May 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Encouraging season shows Red Wings aren't far from being a force, again

Goalie Jimmy Howard and the Red Wings were disappointed Wednesday night, but should be optimistic about the future. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

It ended in crushing disappointment, but ultimately, this isn't about how the Red Wings finished. It's about what they may have started.

They traveled a long way in a relatively short time — and not just back and forth to Anaheim and Chicago. Go back a year to the aftermath of a first-round playoff loss, to all the uncertainty and pending changes. It was fair to ask then where the Red Wings were headed.

We have a much better idea now, and the trajectory is turning upward. They made the playoffs, beat the second-seeded Ducks in a Game 7 on the road and lost to the top-seeded Blackhawks in an overtime Game 7 on the road. In a sense, the Red Wings skipped over a rebuilding year, and a dangerous transition has become a doable transition.

These were the Green Wings with all their young players, and if green means go, they went after it. But it's one thing to launch an unexpected underdog ride, and another thing to return to the top of the league.

To make the jump from Green Wings back to Red Wings, they have work to do.

General manager Ken Holland has proven his worth many times, and now gets another prime shot. Along with Mike Babcock, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings have such a competitive core, you're tempted to take it for granted. But nobody makes the playoffs 22 straight years, and few teams show signs of such a quick recovery.

The Red Wings rebuilt their mid-level depth with a half-dozen rookies, but now comes the difficult task. They need to find more top-end players, through free agency or trades, or from within. Zetterberg and Datsyuk do it all but can't do it forever. Howard carried the Red Wings at times and was victimized by defensive breakdowns.

When you have a 3-1 series lead and blow it, expectations shoot up, and there's no sense dimming them now.

"I think we can be a way better team, and we need to be better if we want to be in this position consistently," Babcock said. "We want to do it not just by working, but by being good enough. I coached a team in Anaheim that was a lot like this team, wasn't projected to be very good. But we got ourselves in and kept getting better."

Focus on Fs

The Red Wings definitely matched the Blackhawks effort but don't have as many impactful players, not as many scorers. This offseason, Holland must address the three Fs — Franzen, Filppula, free agents. Johan Franzen remains maddeningly inconsistent, but has a big contract and big numbers in the past. Valtteri Filppula, who suffered an ankle sprain in Game 7, is a free agent and still has tantalizing potential, but no way should the Red Wings overpay to keep him.

There are questions, but not as many as a year ago, when Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom retired and Brad Stuart left for San Jose. The greatest defenseman of a generation was gone, and when Detroit went hunting for help, it hit a wall. Free-agent targets Zach Parise and Ryan Suter went together to Minnesota and Holland was left with slim pickings.

There also were lingering questions about Howard's playoff steadiness, which he just answered in stellar fashion. Not that there were concerns, but Zetterberg's first season as captain was a resounding success. After years of Lidstrom's calm, Zetterberg's strong-willed nature created a more delicate dynamic with Babcock's hard-driven style. They worked through it, and both became even stronger leaders.

I didn't think the Red Wings were doomed a year ago, although they appeared to be in some trouble. You figured they could scrape into the playoffs and continue rebuilding, but no one had any idea they could push this far.

A lot of young guys gained a lot of playoff experience and should only get better, in theory. Suddenly, the Red Wings have real possibilities, from forwards Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson, to defensemen Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl. When DeKeyser returns from his broken thumb, and if Darren Helm ever returns from his back issues, the Red Wings will have legitimate depth.

Shoot for the stars

The key is, they need more star depth, and perhaps it comes from one of the young guys. Nyquist and DeKeyser have the skill, and Brunner has the scoring touch (he led the team with five playoff goals). Smith, 24, is alternately stirring and sloppy, but his skating and aggressiveness make it worth the patience.

After Detroit dropped Game 7 in Chicago, it was somber. But the Red Wings also tossed around positive superlatives, which were warranted.

"Playing in the playoffs for the first time, it's unbelievable how competitive everybody is," Smith said. "I think I grew up a lot. I got a lot of criticism and a lot of praise, so I got both spectrums. But I think it's huge to see how our team grew."

Early growth spurts don't guarantee more, and difficult decisions await.

There aren't prime free-agents available, which again will test Holland's player development expertise. But at least the Red Wings are back to being fully relevant, and the surprising twist is, they weren't even gone that long.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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