April 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Difficult decisions loom for rebuilding Red Wings

Babcock and Holland talk about playoffs
Babcock and Holland talk about playoffs: Red Wings coach and general manager talk about the team's early exit

Detroit — These quiet weeks and months are among the most important for the Red Wings.

What Ken Holland and Mike Babcock are trying to finesse is among the most difficult things in the NHL. Rebuilding on the run is a delicate process.

There have been some missteps.

As the Avalanche are proving, sometimes it is tempting to bottom-out, collect some No. 1 draft choices and then reassert a challenge to the rest of the league.

The Red Wings are likely two years into a three- to five-year rebuilding process en route to playing in the Eastern Conference finals, let alone for a Stanley Cup.

As they start preparing for next season by traveling to Grand Rapids to watch the Griffins in the AHL playoffs, Holland and Babcock will formulate a plan. Expect it to involve quite a bit more of the same.

While it may continue to challenge the patience of some fans fretting about one playoff series victory in three seasons, the Red Wings will continue to emphasize development from within.

Some other possibilities, however, are growing, and they snuck every so lightly into end-of-the-season conversations.

Filling needs

Some veterans have played their last game as Red Wings, creating cap space.

A sizable group of young defensemen is gathering behind Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith, providing opportunity for trades.

Three goaltenders of NHL caliber — Jimmy Howard, Jonas Gustavsson and Petr Mrazek — also present interesting options.

The opportunities are welcome because the Red Wings absolutely need one or two more experienced defensemen proficient in moving the puck. Their inability to quickly launch their attack repeatedly costs them offense, as their vaunted transition game has lagged for two seasons.

And remaining in their zone for far too long has created problems that contributed considerably to Howard’s worst season.

They also need much more size and some of the qualities of deterrence that can keep the troublemakers off of the 35-year-old Pavel Datsyuk and the 33-year-old Henrik Zetterberg.

But which players go and which stay are difficult decisions.

Discarded last season, Valtteri Filppula never shot the puck better for the Lightning.

Stephen Weiss arrived, had a second consecutive injury-riddled year and left considerable doubts about his future.

Older players were retained, while Tomas Tatar started the season on the bench and Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco in Grand Rapids.

The Red Wings plainly prepared to have that good mixture of veterans and the young for the playoffs. With all the injuries, “the kids” got them there. But the need for veteran performers was painfully obvious against the Bruins.

“The one guy that wasn’t there that probably should have been here at the start of the season was Nyquist,” Holland said.

Young Calle Jarnkrok was traded for David Legwand. While Holland said the Red Wings might not have made the playoffs without Legwand as he scored at a pace that would have provided 15 goals in a full season, he provided no production in the playoffs, and Jarnkrok’s development will be worth monitoring.

“We’re going to have to be better throughout our lineup to have success,” said Babcock, who pronounced the absence from a conference final since 2009 “a five-year drought.”

“But I think a lot of that growth can be from within.”

Blue line options

Consider it nearly certain we will see Ryan Sproul, 21, a second-round pick in 2011, and Alexey Marchenko, 22, a selection in the seventh round, skating for the Red Wings regularly on defense as soon as the start of the season.

Consider it less likely, although not impossible, a free-agent, puck-moving blue liner like Joni Pitkanen of the Hurricanes, or more preferably, Matt Niskanen of the Penguins, will arrive, or that the Red Wings will acquire someone like Keith Yandle of the Coyotes or Victor Hedman from the Lightning via trade.

“Now, is there a player or two prior to free agency, is there a trade or two as we head toward the NHL draft that we can make that can make us better?” Holland said. “We’ll explore.”

And that is where the finagle room comes in.

Two other defensive prospects, Xavier Ouellet, 20, a second-round pick in 2011, and Mattias Backman, 21, selected in the fifth round the same year, also are on the way, and Holland and the professional scouts begin to see an inventory of interchangeable parts.

“You know, it takes two to make a deal,” Holland said. “But we’ve got lots of kids.”

Success affects draft

As for the size and deterrence the Red Wings perennially lack, at least some size is being addressed; again, internally.

Several seasons ago, a determined effort began to draft larger. The results include forwards like the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Sheahan, 22, and 6-4, 190-pound Anthony Mantha, 19, the first-round pick in 2013, who may have the best goal-scoring skills in the organization.

But, Sheahan and Mantha clearly are more finesse than rugged.

Because the Red Wings continue to make the playoffs, they do not get a shot at 18- and 19-year-olds who can make a quick impact, like Nathan MacKinnon, 18, and Gabriel Landeskog, 21, who powered the Avalanche to an outstanding regular season.

“Nobody seems to have the appetite to want to miss the playoffs for four or five consecutive years to try to build up and replenish this core of players that you can building on and building around for 10 or 12 years,” Holland said.

“We’re not picking in the top five. We’re not getting Steve Yzerman.”

It all adds up to the need for some deft decisions.

“You can’t always be on top,” Babcock said. “But you can sure be going in the right direction, and we have to get things going in the right direction, again.

“I think we’ve got lots of pieces here.

“I think we’re going to be way younger than you’re used to. I think our veteran leadership is going to be Pav and Z. and Kronner (Niklas Kronwall), and we’re going to end up with a lot of kids on this team.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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Ryan Sproul, a 2011 second-round draft choice (No. 55 overall), could be promoted to the Red Wings next season. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound defenseman had 11 goals and 21 assists in 72 regular-season games with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. / David Guralnick / Detroit News