What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. This week Devin Little, Patrick Brown, Kyle Knopp, and Jeff Middleton are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.
The 2020-21 season was the first time since 2012-13 that the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks shared a division. Unfortunately for Detroit, the Wings finished 2-5-1 and gave up the most goals against per game (3.75) last season against the Blackhawks.
While the revived rivalry certainly made things more interesting around The Hockey Writers with our Grind Line crew facing off against the Blackhawks Banter gang eight times last season, it does beg to ask who will be the Wings biggest rival in 2021-22.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers being the only teams Detroit faced last season, the Wings will look to welcome the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs back into the Atlantic Division. The 2021-22 season will see a return to the home-and-away games against the Western Conference and three games against each team in the Metropolitan Division. So, who do our Grind Liners think will be Detroit’s biggest pest this season?
Devin Little: Tampa Bay Lightning
Ever since the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, games between the Red Wings and the Lightning have always had a chippy element to them. There was also something about the Red Wings going up against Steve Yzerman’s team that drove a compelling narrative.
Nowadays, Yzerman is back in Hockeytown, having watched the team he constructed 90 percent of win back-to-back championships. That scrappiness and the Yzerman storyline are enough to drive a rivalry, but there’s also the fact that the Lightning are the measuring stick for the entire NHL. As much as the Red Wings have improved this offseason, games against Tampa Bay will show them just how far they still have to go before they can dream of contending in the Atlantic Division.
Is it a one-sided rivalry? Yes. Is it a rivalry built on history like Detroit and Toronto? No. But the up-and-coming Red Wings will want to make a statement every time they play the defending champions, and THAT is proper fuel for a heated rivalry.
Patrick Brown: Be-Leaf It
Call me old-fashioned, but I think we’re going to begin to see a rivalry reborn between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs.
One of the things I was most excited about when the Wings moved back to the East — aside from the considerably fewer West Coast late starts — was the chance to rekindle this once-great Original Six rivalry. The timing has just never truly aligned, though, as it seems like either team has been in the midst of a rebuild as the other clamors for playoff success. Though the Red Wings are still a few years from serious contention, they will soon find themselves in a position to play the spoiler role.
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Toronto’s recent playoff blunders are no secret, which may give Detroit the opportunity in the coming years to exact a little revenge. Sure, it has been 30 years, but if hockey players’ memories are as good as people say, then you’d better believe Steve Yzerman still remembers the Red Wings’ bitter defeat at the hands of the Maple Leafs in the 1993 Norris Division Semifinals.
Picture this: An up-and-coming Detroit team stuns the heavily favored Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2023 NHL playoffs, setting a vicious rivalry in motion that will last for the next 5-7 years. Given the Red Wings’ promising pipeline, not to mention Toronto’s impressive core of talent, that scenario could very much become reality.
The reality is that a rivalry with the Bruins, Canadiens, or even the Lightning would be exciting to watch develop, but at the end of the day, there’s just something nostalgic about the Red Wings and Maple Leafs squaring off at center ice. Chances are the teams will play meaningful games against each other in the not-too-distant future, and that could lead to the rebirth of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports.
Kyle Knopp: Les Habitants
Let’s not fool ourselves here. The Wings are still in the middle of a complete rebuild and are not going to be contending for a playoff spot in the stacked Atlantic Division — which, for the second year in a row, will feature the Stanley Cup champion and runner-up in the same division as Detroit. With just the top three teams from the division advancing to the postseason — and two more Wild Card spots available against teams from the Metropolitian Division — the Maple Leafs, Bruins, Panthers, and Lightning are all but cemented in as playoff representatives.
That leaves the Sabres, Senators, and Canadiens to compete with the Wings for the fifth best record in the division. While, on paper, the Red Wings should be more competitive than the Sabres this season, the Senators made a lot of headway in their own rebuild over the course of last year. Ottawa and Detroit are both at similar stages in the process, and will be good measuring sticks against the other to determine how their respective club is doing along the way. However, without the historical significance to lend itself to any bad blood, a rivalry with the Senators would feel nothing but forced at this point.
So — bring on the Habs! Between the historied past shared by these two organizations, the Canadiens being the reigning Clarence S. Campbell Bowl winners, and the fact Montreal was the last team swept by the Wings in a season series, each game should have an extra edge to it this year. As was the case with the Dallas Stars last season, I feel the Canadiens will be in a similar position this year. Let’s just hope there isn’t another Jamie Benn incident!
Jeff Middleton: Toronto Maple Leafs
I’m gonna have to agree with Pat on this one. Not only is the rivalry storied, but it’s one that makes sense with the direction of both teams. Although the Red Wings aren’t where the Leafs are at this point, they will get there. The Wings are moving out of the full-time rebuild, and thrusting players up from the minors and into the NHL lineup. Young players like Moritz Seider — players who are going to be the backbone of the future team — are developing well and are getting chances to make an impression.
Every time I see the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs in the same sentence, I immediately think back to the 2014 Winter Classic at The Big House. It was the most attended Winter Classic since it became an event, and it’s a microcosm of the history between the two clubs. Both are Original Six teams that fought tooth and nail against each other for their shot at the Stanley Cup. Since the end of the Original Six era, they have met only three times in the playoffs. The Red Wings lead that series 2-1.
One of the more recent items keeping the rivalry up and running is Mike Babcock going to the Maple Leafs in 2015 after a falling out with Detroit. Since the inception of the league, the two teams have been headbutting with each other, whether it’s in the playoffs or off the ice. Considering Yzerman’s history with the Lightning, it’s absolutely understandable to choose them too. However, given the history of the two clubs with each other, I’m going to have to lean towards the blue in Ontario instead of Florida.
Which team will be the Red Wings’ biggest rival next season? Comment below.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Detroit Red Wings, hosts The Grind Line and THW Podcasts, and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.