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Detroit — When Nicklas Lidstrom retired, the Red Wings scramble began.

Pavel Datsyuk was 33. Henrik Zetterberg was 31.

The normal career arc of an NHL player made it urgent to reinforce the roster, if the Wings were to make another run at the Stanley Cup with two of the best players in the league and the core of the franchise still vigorous.

Collecting the necessary talent to support the champions of 2008 and heirs to Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman was imperative.

They pursued the best free agents available that summer and in each one to follow. All of the best preferred to play for others.

Those who came often failed to boost the performance of the team. Some were a drag.

Four years later, the whole initiative appears utterly botched.

As Datsyuk likely prepares to return to Russia a season early, the “rebuild on the fly,” now in its fourth season, is perilously off course.

To correct it, the Wings require significant changes to the roster that will be difficult to accomplish in one summer, one season and perhaps even a few.

There is a shorter path. But the odds of negotiating it are long.

Building blocks

What is more likely is that when players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha reach their prime, draft choices the Red Wings will select in the coming few seasons will supplement the roster in ways they had hoped they could reinforce Datsyuk and Zetterberg beginning four summers ago.

How did it reach this point?

Nearly a quarter century of trading early round draft picks to supplement lineups that included Yzerman, Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, right through to the Zetterberg-Datsyuk teams resulted in a dearth of star talent. And the line of reinforcements produced by general manager Ken Holland and the staff of professional scouts under Mark Howe is striking for its ineffectiveness.

Defenseman Ian White and forward Stephen Weiss are only two of the biggest mistakes.

Others include Carlo Colaiacovo and Marek Zidlicky on defense, and Fabian Brunnstrom, Jordin Tootoo, David Legwand and the second free agent signing of Mikael Samuelsson, all forwards.

Daniel Alfredsson, who proved productive in leading the team in points (49) two seasons ago, was unable to continue play beyond the single season.

Former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen wanted to stay together and their hunt for a Stanley Cup took them to Washington, where the current state of the Capitals suggests they were perceptive.

Jaromir Jagr said he badly wanted to play with Datsyuk at the end of his career, thought a deal was done, but ended up signing elsewhere.

They said they would rebuild from within and Larkin was a revelation, this season. Athanasiou is a prospective offensive contributor and so is Mantha. But there are no guarantees, and the Wings’ list of future impact forwards ends there.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings got old and young at the same time. Diminished performance and inexperience are two ingredients that require enhancement.
But no one else stepped up.

Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan regressed. The contributions of the free agents Mike Green and Brad Richards were insufficient.

Meanwhile, the miscues of the defensive corps this season were “un-Red-Wings-like” in their frequency, impact, sheer folly and sloth.

The power play, a problem for three of the past four seasons without Lidstrom, sputtered for more than three-quarters of this one.
The roster clearly requires an infusion of talent.

But there are some big complications for Holland and his staff.

Datsyuk’s $7.5 million cap hit stays on the books unless the Wings can make a trading partner of a lowly NHL team. The team would accept Datsyuk and a high round draft pick from the Wings and use Datsyuk’s cap hit to reach the minimum total salary required by league rule.

Johan Franzen’s cap hit of $3.95 million the next four years is likely to remain on the books even though he will not play.

Franzen reportedly said Thursday his post-concussion symptoms persist more than six months after he last played, and the thought he will walk away from close to $16 million is dubious, although the Wings can get some cap relief under certain conditions with Franzen on long term injured reserve.

Future spending

Petr Mrazek is a restricted free agent due a significant boost in pay from $737,000 to something approximating Jimmy Howard’s $5.3 million cap hit over the next three season. Appropriating $10 million for goalies seems irrational, especially with an expansion draft likely one year from now in which franchises can protect only one goaltender.

But if they resolve Datsyuk’s cap hit and avail themselves of the $7.5 million, they can go shopping for a big free agent forward.

Players like Steve Stamkos of the Lightning, David Backes of the Blues, Loui Eriksson of the Bruins, Milan Lucic of the Kings and Kyle Okposo of the Islanders are available, but may well have plans that do not include the Wings.

And if they package Mrazek or Howard with Tatar or Nyquist or one of their big prospects, the Red Wings might realize a considerable yield of talent while clearing roster space for it.

Both moves require daring, sage judgment and dance partners among the other NHL franchises

The Wings also could augment those moves by considering the worth of the unrestricted free agents on the roster: Joakim Andersson, Darren Helm, Drew Miller, Brad Richards and Kyle Quincey.

The fact of the matter is, however, even if the Red Wings can accomplish those moves or similar ones this summer, or over the next season or two, they still may not have a roster capable of carrying them to the conference finals, where they can claim to be Stanley Cup contenders, again.

They need two defensemen, a No. 1 and a No. 2, with Niklas Kronwall’s knee or advancing age preventing him from playing as he once did.

They already needed one top-six forward, to provide some much needed offense, before Datsyuk said he is likely done with the NHL.

Now, they need two.

The fact of the matter is the Red Wings need a player or two like Yzerman and Lidstrom and the easiest way to get them is to play poorly enough for some seasons in succession to amass the high draft picks.

That means losing. It means missing the playoffs.

Taking their lumps and hoping the legendary amateur scout Hakan Andersson has not lost the magic touch that found Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom and others might be the best alternative. It would require the patience to watch and wait for several seasons while Larkin, Athanasiou and Mantha mature and the new prospects, as yet undrafted, arrive and grow.

If that does not sound like the rah-rah 1990s and 2000s around Joe Louis Arena, it is because it is not.

It is 2016. The next Red Wings roster to contend for a Stanley Cup could be long years from fully forming.

The era of the Red Wings ability to continually renew without stripping it down and launching a full-blown rebuild may well have past, and the future is entirely in the balance.

When Steve Yzerman left the front office to manage the Lightning, Mike Ilitch said he had approached Holland about moving up in the front office to make room for Yzerman as general manager.

Ilitch said Holland declined.

Now, Holland’s tasks are formidable and mounting, and his joke several seasons ago that Lidstrom’s retirement might hasten his own is less humorous.

He faces fierce urgency in a hot kitchen, likely to get only hotter.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @greggkrupa

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