Detroit — The stars are either aging, retired or playing in the KHL.
To the extent the Red Wings have more, they are only on the horizon.
The roster grew old, and yet it is still too young.
That state of affairs, little changed since last season and the Wings’ worst performance in 26 years, puts them squarely between their accomplished past and the achievements to come.
Not this season. Unlikely is the sort of performance that puts them in the playoffs, let alone into the Eastern Conference Finals, to which, if only by DNA, the Red Wings aspire.
A few years down the road? They hope so.
But it is more likely several.
Even if Henrik Zetterberg, whose 37th birthday is Monday, continues the durable performances of the past three seasons, even if he nurtures the lion’s share of the offense as he did last season, the captain is likely to remain a star alone.
Zetterberg might have yet another fine season, and Niklas Kronwall’s play might improve as he adjusts to some limited mobility.
But, at this stage, it is already perhaps true that their greatest contribution is instilling the Wings’ culture in young players who hope to star in the NHL.
It is wished that Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader have better seasons. But none is likely to replace Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk as the Red Wings stars.
That great expectation is in the young.
The Red Wings hope Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha realize some improved performance. And Andreas Athanasiou, too, if the speedster who tallied 18 goals last season, despite some continuing limitations on his playing time, is signed.
This season is much about the young trio, and the development of Evgeny Svechnikov in Grand Rapids and Dennis Cholowski and Michael Rasmussen in major juniors.
But the Red Wings do not have young guys able to dominate in the NHL early in their careers.
They have been unable to draft immediate stars like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.
They need to develop them.
Once-upon-a-time they selected Zetterberg in the seventh round and Pavel Datsyuk in the sixth. But the Red Wings do not draft like they once did.
“I think we have a good mix of veteran players and some young guys that are going to have better seasons,” Abdelkader said.
“I’ve been around them. It looks like they’ve had a good summer.
“We have our group in this room and the coaches and everyone around us that believe we can get the job done.”
Indeed, Larkin is bigger and striding the room with his accustomed intensity. Mantha seems bigger, too. If such a thing is possible.
They have meshed, at times, on the same line in preseason.
But Athanasiou would like more dough than the Wings are offering. At least for the time being, the Red Wings seem dug in.
The circumstances of the roster only underline the issue of whether its plodding reconstruction is the proper personnel strategy, rather than pushing players like Martin Frk, earlier, and Joe Hicketts, now.
Last season, the Wings lost Frk, who is 24 years old Thursday, on waivers, before eventually reclaiming him from the Hurricanes.
Now, with Athanasiou unsigned, Frk is suddenly a hot item. His hard shot is prized for the power play, which needed considerable help for the first two-thirds of last season.
Hicketts looked strong in the preseason, dishing the puck well, including on the power play, carrying it with some authority and delivering some hard body checks. But his path is blocked.
That the Red Wings roster is not more different this October is a surprise.
As they became sellers at the trade deadline last year for the first time in a generation, it seemed a sign the self-proclaimed “rebuild on the fly” then five years old, would kick into a higher gear.
Entry draft picks were stockpiled and there was some goaltending to spare.
“The media was speculating heading into the expansion draft there was going to be a lot of defensemen moving,” Holland said. “Those teams that had defense issues paid a price, and in some cases first-round draft picks, or in order to keep their defense.”
Nonetheless, Holland said he believes these Red Wings “can play some meaningful games in March.”
And, for the long term, he listed the Wings’ young vanguard, and included Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi.
“They’re not all going to make it,” he said. “They’re not all going to reach the level that we hope, but some might go beyond.
“Meanwhile, next year, we’ve got a first round and two seconds. It’s a deeper draft than this year.
“We’re going to continue to develop, with the thought that you’re going to turn your roster over, and three or four years or so down the road they’re going to build the core of a team that competes not only for a playoff spot, but trying to go on a playoff run.”
Five years after Nicklas Lidstrom retired and the rebuild on the fly began, the talk is about a few to several seasons more before they get back to the conference finals.
Playoffs this year?
Watching the young guys develop, including in major juniors, may well be a more interesting aspect of the season.
It is certainly more important.