Red Wings coach Mike Babcock rode his young prospects into the playoffs, but the ride stalled in the first round against the bigger, tougher Boston Bruins. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Boston — Henrik Zetterberg stood there, all bearded up with no place to go. The season was over early again and he didn’t feel exhausted, not after returning from a two-month absence. He certainly didn’t feel fulfilled, not after losing in five games to the Bruins.
The Red Wings still have their playoff streak, 23 years and counting, and have stocked lots of young talent. The future still looks bright, but as the early exits pile up, that’s not enough. They have to aggressively push the timetable, and that means trades and signings and roster revamping.
“We’ve been saying it now for three years — it looks good for the future, it looks good for the future, it looks good for the future,” Zetterberg said after the Wings’ 4-2 loss in Boston. “Obviously we have good young guys in our system that really showed they can play. But we’ve seen that before, too. We kept the playoff streak going, but it’s getting tiring to not go deeper.”
It has been five years since the Wings advanced past the second round, and while this ouster was hardly a surprise, they almost seemed dazed by the Bruins’ savvy and discipline, which used to be their own staples. The Wings rebounded admirably from their injuries but didn’t have nearly enough to recover completely. It says something that achy-kneed star Pavel Datsyuk led them with three of their six postseason goals.
Frustration and disappointment are mandatory, even when outmanned. The top-scoring youngsters were shut out completely, from Gustav Nyquist to Tomas Tatar to Riley Sheahan. The defensive corps needs significant upgrades, more bodies, older bodies, bigger bodies, and that’s the huge challenge for GM Ken Holland and Mike Babcock.
These end-of-season analyses used to be so simple — get younger, get faster, get bigger, get tougher. Out of necessity, the Wings accomplished the first two, but they lack the experienced bulk that prevails in the playoffs.
It could take a bold trade or two, and might even require dealing some of the precious young assets. Holland will have salary-cap space after the departures of Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson and others, but have you looked at the unrestricted free agents available? Don’t bother, not much to see. The top defenseman might be San Jose’s 37-year-old Dan Boyle or Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen
Teams are doing what the Wings have done, signing their own players to lengthy contracts. So the guys who hit the market often are either former stars taking one last shot (Daniel Alfredsson), or declining veterans (David Legwand, Bertuzzi, etc.).
The Wings will try to convince Alfredsson, 41, to return for another season, as they should. Legwand showed little in the playoffs, a trade-deadline acquisition that didn’t pan out. So how do the Wings get better if all they’re doing is dumping older players and hoping young players keep developing?
Holland and his staff have shown superb scouting and drafting acumen, and now have to be more adept at player movement. I think they’d entertain offers for Johan Franzen, who posted a scoreless playoff, but don’t kid yourself. He’s 34, was out part of the season because of a concussion and has six years remaining on his contract. And if the Wings wanted to use a compliance buyout on Franzen — which they don’t — they’d merely gain a bit more money to pick through the free-agent clutter. In fact, Franzen probably would become one of the better free-agent gambles if available.
Bold moves needed
The Wings have high-end forwards when Zetterberg and Datsyuk are healthy, and if Darren Helm stays healthy, and if Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening learn from valuable playoff experience. Goalie Jimmy Howard hasn’t become a difference-maker, which is problematic, but he can win with better protection.
The defense is extremely thin beyond Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, who was sorely missed. Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith show good potential, and two rookies — Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul — are ready in Grand Rapids. But again, that’s a lot of youth.
“We gotta have a big summer,” Babcock said. “Our back end’s gotta be way better, and we gotta be able to score better up front. That means kids that score in the regular season got to find a way to do it in the playoffs. It doesn’t happen your first time. You get some bitter disappointment.”
And this was bitter for the Wings. From the outside, we see the top-seeded Bruins as the clearly superior team and figure the task was just too daunting. From inside the Wings’ dressing room, there’s a bit more exasperation and urgency.
Datsyuk is 35 now, and when his knees are right, he’s still one of the best in the world. But he might require surgery, and he and Zetterberg, 33, have been banged up a lot lately. Datsyuk was asked if the Wings still can be considered legitimate Cup contenders, and he spoke softly.
“It’s hard to say, because you can say yes or no, but if you’re out first round, second round, it’s hard to say yes,” he said. “We have good potential with lots of young guys, but we need more experience too. It can’t be lots of young guys or lots of veterans. Nobody knows the magical formula.”
One magic formula — plucking a prime free-agent or two — isn’t as feasible anymore, for the Wings or anybody. The Wings cherish their playoff streak, and they should. But it’s time again to contend for the Stanley Cup, not just the playoffs, and it will take ambitious action to get it done.