Krupa: Red Wings stuck in rebuild mode

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Standing amid the tatters of a misused season and asked to consider the Red Wings’ final game, which included yet another multiple-goal lead blown in yet another one-goal loss, Henrik Zetterberg said, “Well, we’ve seen this before.”

Then, Zetterberg apologized for the performance of the team this season. An owner, Christopher Ilitch, pleaded for patience Saturday, and extended GM Ken Holland’s contract two years. Holland announced Tuesday coach Jeff Blashill will be back for the fourth year of his contract.

And the defensemen are likely, still, to have trouble next season getting the puck out of the Wings’ zone. It is a problem daunting them since the start of the “rebuild on the fly” after Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012.

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The Red Wings are stuck, mired in inconsistency between a successful past and whatever the future holds.

Some of it is the natural decline of a once-great lineup.

Some of it is their mistakes.

The Wings remain in a partial rebuilding phase, now five or six years old depending on who is counting, that could have accelerated four seasons ago when Pavel Datsyuk first informed them, privately, he wanted to go home.

It could have accelerated at the trade deadline in 2017 when the Wings became “sellers” and began shedding contracts and gathering draft picks. With two capable goalies and a lot of veteran salaries to peel away, the franchise seemed poised for considerable change.

Instead, 2017-18 became a season of inertia for the Red Wings.

It felt like a waste of time.

We have seen this before.

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“You’re wondering if I should have started sooner or started later, and I’m saying to you, what difference does it make?” Holland said, as the team cleaned out their dressing room for the season Tuesday.

“The reality of it is every franchise is going to have to go through it, at some period in time. You get a run at the top, and then you’ve got to spend a period of time rebuilding.

“And we’re going to try to get this thing back up and running as quickly as possible.”

Youngsters will play more

But it is only logical for fans to wonder why the rebuilding has not gone quicker, and if it finally will, now.

Anyone 35 years-old or younger who follows the Red Wings has never experienced this. It takes an older fan to recall how the churning years of rebuilding after Gordie Howe retired seemed to last forever.

The utterly unnecessary catastrophe under owner Bruce Norris went on for 20 years.

Fortunately, far better prospects for the Red Wings are likely this time, given the current ownership and management.

But not all fans are convinced.

They might well have tolerated 50 losses in regulation this season better than the Red Wings’ 39 losses, if they could have perceived a clearer path forward.

If the Wings had played younger players more, Joe Hicketts, Dominic Turgeon and Evgeny Svechnikov, and introduced Filip Hronek to the lineup later in the season, when they finally brought up Hicketts and quickly won three games, the rebuild would be farther along

And if more losses had resulted, the Wings would have improved their odds of drafting Rasmus Dahlin, the most desired player in the draft, touted as a supremely talented puck-moving defenseman likely to have an immediate impact in the NHL.

Instead, in a season in which few, other than the Red Wings, thought they could possibly qualify for the playoffs, they both missed the post-season and failed to hasten rebuilding.

It is the way many rebuilds are accomplished in the NHL.

The Red Wings two great rivals from their recent Stanley Cup years, the Avalanche and the Devils, both made the playoffs this season. Although they started rebuilding sooner because they stopped winning Stanley Cups earlier, some critical moments of judgment allowed them to seize the opportunity to get worse so they could get better.

The Wings are late to those decisions. Holland sounds like he is ready, now.

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“Certainly, the theme going forward is the future. It’s rebuild,” he said.

“It’s young kids. But young kids put into the lineup when they are ready to play, at this level, not before.

“Certainly, I believe that you need to have some veterans on the hockey club that are good role models. We’ve got those.

“So, it’s an opportunity for young players who aren’t quite ready to take the necessary time.”

Holland pledges new players

If they put the baseless talk about making the playoffs behind them and concentrate on rebuilding, perhaps the Red Wings are finally on course.

Holland now promises as many as “four or five” new players on the roster opening night that were not there at the beginning of this season.

Meanwhile, if drafting and development are, indeed, the priorities, Holland and his staff must lift their performance.

He said Tuesday he will consider additions to his management team. It might help.

Too many of recent top choices, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Tomas Jurco, Thomas McCollum and Ryan Sproul, are having difficulty making the NHL, or staying there. Far from churning out formidable contributors, like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in late rounds, the Red Wings no longer use the first round well.

Into the breach of the extended period of negligent rebuilding, steps Dylan Larkin.

The Wings will send Anthony Mantha to boxing classes this summer, hoping to toughen his general approach to the game. They will hold Tyler Bertuzzi out of the AHL playoffs for more off-ice training, hoping he will gain size and strength. But they believe Larkin might be on the verge of stardom.

“If you look around this building, there are reminders of the past, the Stanley Cups and the great players,” Larkin said, to a throng of media arrayed before him at his dressing stall, one last time this season.

“And you know what? As a young player in this organization, I want to have that. I don’t want to spend my whole career, which is hopefully here, not in the playoffs and not in big games.”