Wojo: Time for Wings to take page from Pistons, make bold move

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — For those who run a team, it has to be the most vexing question of all: When do you take a risk, and when do you stay the course?

The Red Wings and Pistons will spend the next few months mulling it, and should reach different conclusions. The Wings have hit a wall, while the Pistons are still forming one. The Pistons have taken risks because they had to, while the Wings have played it safe because they could. It’s time to flip those mentalities, at least for now.

Ken Holland faces a vitally important offseason, with a new arena coming and Pavel Datsyuk going (probably) and the roster in flux. For Stan Van Gundy, who guided the Pistons to their first playoff appearance in seven years with a young core, the primary offseason tasks are to transform Andre Drummond into at least a 50 percent free-throw shooter and find a backup point guard.

Van Gundy already made his bold acquisitions of Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris, and so far it’s been high-risk, high-reward. Holland hasn’t made an impactful trade in years, and there wasn’t overwhelming incentive to do so. There’s enormous incentive now to alter a team that’s old at the top, young at the bottom and lacking size and stars.

The contrasting perspectives are weird, but understandable. The Pistons were swept in a competitive first-round series and fans were encouraged. The Wings lost a competitive five-game series and fans were dismayed. The strategy shifts should be fascinating.

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From Holland: “In my opinion, this is probably the first summer since Nicklas Lidstrom retired, and now Pavel, that I’ve got to look at trying to do more than adding to what we’ve got. Maybe we’ve got to shake up the pot a little bit.”

From Van Gundy: “We’re not at the time of wholesale change anymore. We’re not making deals just to make deals. We like the guys we have, but we’ve got to add to it.”

First-round exits

The Wings generally have been very good — 25 straight playoffs, in case you hadn’t heard — but not good enough since 2008, with first-round exits four of the past five years. Holland sometimes gets defensive about what they’ve done, or haven’t done, and he’s accurate in one respect. It’s harder to shake things up when the playoffs always beckon and the owner wants to win now.

It gets confusing too when the Wings lose heart-breaking seven-game series to the Blackhawks and Lightning. The playoffs are so tight, a goal here, no goals there, it can provide an illusion of progress. After barely making the playoffs and losing to Tampa Bay again, there’s no illusion. Holland has to do more and probably something big, even if it means dealing prospects — Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou — and young players.

“I’m not into a rebuild,” Holland said. “We’re gonna try to win, try to make the team a little bit different, a little bigger, give more responsibilities to some of our younger players and explore free agency. But those (free agents) for the most part are support pieces, not guys that carry franchises. I’m gonna be more aggressive going to the draft this year and exploring trades.”

The word “rebuild” is considered a profanity around Mike Ilitch’s teams. A rebuild suggests a tear-down, and the Wings aren’t in position to do that with Little Caesars Arena opening in 2017. But the makeup of the roster — small players, no imposing defensemen — has to change.

It’s not a great free-agent market, and Holland hasn’t had much success there lately anyhow. Last year’s signings — Mike Green, Brad Richards — brought the Wings more of the same, experienced pieces but nothing resembling a centerpiece. Development of current players is a necessity, and Holland and Jeff Blashill have to decide if guys like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Justin Abdelkader can take the leap, or try someone else.

It won’t be easy and it’s not Holland’s nature, but the Wings are overdue for a bold deal. It’s problematic, especially if he has to unload Datsyuk’s cap space, but it has to be an option. The Lightning’s Steven Stamkos and the Kings’ Milan Lucic could be free agents, and if you really want a blockbuster, find out what it would take to pry defenseman P.K. Subban from the Canadiens (a ton, I know).

The Wings always have leaned on stars, but Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are wearing down and need to lighten their workloads. Dylan Larkin and Petr Mrazek could be stars, but again, progression isn’t guaranteed.

“Pavel and Z took the team over at around 28 and 27 — do we have any young players that can take the team over?” Holland said. “I’m not sure. I think we have lots of good players, good prospects. But those players that can put a franchise on their back and carry, they’re hard to find.”

Free-agent moves

In some ways, Holland sits where Pistons GM Joe Dumars once sat, at the end of long successful stretches, figuring out how to freshen up stale teams. You can’t do it too soon and you can’t do it too late, and you can’t do it halfway. The Pistons reached six straight Eastern Conference Finals under Dumars and it was remarkable. Then the pieces started fading, Dumars’ free-agent moves were disastrous, ownership changed and a new regime took over.

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Tom Gores’ biggest hire was Van Gundy, who aggressively tore apart the roster. Of course, with the Pistons on a six-year playoff drought, there wasn’t much debate about the rebuild strategy. The Wings don’t have the same no-debate luxury, although if they’re not careful, they will.

All five Pistons starters are 26 or younger, and it sure looks like a core that can grow together. If Drummond improves even marginally on his free throws, and the Pistons add complementary pieces or another versatile forward — Al Horford of the Hawks? Ryan Anderson of the Pelicans? — they could be a top-four seed in the East.

It’s easier to be bold when you’re bad, and when the Pistons started 5-23 in Van Gundy’s first season, any move looked good. Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower made a series of shrewd ones, and now the moves must be more precise, including a long-term deal for Drummond and a stronger emphasis on defense.

“Generally, we’re happy with the progress we made this year,” Van Gundy said. “Putting it in terms of the mission Tom (Gores) gave us from day one, which was to win as much as we can now without sacrificing the future, we were able to get younger and better at the same time.”

The Pistons can play it a bit safer now, while still looking around. The Wings must do more than look, as they sit at the dangerous juncture between contentment and contention, risk and reward.