Howe far can the Red Wings fall

Howe far can the Red Wings fall

January 03, 2017 3:08 AM

Let me be clear, Gordie Howe is the greatest player to ever don a Detroit Red Wings jersey. But when it comes to the Joe Lewis Arena era, you could argue Steve Yzerman may be the one tapped on the shoulder as the franchise’s best since 1979.

Howe never leaped over the boards from the Olympia to “The Joe,” which soon will be closing to make way in September for Little Caesars Arena, a $732.6 million multi-purpose structure to anchor an expanded sports and entertainment district in downtown Detroit. Right around the corner is Comerica Park (MLB Tigers) and Ford Field (NFL Lions).

The new arena, which will also host the NBA Pistons and a youth development hockey league, already has registered trademarks as “The Baddest Bowl” and “The Baddest Bowl in Hockey” – and that’s the problem.

On the ice, the Red Wings have been so concerned about extending their record streak of 25 consecutive years advancing to the playoffs – barely so of late – that the club is on the verge of total collapse and could become the newest version of the (name any poor team: Sabres, Maple Leafs, et al).

While Yzerman was in town to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Stanley Cup champion Wings, some wonder if another 42-year championship drought could be in the works.

Led by Howe and goalie Terry Sawchuk, the Wings captured three Cups in four seasons, then nearly won a fourth crown a year later. An aging Sawchuk later backed Toronto to its last title in 1967 – it’s been 50 seasons, Leafs fans – but the choices being made by today’s Wings management shows the team is in dire straits.

At last week’s ceremonies, Yzerman first talked on how the ‘97 Wings were rugged on defense, then mentioned four lines that could consistently score. He and coach Scotty Bowman also said Game 4 of the final that season, which completed a four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers, was their top moment in the famous building.

Today, the Wings seemed more concerned about impossible dreams.

First they attempted to sign Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, but really, they were fooling themselves into thinking they ever had a chance to sign the all-star. Everyone (except Detroit) knew Stamkos was either going to remain captain in Tampa Bay or sign with his hometown club in Toronto.

When ousted from the Stamkos sweepstakes, Detroit eyes seized upon N.Y. Islanders free agent Frans Nielsen, who scored just 119 goals in 10 seasons. The result so far: just nine goals (not much under a $5 million contract).

LW Gustav Nyquist was supposed to be the home-grown product for the future, but after scoring 62 goals over the past three seasons, he’s only found the net four times this season.

Previous coach Mike Babcock didn’t just leave the Wings bench for “greener pastures” in Toronto. He saw the future and decided a pink slip was not a good way to end his association with the franchise.

Then a rash of injuries hampered the club.

Goaltender Jimmy Howard (leg) was placed on IR and is out indefinitely, leaving 24-year-old Petr Mrazek of the Czech Republic in goal. He receives little help in facing more than 30 shots per start.

Meanwhile among the skaters – Mike Green, Tyler Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen and Darren Helm – are also out of the lineup with various injuries.

Thus, by the time you read this, Buffalo will have made up its games-in-hand – including last week’s overtime win in Detroit – to escape the cellar and drop the Wings into last place (even below the Leafs).

Twenty-five years as a playoff participant is a proud achievement, but when Detroit will return to Lord Stanley’s party is anyone’s guess.