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Wojo: Wings are major fix-up project for Holland

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Detroit left wing Justin Abdelkader looks away as Toronto celebrates a goal by James van Riemsdyk in the third period.

Detroit — Ken Holland hears the gripes and understands the frustration. Nobody likes being stuck in flux, with no clear path out. Nobody likes getting outclassed at home, again and again.

The Red Wings didn’t get here, near the bottom of the standings, peering up at such historically sorry franchises as the Maple Leafs, by chance or by choice. They’ve made mistakes. Holland has miscalculated on players, and some of this was the inevitability of gravity — they had to fall eventually.

If only it were so easy to fix. That’s the stark reality, as the Wings face daunting playoff odds while knowing the long-term task is much larger. After falling weakly to Toronto 4-0 Wednesday night, they head into the All-Star break with four straight losses, six points behind the Maple Leafs for the final spot in the East.

And Holland, GM since 1997, is in an uncomfortable position, trying to weigh the franchise’s competitive instincts against simple logic. Launch a major sell-off at the trade deadline March 1? OK sure, but good luck. Holland isn’t trading picks or prospects, and contending teams are looking for veteran players with decent contracts. On the Wings, that might be Thomas Vanek, Brendan Smith, Mike Green and not much else, and they’re unlikely to draw a bounty in return.

“I’m fighting it, for myself, for the ownership and for the fans,” Holland said Wednesday. “If you rebuild — and maybe it’ll happen anyhow — it might be 5-6 years. I don’t think people realize what it takes, how much pain it entails.”

For example, take the Maple Leafs. They have what the Wings used to have, and what the Wings crave and probably can’t get. Behind Toronto’s bench was Mike Babcock, the elite coach who led the Wings for 10 years. In the front office is Brendan Shanahan, the bright mind who was part of multiple championships in Detroit.

And on the ice, the Maple Leafs have lots of young stars, including one of the league’s best, 19-year-old Auston Matthews. Naturally, as if to rub in the point, Matthews scored the first goal on a nifty back-hander. Everything looks fresh and fun and fast now for the Maple Leafs, but it was far from pain-free.

One step back, two steps forward

While the Wings have gone to the playoffs 25 straight seasons and never drafted higher than 15th in the first round, the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs 11 of 12 years, and aren’t a lock this season. If only the Wings weren’t playoff-addicted, intoxicated by the unattainable, right? If only they’d slipped into oblivion like most teams do, then resurfaced a few years later remade and rebuilt.

It’s a dubious strategy that requires plenty of losing. The Maple Leafs tanked, by accident and incompetence, and now have five prime players — Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Reilly and Nazem Kadri — all selected in the top nine of the draft. None of the Wings’ best three prospects were nearly as touted — Dylan Larkin (15th), Anthony Mantha (20th) and Andreas Athanasiou (fourth round).

Mike Babcock turns over a new leaf in Toronto

“There are no short-term fixes in the NHL, look at the other 29 teams,” Holland said. “We’re gonna make decisions based upon the future, not sacrificing the future for the present. We’re gonna hang onto our young players and see what we can do to develop them. In the meantime, we’re trying to scratch and claw our way into the playoffs.”

It gets bleaker every time they get flattened like they did by the Maple Leafs, one night after losing in overtime at Boston. Jeff Blashill was hired mainly because of his connection to the franchise as coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins. But the young players’ progress has been halting, and we can blame some of that on Blashill’s constant shuffling of lines and lineups, with fluctuating ice time for Mantha and Athanasiou.

Long rebuild road

There’s nothing wrong with sending a message about defensive discipline. But the Wings are neither deep enough nor talented enough to play through such spells. They have the league’s worst power play for a reason — lack of scoring skill.

And yes, Holland takes responsibility for the roster, for poor free-agent signings such as Stephen Weiss and Brad Richards, and questionable long-term contracts for Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser. More recently, Mike Green has rebounded, and free-agent pickups Vanek and Frans Nielsen have helped. And Mantha and Athanasiou have flashed rare ability.

“It took us 10 years to get here, and we’re not getting out of it because Ken Holland needs to make three blockbuster deals,” Holland said. “You’re not gonna hit every time, on every draft pick, on every trade. You’re gonna make some mistakes, and we made some moves that didn’t work out. I’d like to think the moves we made the last year or two have worked out.”

Maybe the young guys’ growth accelerates, goalie Petr Mrazek becomes promising again and the Wings find a few gems and overhaul quickly. More likely, historically, the fix is much, much tougher.

Before the Blackhawks won three Cups since 2010, they missed the playoffs nine of 10 seasons. Edmonton has loaded up on No. 1 overall picks and might finally make the playoffs after 11 years. Remember your old friends in Colorado? The Avalanche have missed the playoffs eight of 11 years, and aren’t much farther along in their rebuild.

No one in Detroit wants to hear it, and it’s too ingrained in the hockey culture here to easily change it. The harsh truth is, once the pain begins, it’s hard to stop. @bobwojnowski