Detroit — It might be true that the happiest Red Wings player today is Danny DeKeyser, but more about that coincidental development later.
Heading into the offseason, after the Red Wings’ performance disappointed him and Jeff Blashill for a second season in a row, Ken Holland said he wanted to try to both improve the longterm future of the franchise and the chance of returning to the playoffs.
Holland likely has accomplished both in the past two weeks, including with the big acquisition Saturday of the top-four defenseman Trevor Daley.
But he leaves significant questions about whether he could have improved the future more, or perhaps done even better to improve the odds next season.
The Red Wings’ moves over the past two weeks bring one of their major issues into sharp relief.
Should they try to make the playoffs while jeopardizing more time on ice in the NHL for some of their prospects, especially considering playing the prospects might mean better draft position, too?
If the playoffs are the goal, why not use some of the 20 draft picks for 2017 and 2018 the Wings had two weeks ago and either Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek to accumulate more capable players like Daley, or a more capable player than Daley?
The rebuild-on-the-fly began when Nicklas Lidstrom retired, and the Red Wings are still steering a middle course.
Two seasons of chronic underachievement and poor performance on the ice prompted Holland to switch the franchise to sell mode at the trade deadline. And he said at the end of the season a critically important evaluation of the roster might well lead to changes this offseason.
Daley is a change. But there have not been many.
Blue line blues
The pace of the rebuild and choice of course is likely to be questioned for this and a few-to-several seasons to come, given the Wings’ circumstances.
But if improving current performance is a priority, the problems on the blue line were overdue for remedy.
And after a lot of offseasons in which only Mike Green and Stephen Weiss — a complete bust still on the payroll — seemed like the only significant free-agent signings, it is a welcome signal the Red Wings were at least able to snare Daley.
A three-year deal at $3.178 million in each season is just a bit below the market, too.
Daley, who turns 34 the first week of the season, logged a lot of mileage in the NHL with the Stars before the Blackhawks and Penguins, and had arthroscopic knee surgery in February.
But he is sound defensively, and can move the puck.
As elementary as both tasks seem, the fact is that other than Green’s improved offensive play last season, the Red Wings were hard-pressed to marshal either essential duty consistently.
And that is the first thing DeKeyser can be happy about today. Daley removes pressure from the still-developing DeKeyser’s shoulders that never should have been placed there.
Demonstrably a regular top-four defenseman in-the-waiting entering last season, DeKeyser suddenly found himself effectively cast as No. 1.
At times, he played as if he slid to the third pairing, or worse.
Daley may well help ease the burden.
But, at what cost?
A “rental” to shore up the blue line for a season, with more roster flexibility at the end of the season, would have been more ideal given the Red Wings’ circumstances.
But with the collective bargaining agreement, free agency and the current approach of NHL clubs, it is true that nearly every player eligible for unrestricted free agency, and even some restricted free agents, are too-highly paid, for too long.
The Red Wings were unlikely to get Daley at all for less than their deal, and if the Bruins or another club had offered $3.5 million or $3.75 million, which some considered the market for the stong-skating Toronto native, they probably would have lost him.
There is some chance, however, the Red Wings would have been better off, and that is no comment on Daley or the deal.
Daley is a reliable top-four defender on most nights. He is likely to help increase the offensively challenged Wings’ shots on goal and goals. He is likely to improve the power play, too, perhaps with Daley and Green on separate units, Nick Jensen paired with one, and a rotation in the fourth slot, until someone takes it.
But given the only dependable game plan the franchise has — draft and develop — Daley’s arrival leaves marginally less ice time for a young defenseman from Grand Rapids to garner time on ice in the NHL.
Jensen demonstrated the difference that can make last season.
After a few seasons with somewhat mixed reviews in Grand Rapids, he came up for the Red Wings and, as Mike Babcock used to say, “grabbed his piece of it.”
Xavier Ouellet needs more playing time. Ryan Sproul, set back again by injury, needs more playing time.
Joe Hicketts, Robbie Russo, Vili Sarijaarvi and Dan Renouf are all guys whose development is at the point of requiring NHL playing time.
But passing on Daley would have meant going into the season with the defensive corps from last season, minus Brendan Smith.
Trying to make the playoffs or not — maybe it was the new building, too — the sense is the Red Wings found that prospect distasteful.
Drafting better, accelerating development and maintaining the culture are the strategic triad, now.
But development occurs in many ways.
While the Wings should find more playing time for prospects, it also would be good to get Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha at least a round of NHL playoff experience in 2018.
For all their exertions and early frustrations learning what is required playing in the NHL, the coming season for the three potential stars will be all the more worthwhile developmentally if they can skate in the playoffs.
That, alone, is not sufficient for the Red Wings to have made the deal for Daley. But add the consideration of wanting to return quickly to the playoffs, and the Daley move makes sense to them.
Well, then, what of Luke Witkowski, signed to a two-year deal for $1.5 million?
A defenseman with some experience at right wing who demonstrated reliability and aggression in an injury pinch with the Lightning last season, Witkowski also is likely to get some ice time that could have gone to a prospect.
But with Steve Ott now coaching for the Blues and Brendan Smith having signed with the Rangers for four years at $4.73 million each, the Red Wings need an aggressor.
One of my favorite memories of Smith’s years with the Wings is when he skated from the opposite point across ice and behind the net to pull a transgressor off of Henrik Zetterberg, with his right hand full of the collar of the malefactor.
With Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha clearly the target of opponent’s agitators, and regardless of the respected willingness of each of the three players to more than account for themselves, a guy like Witkowski could come in handy.
And that may make DeKeyser even happier.
After a season made brutal, in part, by his accelerated role and the lack of support, it might be nice to have another buddy in town, on the plane and maybe even on the ice.
Witkowski played with DeKeyser at Western Michigan for three years. They were roommates for one.
If DeKeyser can settle in a bit and at least return to form, with the addition of Daley, the blue line is more solid today.
There it is, folks. The middle path toward rebuilding the Red Wings.
Feeling a little queasy?
I know what you mean.
Right now, management has tiller set towards the playoffs and rebuilding.
Meanwhile, enjoy the new building.