Detroit — Through half the season, it is difficult to discern how the Red Wings are getting any better.
Despite the fond hopes of fans, players, coaches and management, it is unlikely the Wings will improve much anytime soon.
The disappointment expressed cleaning out the dressing room too early in the past few Aprils will probably be heard again in three months, when management, coaches and players are likely to say, once again: It did not go the way they hoped, some players did not meet expectations and the circumstances are under review.
To a certain extent, it is about what one would expect from a franchise that played at the top of the NHL for a generation.
But it also is true that in an essential way, the development of talent, the season is a considerable success with only 41 games played.
It does not mean it is not frustrating.
Halfway through the season, Red Wings have the same number of wins (17) as last year.
They have one fewer loss in regulation (17) and one more in overtime or the shootout (7).
They have nine more goals (112) and have allowed eight more, which improved their goal differential (-15) by one.
They have one more point in the standings. They lie seven out of the playoffs.
Just when one thinks they might stop spending so much time in their own zone, sights unseen since the late 1980s by players in those uniforms, they spend a lot of time in their own zone, again.
Similar malingering inefficiencies in other aspects of their game, like inconsistent levels of forechecking, are more their identity than some successful distinctiveness, which they have sought to establish for two seasons.
A year after missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons, the Red Wings through 41 games are pretty much the “same old, same old.”
Except for some things that are new.
And those things are the development of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Martin Frk and Tyler Bertuzzi.
That is the importance of this season and, along with the eventual development of others, what is important about the next few-to-several seasons to come.
Through 41 games, the important stuff is going mostly well.
Larkin looks increasingly like he is a budding star, and perhaps a horse the Red Wings can ride to a brighter future.
I never thought that he had a sophomore slump. I just thought Larkin learned to play center a bit last year and mostly worked to correct some deficiencies in his game, all under heightened scrutiny from opponents.
This season, Larkin is a force.
Forget the “only six goals.” He is making plays all over the ice, on a pace for almost 60 assists, defending well, often playing the complete 200-feet game as matter of habit and exhibiting the sort of determination the Wings need from a future star.
And, oh, by the way, have you seen the kid from Waterford Township fight?
What is important about the fighting is not that the fighting, intrinsically, or that Larkin knows how to throw them. What is important is what is says about Larkin.
Larkin is all in.
At 41 games through his third season, he provides enormous encouragement.
Now, the “big ifs” about the 21-year-old.
If the assist machine perpetuates, eventually scores more goals and plays that way season-after-season, the Red Wings have may well have replaced their only star, the 37-year-old Zetterberg.
Big ifs, but watch the last 41 games for evidence.
At 23, Mantha is scoring just under a 30-goal pace.
His drive is not constant, like Larkin’s. But his determination is evident in improved performance, especially on the details of the complete game the Red Wings continue to demand from him.
Athanasiou is playing better, and well enough to have garnered significantly more ice time in some recent games.
His explosiveness is world class, and if he finishes more consistently and presses the initiative more expansively and effectively without the puck, he could rise to the level of a star.
Frk, waived by the Red Wings last season, is sixth on the team in goals (8), despite missing about 20 percent of the games with an injury.
Battling for the puck and doing productive things when he gets it, Bertuzzi looks like the smart, determined player he proved to be in Grand Rapids. He has four assists in eight games.
Add it up. It is good progress, for 41 games.
Unfortunately, it has been a while coming.
After Niklas Lidstrom retired, GM Ken Holland and others in management hoped to acquire some players who would help Zetterberg and Datsyuk play for another Stanley Cup.
It never happened.
Ratcheting up the reconstruction of the roster has been halting. Expect more trades for draft choices in about six weeks, at the trade deadline.
Until then, and over the last 41 games, it is all about the development.
It is the purpose of the entire season, despite official protestations from certain quarters.
To the extent making the playoffs is important, it is because it would give Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, Frk, Larkin and Mantha that experience, and signal to them and prospects to come that the Red Wings remain relevant.
That would help. Because, right now, the Wings are not getting much better.