It’s hard to imagine that a team in any pro sport could ride a 21-year playoff streak into a new season, have several of the world’s most talented players on its roster and still be written off by everyone before the first game is even underway. Yet that’s exactly the situation the Detroit Red Wings find themselves in as they approach the start of a frantic, lockout-shortened 2013 season. It’s also a unique opportunity for coach Mike Babcock to use a motivating ploy that the skippers of good teams rarely get to try.
Okay, maybe saying everyone is down on the Wings was an exaggeration. Hope springs eternal in Hockeytown, and for good reason now that Pavel Datsyuk is safely back from his KHL temp job. Outside of Detroit though? You’d almost think the playoff streak was in jeopardy.
ESPN’s Hockey Prospectus gang doesn’t have Detroit among their top 10 Cup contenders, lagging behind the Blackhawks and Blues and dead even with the Predators. Likewise at Sports Illustrated, where Adrian Dater has the Wings 12th in his preseason power rankings.
And surely while you were going through hockey withdrawal during the lockout, you took notice that the NHL 13 simulation of the 2012-13 season had Detroit dead last in the West after nine weeks. Hey, the game correctly predicted that Henrik Zetterberg would be named captain, so it knows what it’s talking about.
The doubters’ logic is easy to understand. Nicklas Lidstrom is gone, seemingly replaced by no one. The Wings missed out on the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter bonanza. The team is old (though it was another ‘D’ team that signed greybeards Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, as I recall), Jimmy Howard isn’t an elite goalie, and so on. You can probably add a few of our own without trying too hard.
All of this is great news for Babcock, who has all the bulletin board material he could ever want before his players even take the ice. Bill Simmons likes to call it the “Nobody believes in us” card, and he’s fond of pointing out the unusual cases where it can be played on a team that is too good to truly be considered an underdog.
Detroit is one of those cases now, and while the mostly veteran roster shouldn’t need any extra motivation to get going, it certainly can’t hurt. The best part about it is that the lack of respect angle is still valid come playoff time regardless of how this sprint of a regular season plays out. Say the Wings finish fourth in the West. Babcock can still go back to that well if he needs to, because most of the hockey world will probably still not like their chances.
And sure, maybe this is the season where the dreaded decline starts to creep in. Maybe the naysayers are right, and the Wings are just a middle of the pack squad that should just be happy to make it to the postseason. My suspicion is that they will be better than that, and while I’m not privy to what’s inside Babcock’s bag of psychological tricks, it wouldn’t surprise me if he appealed to the players’ pride by pointing out that there’s no lack of people who think a team that has been in the Cup hunt more often than not for two decades has suddenly become a pretender.
So to all of the fans and pundits outside Hockeytown, please keep up the doubt. After all, it can only help.