Detroit — The Red Wings sit where they often sit, in a scrap for a playoff spot, in that neutral zone between powerhouse and rebuilder. They’re still searching for something, or someone, to push them higher, and quickly now, the hunt will turn more urgent.
The goal is to find more goals, wherever and by whomever. And bluntly, the hunt starts in the Wings’ own dressing room. It’s not as simple anymore as spinning the Trade Wheel of Fortune, and GM Ken Holland probably won’t have the pieces, or salary-cap space, to make a splash by Monday’s deadline. Scorers are scarce on the market these days, which leads to the classic conundrum.
Do you surrender another chunk of the future for a short-term grab, or do you count on the guys you’ve kept for exactly this situation, players such as Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan? I’m always a “go-for-it” advocate because in the Stanley Cup playoffs, literally anything can happen. But this is one season when the all-in approach might not fit.
The Wings edged Columbus 2-1 in a shootout Tuesday night and it was as arduous as usual. Goalie Petr Mrazek was back to his stellar self, while Sheahan scored in regulation (his eighth) and the shootout to lift the Wings, who snapped a four-game losing streak (they did get points in the last two).
Holland must explore all options, just as Jeff Blashill did by juggling the lines, but it’s hard to imagine one move turning the Wings into instant championship threats. Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd and Carolina’s Eric Staal are intriguing possibilities, for the right price. But they’re rentals as pending free-agents, as is Calgary’s Jiri Hudler, a former Wing. They would help but probably wouldn’t provide a major impact, or more important, a long-term impact.
The Wings desperately want to reach the playoffs for the 25th consecutive time and they’re in decent shape to do so, with the sixth-best record in the East entering Tuesday night. They desperately want to advance beyond the first round for the second time in five years. But don’t forget this: They also want to be reloaded in time for the 2017-18 season, when their fancy new arena opens.
That means developing a core is as vital as adding a short-term scorer. The Wings are deeper than they’ve been in years so a trade isn’t impossible, but a leap for Ladd or someone similar would be a risk.
“We’ve gone for it before, but do you just keep going for it and say I’m not gonna worry about the future?” Holland said Tuesday. “Or do you say, at some point, you gotta worry about the future? You have the potential to bring somebody from outside, but we’ve got guys in that locker room who have scored before. Do you just shelve those people?”
This is precisely the juncture the Wings always knew was coming, and have braced for it. Pavel Datsyuk is 37 and playing well again after ankle surgery. Henrik Zetterberg is 35 and still a tireless leader. Niklas Kronwall returned from injury and looked solid, but at 35 has shown the wear.
In two years, that core might not be gone, but it won’t be formidable. The new core likely will include Dylan Larkin, Mrazek and, well, who? That’s the question for younger guys such as Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. When Nyquist scored 27 goals last season, he was the type of prize Holland wouldn’t trade away. Same with Tatar, who scored 29.
They’re skilled pieces every team needs, as long as they continue to develop. Nyquist, 26, has 14 goals this season and is scoreless in the past 11 games. Tatar, 25, has 16 goals and is scoreless in eight. Blashill displayed appropriate urgency by moving Nyquist to a line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and bumping Tatar to Larkin’s line with Abdelkader. And then he had to juggle even more.
This game was an encapsulation of the Wings’ season so far, with promising moments surrounded by a lot of scoreless minutes.
“I think we’re playing pretty good defensively, but maybe play more simple, not squeeze our sticks too tight,” Tatar said before the game. “I think we have big talent in our locker room so it shouldn’t be a problem to score goals. Last year I played with more confidence, that’s for sure.”
It is a bit of a puzzle, especially after Holland picked up two veterans in the offseason — center Brad Richards (who has only six goals) and defenseman Mike Green. And oh by the way, the Wings added a 19-year-old star in Larkin, who leads the team with 19 goals.
But there’s a reason Larkin was the only Wing on the All-Star team. A year ago, the Wings were 10th in scoring, boosted by a productive power-play that ranked second. Now they’re 21st in scoring and 20th on the power play.
Holland has gone for it at the deadline before, but not in a big way in a while. Last spring, he dealt draft picks and youngsters for veterans Marek Zidlicky and Erik Cole. Zidlicky is gone and Cole got injured. The year before, he traded a third-round pick and two players for David Legwand, who had minimal impact.
“Most guys that are gonna be traded aren’t scorers, they’re depth players, bottom-six forwards,” Holland said. “When you do a deal, you gotta know the people you’re bringing in are significantly better than the people you got. I really believe we’re a deeper team this year. We’ve had a number of people that haven’t quite produced the offense, and I don’t know why. But I’ve also been at this long enough to know, we need to support those people and believe in them.”
That sounds like a pep talk for the Wings’ struggling forwards, and it also sounds like Holland doesn’t think significant upgrades will be available. That doesn’t mean he can stop looking, but with the Wings bumping at the cap limit, a trade would require giving up someone on the roster, not just minor-leaguers and draft picks.
When Holland made bold moves in the past, they weren’t always the right ones, but they always came with a win-now purpose. There’s a slightly different reality now, and a pause for prudence. The Wings have aging stars and young stars, and a bunch of players in the middle who still must reveal what they really are.