The Red Wings — good enough to make the playoffs, but ‘nothing more’

AP
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They say that once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.

But let’s be real here — if the Detroit Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup this year, it would’ve been a massive surprise.

It’s been like that for a few years now in Detroit. The Wings have had some decent teams, good enough to keep their playoff streak alive. But ever since Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012, nobody’s given them much of a shot, and rightly so.

Last night in Tampa, they were bounced after just five games, by a Lightning squad that was missing two of its best players. For the Wings, it was their third straight first-round defeat. They haven’t been past the second round since 2009, the year they lost to Pittsburgh in the finals.

“It gets tougher and tougher to go all the way,” captain Henrik Zetterberg told NHL.com. “The first step is making the playoffs. We keep doing that. But then it’s nothing more. That gets frustrating.”

On top of that, the Wings are now facing a future without Pavel Datsyuk. Even if Datsyuk were to return for one more season, he turns 38 in July and isn’t the player he used to be. For that matter, neither are Zetterberg or Niklas Kronwall, both 35.

Granted, it’s not all dire. Dylan Larkin, 19, has “face of the franchise” potential. Petr Mrazek, 24, is an excellent young goalie. Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Danny DeKeyser are all nice players in their mid-20s, while prospects Anthony Mantha and Evgeny Svechnikov have a chance to be good, as do a few others in the system.

But because they’ve made the playoffs 25 straight times, the Wings haven’t had access to the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman. The last time Detroit got to pick in the top 10 was 1991, the year Eric Lindros went first overall.

It’s like Mike Babcock said before he left, “In the end, you’ve got to have big-time players up the middle and on the back to be successful. So those are questions in our organization that we work towards, drafting good and developing good, but we’ve been winning too much (in the regular season to get high draft picks). That’s the facts.”

In a related story, it wasn’t just the money that convinced Babcock to take the job in Toronto. It was the prospect of piling up tons of blue-chip talent in the draft, then seeing what he can do with it.

The Wings found Lidstrom in the third round, Datsyuk in the sixth, and Zetterberg in the seventh. A Hall of Fame defensemen and two Hall of Fame centers.

It was those three players that kept the Wings competitive for so long.

And next year, only one of them could be left.