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Wojo: Staving off rebuild is uphill fight for Wings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nostalgia will be the theme all season, as the Red Wings and their fans celebrate a historic building. Old memories, old concourses, and sure, still a few old bodies on the ice.

But nobody ever celebrates a rebuilding, which is why the Wings are holding off as long as they can. The last season in Joe Louis Arena will not be the first year of a new era, not if the Wings can help it. Amid dire predictions of their playoff streak dying, the Wings rolled and punched their way to a 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators in the home opener Monday night, avoiding an 0-3 start.

The energy in the gray concrete barn was firing from the start, as the crowd cheered the video montages and the Gordie Howe tributes. There will be a lot of nostalgia-soaked cheering this season, but the Wings hope there’s more of the conventional kind. There was plenty on this night, including roars for veteran Mike Green, who notched his first career hat trick, and Darren Helm, who scored twice.

The noise really ratcheted when Jonathan Ericsson dropped the gloves and fought Dion Phaneuf, and later when Justin Abdelkader exchanged blows with Chris Neil. The cheers were loud and throaty, and by the end it seemed like old times, even though we know it isn’t.

As Little Caesars Arena rises on the edge of a rebuilt portion of downtown, does it make sense for the Wings to transition to a younger team? It does. The early playoff exits, the lack of stars, the age at the top of the roster, all telling signs. But the notion of rebuilding a team is unpleasant, and frankly can be more time-consuming than constructing a $650-million stadium.

Streak in mind

So the Wings will try to make the big move without making the big moves, try to sustain without tearing anything apart. It’s a noble effort, but fraught with danger. GM Ken Holland’s offseason acquisitions were underwhelming, and fans (and media) rightly still crave a bold deal. If the Wings fall out of playoff contention, there might yet be a rebuild at the trade deadline.

But if you make the playoffs 25 straight seasons, it’s what you do and it’s all you know. The night of the home opener was not the time to prematurely bury anything, and Holland had a quick answer to a common question: Why not just start fresh with new, young faces?

Green caps off JLA party with hat trick, Wings prevail

“Because a rebuild could take six to eight years, and there’s no guarantee it’ll work,” Holland said. “Other teams have done it for 10 years and made the playoffs once or twice. There are no guarantees in anything.”

There has been only one guarantee — the Wings making the playoffs. It has seemed like a weight at times, another long trudge to a first-round elimination. I’m fairly certain the streak is one reason the Ilitches haven’t ordered a rebuild by now. But it’s not the only one.

To a certain degree, the Wings constructed their successful history with the funds of the future. They have good prospects waiting, such as Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi, but not prime prospects who demand to be used. Jeff Blashill reiterated Monday that if the Wings’ youngsters were ready to play in the NHL, they’d be here. And if the team saw great promise in Teemu Pulkkinen and Martin Frk, they wouldn’t have been released.

People shriek for promising young talent, another Dylan Larkin or two. It’s not here and not easily attainable, so Holland delivered veteran free agents Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, and Ott already has sat two of the three games. It was a disappointing haul, but the notion of tanking to finally land a high draft pick is fanciful, not logical. Missing the playoffs for a spot in the lottery doesn’t assure the top pick, and there’s no one as enticing as the wonder guy the Maple Leafs happily grabbed, Auston Matthews.

That’s why Holland uttered the inconvenient truth over the summer when he said there were only five or six legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and the Wings were in the next group with about 20 other teams. It’s true, but it’s also a telling admission that Holland has been reluctant to make — just getting into the playoffs doesn’t give the Wings as decent a shot as they once had.

Leaving a mark

So they roll out a suspect defensive corps that’s prone to untimely crumbling. They sign Vanek, 32, who has two goals already, and Nielsen, 32, both solid, but unspectacular players. They try to coax more offense out of Green, 31, and he responded with a huge effort against the Senators. They lean on the savvy leadership of Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall (when he returns from injury), and they hope a few of their mid-range players develop into something more.

“I think these people want us to put a team on the ice that’s trying to win, don’t you?” Holland said, motioning toward the packed stands in the Joe. “If we threw a bunch of kids out there and got thumped, we’d get booed off the ice. I’m trying to win this year, to get in the playoffs for the 26th straight year.”

That’s why rebuilding is painful, the path of last resort. It always buys a team time, but not as much as you think. If the Wings eventually opt for it, they’ll have a pressure-free first season in the shiny new arena, and then the heat’s right back on.

Some of this is natural erosion, from a creaking Joe to a leaking roster. Replacing star players is more difficult than replacing old buildings, even buildings that hosted great games and birthed phenomenal memories. The Joe is a simple structure, built quickly and specifically for hockey, with terrific sightlines and few amenities. When it opened 37 years ago, the Wings weren’t playoff regulars and Hockeytown wasn’t a place yet.

On the first night of the final season, the players walked on a red carpet through a gauntlet of fans before the game, just in case they didn’t know what it all meant.

“We talked at the beginning of the year, this group has a special opportunity with the last season at the Joe, and we don’t take that lightly,” Blashill said. “This has been a special arena for the city of Detroit, and we want to make sure we leave our mark on this organization.”

For the past quarter-century, the team has been the attraction, not the Joe. It’s different this year, unless the Wings can help it.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski