a job for the rest of his career, and he boldly dismissed an out-of-his-element Dave Lewis after only two playoff runs and Lewis alienating Curtis Joseph, Sergei Fedorov, Steve Thomas, and Brett Hull.  He hired the coach most fanbases dream of having in Mike Babcock.  It’s hard to say Holland has done anything less than a very good (at the worst of times) to an exceptional beyond belief (at the best of times) job.  For every brilliant trade or free-agent masterstroke there’s a signing of a Derien Hatcher or Uwe Krupp.  

But Holland’s never had the luxury of having bluechippers show up at the age of 18 or 19 ready to contribute, and certainly very few recently.  The evolution of the Red Wings over the next three years and certainly for the first couple post-Lidstrom years will be downright fascinating.  You, as a Red Wings fan, can be as loyal as you’d like to be towards Lidstrom, but isn’t the best thing for the FUTURE of the Red Wings for Lidstrom to retire this summer, and for the Red Wings to be able to sign Ryan Suter or Zach Parise?   It’s been a while since the Red Wings have signed or even been able to sign financially an elite free-agent.  That player was Marian Hossa and both player and team could only commit to one year and the Red Wings still won fifteen playoff games that season. 

For the record, I still think the Red Wings are winning this series against Nashville — they were a lousy road team much of the year, so winning once in Game 2 or Game 5 in Nashville and protecting home ice isn’t forecasting some tremendous surprise…but it is the first time I look at the Red Wings and will be SHOCKED if they end up in the Stanley Cup Finals, and, again, imagine being SHOCKED the Yankees are in the World Series or Patriots are in the Super Bowl.  We’re not there yet — I think we are with the Winged Wheelers.

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