No, not the start to the fall the Detroit Red Wings were hoping for.
Literally or symbolically.
The pre-season win over Pittsburgh was fine. But the loss of Pavel Datsyuk to an apparent shoulder injury partway through the first exhibition game after a hit from Rob Scuderi was not And a broken nose suffered by centre Darren Helm in the same game wouldn’t make Wings fans feel any better.
Not this fall. Not with the Wings having finally become one of those teams.
One of those "if" teams.
As in, the 2014-15 NHL season could be a rousing success in Motown if Daniel Alfredsson’s back settles down, he signs and can look like he’s 22 – or even 32 – again.
If Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg can have some semblance of health.
If Jimmy Howard inserts himself into the Vezina conversation.
If Gustav Nyquist (28 goals in 57 games) truly is an elite NHL scorer and Tomas Tatar can take the next step.
If Mike Babcock, who carries 415 wins and two Stanley Cups into this season, re-signs either before the season or, if he doesn’t, doesn’t become as a sideshow during the campaign.
If Anthony Mantha really is a beast and can bounce back from a fractured right tibia suffered in rookie camp.
If 2013 free agent addition Stephen Weiss (sports hernia) can make some kind of contribution.
Yes, if many of these "ifs" go Detroit’s way – and we haven’t even mentioned Johan Franzen or Jonathan Ericsson yet – the Wings could indeed reach the top of the mountain in the hard-to-tell-the-wheat-from-the-chaff Eastern Conference.
They could be this year’s New York Rangers. But Datsyuk’s exhibition opener injury, which may or may not turn out to be significant, was hardly the promising sign from the hockey heavens the Wings were looking for, that’s for sure.
All this said, when, pray tell, did we last talk about Mike Ilitch’s mighty franchise in this way? Perhaps 1996?
This franchise, partly through design and partly through good fortune, has been blessed by a 20-year-run of seemingly unending talent that was sculpted into a unique franchise by Scotty Bowman, Ken Holland and Mike Babcock.
The Wings just weren’t different. They looked different, and certainly, for the most part, played a different way than all the other NHL teams.
That didn’t always deliver Stanley Cups. But Detroit was always right there, always a serious threat, and almost always a team to be admired, particularly for those who look for speed and creativity in the sport.
They didn’t rely on a slew of "ifs" or best case scenarios. They had talent, a plan, a philosophy, and used it to put an indelible imprint on the sport.
But you have to wonder whether that entire Red Wing way of life, or way of doing things, is now at risk for a team that simply doesn’t have the offensive pop it once did and suddenly looks dangerously thin on the back end and a little creaky in certain parts of the lineup.
Detroit could, and probably should, make the playoffs for a 24th consecutive spring. But that’s not the standard by which we’ve grown to assess this franchise for two decades now.
Holland has been doing his level best to stitch this together over the past couple of seasons, to re-tool on the run while stars retired, the team got older and yet still tried to win Cups. But the club hasn’t drafted in the top 10 since 1991.
Even Holland’s sleight-of-hand can only deliver so much in terms of a youth movement.
He managed to woo Dan DeKeyser as a college free agent, and may have stolen Nyquist (121st) and Mantha (20th) as lower picks than perhaps they deserved to be.
But free agents aren’t picking the Wings ahead of other franchises as quickly any more, and Babcock is having to make do with players who wouldn’t have been playoff Black Aces back in the club’s heyday. If he were not to be the team’s coach after this season, it would become increasingly difficult to imagine the team would play the same way or would instead become a lot more like a lot of its competitors.
A new era is dawning in Detroit hockey with the announcement of a new $450 million rink, with the first steps in construction set to begin this week. It’s long been a question as to how the market would respond if the hockey team wasn’t a dominant club for a few years, and perhaps the appeal of a new state-of-the-art facility could help hold the interest of loyal customers until a strong new roster core can be developed.
Perhaps. If. Lots of maybes in a hockey town that was all but a sure bet for a long, long time.