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What to do with fading contenders? (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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The Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings are perhaps the two teams most affected by the recent realignment in the National Hockey League, but for very different reasons, and also the same reason.

The fact of the matter is that neither team is doing as well as they've probably come to expect, or set as goals for themselves, at the start of the season, with the Canucks hanging tenuously onto the final playoff spot in the West (up three points on the Coyotes with two extra games played following Wednesday night's loss to Chicago), and the Wings currently not in a playoff spot in the East.

These are two teams who not so long ago were considered serious Stanley Cup contenders, but the Canucks have lost three of their last four and 11 of 15, and things seem to be getting more nervous than a Vancouver shop owner around an, ahem, anarchist. Meanwhile, the Red Wings are once again plagued by injuries to a slew of important players and have just three regulation wins out of 12 January games. Both have been giving up a lot of goals lately, both haven't been scoring a ton, and both have actually been a little lucky in terms of shooting and save percentages. Prior to last night's games, Detroit was sixth in PDO close, while Vancouver was 11th.

Frankly, though, we should have seen this coming. The whole thing about how the Red Wings would be screwed immediately after Nicklas Lidstrom retired obviously didn't hold true, but things eventually caught up with them for other reasons. The problem behind it, though, is the same: They're too reliant on guys who have crested the hill and gotten onto the wrong side of 30. Their even-strength TOI leaders are, for the most part, in their 20s, but they're also not very good; when you're leaning on Kyle Quincey, Kronwall, Brendan Smith, and Jakub Kindl as your go-to guys, you're asking for trouble.A scarier point is that injuries mean their leading forward in terms of even-strength time on ice this season is Justin Abdelkader. However, their top five point-producers are still 33 (Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, Nos. 1 and 4, respectively), 34 (Johan Franzen, No. 5), and 35 years old (Pavel Datsyuk, 35).

Worrisome stuff, and yes injuries as mentioned play a huge part in the fact that they're not in the playoffs right now, but even if they had an additional five points (which is a lot in the NHL), they'd be tied with the Maple Leafs, and that's nowhere for a team with pretensions of being a competitor for anything but a first-round bounce-out should be. Injuries happen to everyone, maybe not as all-at-once as the Wings have suffered, but no one outside Minnesota shed a tear when the Wild crashed out of their playoff spot a few years ago, nor should they have.

And the thing is, the Wings' season should really be going a lot better than it has given the relative quality of the Eastern Conference (low). Even as the entire East has picked up a larger number of wins against the West in the last month or so the fact remains that only three teams from the larger conference would be in a playoff position in the West. This should have been a soft landing for the Red Wings, but it hasn't been. Will it get better next year? That's tough to say; the East is indeed improving and their best players won't be able to shove any grains of sand back up into the top half of the hourglass. They have a number of talented young players stepping into bigger roles, but the idea that they'd be able to fill the shoes of a Kronwall or Franzen — let alone three Hall of Famers like Zetterberg, Datsyuk, or Lidstrom —is far-fetched to say the least. This is a team in serious need of retooling, but one wonders whether they'd even commit to such a thing, and when they'd do so, or even if they would be able to pull it off in earnest. It is very, very difficult for any team to have sustained success of any kind over a period of, say, eight or nine years, let alone the 20-something Detroit has enjoyed.

The reason all this occurs to me is that Mark Spector went out to Vancouver this past week, watched the Canucks lose the aforementioned three of four, and reported that many people he talked to in the city are now turning their attentions to the possibility of a blow-up. Obviously the Canucks have been a supreme disappointment this season, and maybe that's what happens when you move from the cupcake Northwest to the meat grinder Pacific. Calgary and Edmonton are still around, but you're playing them less often, and a feckless Colorado and middling Wild have been replaced by three Californian juggernauts and a middling Coyotes club which — you'll forgive the turn of phrase — is nipping at the Canucks' heels.

Their problem is similar to Detroit's in that they're really leaning heavily on older players who are now well past their primes. The Sedins are still very good players, but they're also 33 and signed for another three seasons. Ryan Kesler is what feels like it must be a hard 29 in terms of all he's gone through injury-wise in the last few years. Kevin Bieksa's 32, Dan Hamhuis is 31. This isn't a team that screams out for a rebuild just yet, but they're also not very far from going down the road most recently traveled by the Red Wings.

There's a big difference between being a contender for the Stanley Cup and being a team that gets into the playoffs. The Calgary Flames have found to their chagrin over the last several years that this is the case, because “going for it” — where “it” means “finishing with 97 or so points” — shouldn't be the goal. The Canucks are, unlike Calgary and Edmonton before them, not in a position in which they have to outright tank to get better, but they need to start addressing their issues, like the complete lack of forward depth, if they want to get better before the Sedins (and to a lesser extent Roberto Luongo) age themselves out of usefulness or value. Tortorella-coached teams can win in the NHL if they have the personnel, and the Canucks don't and probably won't for a while. Maybe they get aggressive this summer, as some have suggested, in getting their fourth line back up to snuff, and maybe some of the kids they've drafted in the last few years figure it out, but if not, you can't give it much longer than one more season before you start seeking out more permanent solutions.

Tanking can work, as the Penguins and Blackhawks have shown in the past decade-plus, but it takes time and a lot of luck. Tanking can also go sideways on you in a hurry, as demonstrated by Edmonton (largely due to the misfortune of the best-player-available largely being smallish scoring forwards and not having access to any bruising defensemen), especially if your asset management is as poor as things have been for the Oilers. With that being said, do you really see Mike Gillis or Ken Holland acquiescing to such a thing? They appear to be far more in the vein of “rebuild on the fly” kinds of guys, especially given that Gillis traded Cory Schneider — albeit as a matter of necessity, yes — over the summer. Maybe that means Vancouver's already trying it, and are willing to suffer a year or two of finishing somewhere between seventh and ninth in the conference, but Detroit sure isn't. And that's something they should be doing at the very least.

Rebuilding on the fly isn't easy, but it works. Take, for example, the San Jose Sharks, the most recent case of a team that's built around both younger players (Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tomas Hertl) older (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle) and those in between (Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns). Their system seems to be layering their players so that when guys get too old, they're replaced by roughly equal talents. Not that anyone in the Western Conference is on a level with Thornton, who's just been otherworldly for the last 13 seasons and will be almost impossible to replace, but the Sharks aren't exactly going to be hurting when he finally calls it quits.

That's the blueprint the Canucks and Red Wings alike should and probably will follow, but it's easier said than done. Obviously, though, the things they're doing now aren't working, and will continue to not-work as time passes. So they've gotta do something else, soon, instead.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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