Why Colorado Avalanche are in Stanley Cup Final and Detroit Red Wings aren’t in playoffs

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup 25 years ago this month, their journey took them through the Colorado Avalanche.

The Wings and Avs were the fiercest of competitors, rivals in superstar power who rose to glory in the late 90s and into the aughts. Now the Colorado Avalanche are back in the Stanley Cup Final after completing the four-game sweep of the Oilers with a 6-5 overtime win on Monday in Edmonton, Alberta.

And the Detroit Red Wings aren’t even a playoff team.

Blame it on scouting.

The Wings won the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years in 2002, dispatching the Avs in a Western Conference finals that culminated with a 7-0 rout in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings and Avs both exited the playoffs in the first round in 2003.

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As the aughts wore on, the stars that had sustained the rivalry retired or left their respective side. The Avs missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2009, and failed to qualify from 2011-2013.

While the Avs were falling, the Wings remained on the rise because of two picks they made late in the 90s and one made early in the 2000 draft. Forward Pavel Datsyuk (No. 171, 1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (No. 210, 1999) and defenseman Niklas Kronwall (No. 29, 2000) lifted the Wings up as the ’97-’02 crew gradually departed, aided by Nicklas Lidstrom’s sublime longevity. The Wings won the Cup again in 2008 (sweeping the Avs in Round 2) and returned to the Cup Final in 2009 (the Avs weren’t even a playoff team).

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While the Wings tried to ride Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall to another Cup (Datsyuk left in 2016), the Avs focused on rebuilding. In 2011, they used the second overall pick on forward Gabriel Landeskog. He made the opening night roster; as it happened, his debut came against the Wings. He was named captain one year later.

That was one major rebuilding block in place. In 2013, there were two watershed moments: Joe Sakic, the quiet captain who was the Avs’ answer to Wings captain Steve Yzerman, was named general manager, and the Avs won the lottery and made forward Nathan MacKinnon the first pick in the draft.

In 2017, the Wings’ historic 25-season playoff streak ended, and they joined the Avalanche in the lottery. Remember when the Wings were the worst team in 2019-20 and were pushed back in the lottery to pick fourth? The Avs were in that position in 2017: They had 48 points, 21 less than the 29th place team, and dropped back three spots in the lottery to pick fourth. Just like Yzerman did in drafting Lucas Raymond in 2020, the Avs found a gem at No. 4 in defenseman Cale Makar. He’s a finalist and front-runner for the 2022 Norris Trophy.

Makar had a goal and four assists Monday and leads the Avalanche with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 14 playoff games. MacKinnon leads the team with 11 playoff goals. Landeskog has 17 points and a team-best plus-14 rating.

There were other moves along the way (former Wolverine J.T. Compher, who scored the Game 3 winner, was part of the 2015 trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo) but drafting Landeskog, MacKinnon and Makar played a major role in the Avs returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001, just like drafting Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall played a major role in the Wings making it to the finals Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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