Krupa: Red Wings' rebuild now underway
Detroit — The rebuild on the fly just got more vigorous, amid clear signs it may take more time than forecast.
For a decade, Brendan Smith was part of the Red Wings’ future.
A mobile, puck-moving defender who skates like the wind, the Wings drafted Smith in the first round four seasons before Brian Rafalski retired and five before Nicklas Lidstrom followed.
It figured he would be ripe, just about in time.
Smith was good.
The wind turned out to be what the wind is, at times, less controlled than desired. And the giveaways still occasionally distress.
But Smith’s heart is huge, and the Red Wings and fans will miss his eagerness to participate, courage and determination.
Few NHL teams anticipating the 2017 playoffs would not consider him an improvement to their third pairing and, at his best, Smith could improve some second units, too.
As banged up as the Rangers are along the blue line, Smith is likely to enter their lineup as an impact player, good or bad, with a chunk of time on ice.
The Red Wings?
Disappointment Smith did not work out better mingles with a clear recognition, strongly evidenced by trading him Tuesday, that their rebuild is a reconstruction of large dimensions. Bigger, certainly, than they realized in the past two Octobers, when they started seasons anticipating better performances.
By acquiring a second-round draft pick in 2018 and one in the third round of 2017, the Wings signaled the hope that their scouting and development will yield two NHL players by about the time the 28-year-old Smith is 32 or 33 years old.
That is the way this works, now.
The future got a little farther away, with Smith not fully working out. But it is more secure, if the Red Wings draft wisely and develop well.
That discernment comes after a quarter century of playoff success, sitting in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, wondering if the injuries will stop long enough to know what this roster would have played like and bidding goodbye to “a good man.”
That was Mike Babcock’s description of Smith.
Who can doubt it?
In the Canadian vernacular of hockey, it means a player capable of honest effort and tolerance for the dirty work, if required. Smith is that, in addition to his talent.
People thought he was misguided for dropping the gloves and facing up to the formidable Zdeno Chara of the Bruins in the playoffs a few seasons ago.
In fact, he was magnificently effective in the moment.
It was precisely what the Red Wings needed. The Bruins have loved playing the intimidation game since the early 1970s, especially in the playoffs, and they figured the Wings for easy target.
The young defenseman from Mimico, Ontario, understood the situation precisely.
Although he acted as though he suspected Smith insanity, the fact of the matter is Chara did not want much of him, either.
And then there was some moment in a game, which is lost to my memory, in which an opponent was on Henrik Zetterberg in an offensive corner like a piano strapped the back of a delivery man.
Starting from the opposite point, Smith arrived. Right hand full of jersey collar, he immediately removed the burden.
If he controls his offensive instincts and exercises more discretion with the puck, the Rangers will get sorely-needed stability and some offensive upside in the playoffs, beginning in six weeks.
If Smith too often is ill-advised in his movement and careless while in possession, he will provide more disappointment.
In need of stars
What the Red Wings provided themselves Tuesday is greater opportunity to secure their only goal, annual contention for the Stanley Cup.
The Wings need stars.
Their roster consists of some support staff, and like Smith, at times, some of it is pretty good.
They need superior performers.
Governed by current NHL personnel rules, including the salary cap, those players are far more likely to come from the NHL Entry Draft than through trades or free agency.
Given their plight in 2017, with a 26th consecutive playoff berth an increasingly impossible dream, Ken Holland and his team of managers and amateur scouts are smart to optimize their opportunities among the teenaged hockey prospects roaming rinks from Arizona to Russia’s Pacific coast.
That means returning the Red Wings to the conference finals for the first time since 2009 is likely to take some a few more seasons.
But the Wings now have 10 picks in seven rounds of the 2017 draft and they are bulking up for 2018, with the possibility that a trade for Thomas Vanek will secure more.
The whole idea is that if one or two of them turns out better than Smith, they might just be the players veterans like Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha will anticipate to put the lineup over the top, perhaps beginning a few seasons from now.
Brendan Smith playing nearly every game like a top-pairing defenseman would have hastened things.
But it is not about that now.
The Red Wings’ future is far more likely in the draft.