April 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Red Wings changing composition of team on the fly

Detroit -- The Red Wings lost, 1-0, Sunday to the Blues, the team that started the day a point behind them and ended it one point ahead, as the Wings slipped to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

So, do the Wings make the playoffs?

Chances are slimmer than they were Sunday morning, certainly. Some anxious denizens of Hockeytown are likely to lean further toward desperation, with nine games left.

So, why was Mike Babcock enthusiastic, telling a group of youth soccer players, parents and coaches at a community event afterward, "I'm proud of my team."

"We lost, 1-0," Babcock said. "Why am I proud of them? Because they battled for every inch of ice."

Why were he and general manager Ken Holland also satisfied enough with a team struggling to make the playoffs they did not augment the roster at the trade deadline five days ago? So satisfied, in fact, Babcock said he expected no moves all along?

Because they are rebuilding.

Rebuilding on-the-run, mind you. Rebuilding with the intent of keeping and nurturing prospects and getting larger players at most positions.

Rebuilding even at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

Rebuilding without mentioning the word until right after the trade deadline, when Holland finally said it before perhaps engaging in a bit of immediate self-editing and describing it as "retooling."

Looking at the kids

No one ever announced the Red Wings' intentions this season. But their purpose has been patently evident. Having lost important players over several seasons, it was time to foster youth, kick a lot of tires and to make plans — not for the playoffs, necessarily, but for 2014, 2015 and beyond.

As that reality continues to sink in, Wings fans are confronted by an elderly bogeyman not seen in these parts for decades, the ghost of Mays and Junes without NHL playoffs in Detroit.

But they are taking good looks at "the kids," regardless.

Riley Sheahan was in the lineup Sunday after considerable improvement, offensively, in Grand Rapids this season.

Henrik Zetterberg's sore groin resulted in calling up Sheahan. But even when the captain played, the Red Wings sat Jordin Tootoo and watched the big kid.

"It was good to be back up here," Sheahan said. "My biggest concern is just putting up points offensively."

He will go right back to Grand Rapids. But Babcock frequently makes it plain that he needs to see who is part of the future being created here in Detroit.

"He was good, and he's going to be a good player for us," Babcock said of Sheahan. "But he's got to get quicker and play with more patience."

The Wings also played Danny DeKeyser, in his second NHL game, even with the playoffs at risk and more veteran defensemen in need of playing time.

And DeKeyser impressed again. After two NHL games, it looks like the 23-year-old maintains his position like the British Beefeaters on duty at Buckingham Palace.

He needs to eat more, though. Listed at 200 or 190, I give maybe 185, and more likely 180.

Playoffs still a goal

And those are the sorts of things that currently concern the Red Wings: They want to make the playoffs, but it is also important a tall, skinny kid from Macomb County gains weight.

Babcock was upbeat about a one-goal loss to a major playoff contender because his is a work in progress.

"I thought it was a real good game," Babcock said in the dressing room. "I enjoyed it a lot, to tell you the truth.

"I thought our guys competed hard."

Babcock called it playoff hockey that turned on some bounces — one good for the Blues, some bad for his team. Keep playing hard, and it will turn.

The playoffs, this year? They might well make it.

I will stick to my prediction they finish sixth and win in the first round.

But, what is more certain is that they are far more prepared for the roster moves they will make this summer and the next one, aimed at revitalizing the franchise and completing what amounts to a two-year rebuild, than they were in January after the lockout.

It is April. There is a lot going on with the Wings — some of it despite their playoff chances.

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

Cory Emmerton knocks the puck wide of the net and Blues goalie Brian Elliott in the second period. / David Guralnick/Detroit News