The Colorado Avalanche. The Chicago Blackhawks. The Toronto Maple Leafs. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins. What do these teams have in common?
At one point or another, they were considered rivals of the Detroit Red Wings. The list is not limited to those four teams; an Original Six franchise like the Red Wings has a storied history with almost every team in the league. However, a true, bitter rivalry has been hard to come by in 2020.
Maybe it’s a product of the team’s fall from grace. Maybe it was the conference realignment before the 2013-14 season. No matter the cause, fans of the Red Wings surely miss the environment cultivated by a fierce rivalry. That may be part of the reason some haven’t taken to Little Caesar’s Arena yet.
Where do rivalries of old stand? Are there any budding clashes on the way? Much like the Red Wings’ roster, it looks pretty bleak.
The Pistons and the Bulls. The Lions and the Bears. The Red Wings and the Blackhawks. The Battle of Lake Michigan is the gift that keeps on giving.
Before the conference realignment, the Blackhawks and Red Wings were Central Division rivals. In 2009, the teams met up in the Western Conference Final. The Red Wings were defending champions; the Blackhawks announced themselves as the league’s top up-and-coming team. While the Red Wings disposed of the young Blackhawks in just five games, this series proved to be the litmus test for the Blackhawks. They won the Stanley Cup the next season.
In the spring before the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference, the teams met in the second round of the 2013 Playoffs. Detroit pushed the Blackhawks to the brink of elimination, but then their rival from Illinois won three games in a row to complete the comeback. The Blackhawks went on to win their second of three Stanley Cup championships between 2010 – 2015.
Since then, the teams have slowly become strangers. There aren’t many holdovers from that 2013 series – the Red Wings have just five players who played in that series while the Blackhawks have seven. A match-up between the teams produces artificial tension nowadays, and the rivalry is a long way from its heyday. Here’s hoping we get a Blackhawks-Red Wings Stanley Cup Final in the next decade or two.
Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the prevailing thoughts, when the Red Wings moved to the Atlantic Division, was that it would rekindle the Original Six rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings. The teams initiated their new division rivalry with the 2014 Winter Classic, held in the snow globe that was Michigan Stadium.
The makings of a heated rivalry were intensified when head coach Mike Babcock left the Red Wings to join the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2015. Jeff Blashill, a former Babcock assistant, was brought in to replace his former boss, who had been with Detroit for 10 seasons.
However, one problem has persisted since the Red Wings switched conferences: the teams’ competitive window has never aligned. At first, the Maple Leafs were on the rebuild – securing the top pick of the 2016 NHL Draft – while the Red Wings continued their lengthy playoff streak. Once the Maple Leafs became a competitive team, the Red Wings fell off, entering the rebuild they currently find themselves in. It’s hard to build a rivalry when one team is always a punching bag.
The Maple Leafs are now a measuring stick for the Red Wings. Should Detroit ever climb out of the league’s basement, the team across the Ambassador Bridge is waiting to put them to the test. That’s when this rivalry can really begin again.
The rivalry between the Red Wings and Avalanche was once one of the most heated in the NHL, and perhaps all of sports. Detroit and Denver are almost 1,300 miles apart, meaning that this rivalry wasn’t a matter of geography. Instead, it was a blood feud. These were two of the best teams in the league, and they hated each other.
From 1996 to 2002, the teams faced each other in the playoffs five times. The Avalanche won three of the five matchups, but the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup both times they bested their rivals from out west. A series between these two was almost always the Western Conference Final – regardless of what round it actually took place in.
Since 2002, the teams have faced each other in the playoffs just once. The Red Wings swept the Avalanche in the second round of the 2008 Playoffs. As was the case during the rivalry’s glory days, the Red Wings won the Cup that season.
Another fatality of team-quality and the Red Wings’ move to the east, this rivalry is essentially dead. The teams faced off at Coors Field in Denver as part of the 2016 Stadium Series. While the event was fun for all those involved, it was a harsh reminder of how one of the league’s best rivalries has completely fizzled out.
Tampa Bay Lightning
This budding rivalry never fully blossomed because of the Red Wings’ fall from grace. In both the 2015 and 2016 Playoffs, these teams faced each other in the opening round. With the help of a tightly contested 2015 series, a healthy hatred began to fester.
The Lightning’s general manager was Steve Yzerman, whose jersey hangs in the rafters of Little Caesar’s Arena. In 2016, when Blashill took over the Red Wings’ bench, this match-up pitted Detroit’s coach against his good friend, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. The Red Wings were once the standard-bearer of the NHL; the Lightning were quickly becoming the new one. All these elements and more contributed to a rivalry with some interesting story-lines.
After former Red Wing Petr Mrazek nearly stole the 2015 series from the Lightning, Yzerman’s team made quick work of Detroit the following season, finishing them off in just five games. Since that series, the nastiness between these two has slowly faded away. Since the Red Wings’ playoff streak ended, games between these teams have almost always resulted in the Lightning outclassing them in every way.
In the spring of 2019, Yzerman left the Lightning to rejoin the organization with which he built his legacy. As the Lightning continue to try to make good on the promise of their roster (built almost entirely by Yzerman), the Red Wings are trying to build themselves into a team that can one day go toe-to-toe with a team like the Bolts. There’s an implied rivalry here given the connections between the two franchises, but a real nasty, competitive rivalry this is not.
It’s time to put it bluntly: the Detroit Red Wings do not have a true rivalry in the year 2020. That is mostly an effect of the team’s standing in the league. True rivalries are usually built between competitive teams that face each other often. Since the Red Wings aren’t good, they don’t have any rivals. Since they don’t have any rivals, it gets harder and harder for the organization to fill Little Caesars Arena.
Until the team builds itself back up, the atmosphere at the Red Wings’ home games will continue to lack that electricity that can only be found when the home team is good. Once the Red Wings climb out of the NHL’s basement, the fans will have a team to cheer for.
And after that happens, the fans will soon find a team to cheer against.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.