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Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak in jeopardy, and players feel the pressure

Wings feel weight of 25-season playoff streak

About half of the current Detroit Red Wings weren’t even born when the team last missed the playoffs.

The streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances weighs heavily on this group, especially given the increasing likelihood that this will be the first Red Wings team to miss the post-season since 1990.

“You don’t want to be the team that’s part of breaking that streak,” veteran Drew Miller said. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

Detroit sits well back of a playoff spot with the season’s halfway point right around the corner, closer to the Eastern Conference basement.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg said his team would be “really, really, really disappointed” if they failed to qualify for the playoffs, but thought the streak had also become too much of the focus.

“It’s almost that we make the post-season to continue the streak and then we kind of relax a little bit and so that’s what we want to get away from and just focus on getting into the post-season,” Zetterberg said recently.

“But it’s not going to be easy for us and we all know that. It’s not like we have a team that we had in the mid-2000s (which won two Stanley Cups). But you won’t have those teams forever either. We believe we’re a good team when we’re playing well and we’ve just got to have a high level a little more often than we have this year.”

In reality, the Wings are an aging team that lacks young contributors who can grab the ball from veterans like Zetterberg and run with it. Traditionally one of the more skilled teams, Detroit ranks 24th in scoring this season and 21st in puck possession, also owning — by far — the league’s worst power play.

Zetterberg, 36, remains the team’s best player and leading scorer, good for the future Hall of Famer but a bad sign for an organization which had reliably replaced aging stars with younger ones.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk took hold of the reins when Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull moved on. But Lidstrom stepped aside after the 2011-12 season and Datsyuk left for the KHL last summer, and the next wave of stars is yet to follow.

Anthony Mantha, who scored twice in Sunday’s Centennial Classic against the Maple Leafs, has enjoyed a nice rookie season (nine goals, 16 points in 22 games), but beyond that Detroit’s youth has mostly stalled. An impressive 19-year-old rookie last year, Dylan Larkin has slumped as sophomore, though he stands as the only Wing with double-digit goals this season.

Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist look to be more complimentary pieces than front-line NHL stars. Petr Mrazek, the hopeful future in goal, lost his starting job earlier this fall and was passed over to start the Jan. 1 outdoor game for a rookie with minimal NHL experience in Jared Coreau.

The Wings thrived for years by finding and then patiently developing late-round draft gems, a strategy that hasn’t reaped the same rewards recently. Detroit never bottomed out either and thus could not pluck the stars usually available at the top of each draft.

Hoping to remain competitive with a new arena on the horizon, Detroit signed a number of questionable long-term contracts over the years, including a seven-year, US$29.75 million pact for heart-and-soul type Justin Abdelkader and a six-year deal worth $31.5 million for 32-year-old Frans Nielsen.

Zetterberg, meanwhile, is signed until 2022 ($6 million cap hit), 35-year-old Niklas Kronwall until 2019 ($4.75) and 32-year-old Jonathan Ericsson ($4.25) until 2020. A Stephen Weiss contract buyout will cost the Wings’ $1.67 million on the cap until 2021.

Detroit’s streak — which is the third-longest in NHL history after Boston (29) and Chicago (28) — represents the stunning degree to which the Wings outmanoeuvred their competition for so long, and its likely demise signals an end to that run.

“It’s important to everyone — players, coaches, the city of Detroit, Red Wings fans, everyone wants to keep it going, but it’s tough,” Abdelkader said. “But we still want to uphold the history of the organization so we’ll go out and do our best and hope to have a chance to make the playoffs.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press