Niyo: Babcock making veterans, rookies prove themselves

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nothing's a given anymore with the Red Wings.

And that might be a good thing for a proud franchise with an uncertain future, from the headstrong coach playing out his contract to the rookie roster hopefuls waiting anxiously for an honest chance. For the fans, too, who found themselves at a crossroads last winter, longing for the good ol' days even as they clamored for new-age solutions.

It was a youth movement — albeit one spurred by injuries — that helped save the Red Wings' 23-year-old playoff streak. And while the health of this team's aging core — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and even Jimmy Howard, who joined the over-30 crowd last spring — remains paramount, it's the progress from the younger set — and a more progressive attitude from the team's decision-makers — that'll ultimately decide just how far this group can go.

If that's the case, then Tuesday was a day of mixed signals, starting with Babcock, who playfully deferred questions about pending roster cuts after practice to general manager Ken Holland, who was across town at another media session.

"You're talking to the wrong guy," Babcock said. "I got my two cents in. So I get one vote, (Holland) gets two. So he can win, 2-1. It's almost exactly like at home: I get one vote and my wife gets two, and I lose 2-1 lots."

Chalk this up as another defeat, I guess, though early October moves often are more about bookkeeping than anything else and there's always a danger in reading too much between the lines.

Earning it

Still, the Red Wings did send defenseman Xavier Ouellet and goalie Petr Mrazek down to Grand Rapids to reach the 23-man roster limit barely 48 hours before the opener against the Bruins at Joe Louis Arena. And that did seem a bit odd, since an hour or so earlier the 21-year-old Ouellet was practicing as if the coach wanted him in the lineup Thursday, paired with Kyle Quincey ahead of Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff.

Kindl, who's still due $8 million the next three years, is an inconsistent player the Red Wings have tried to trade for some time to no avail. (They're still trying, by the way.) And it's no secret what Babcock thinks of him — Kindl was a healthy scratch in favor of Ouellet in the final game of last year's playoff series against the Bruins.

So already there's a caveat to Babcock's statement from the other day.

"What I'm going to do," Babcock insisted Monday, "is whoever has earned the right to play on opening day is going to play."

Provided they're still on the roster, that is.

One new face that will be, however, is Andrej Nestrasil, a 23-year-old winger who established himself last year in Grand Rapids and was arguably the biggest surprise in training camp.

"If you were to ask me a couple of weeks before camp, I would tell you, 99 percent they're going to send me down," Nestrasil admitted Tuesday. "I thought, tops, I'm going to get two (preseason) games."

Instead, he played in five. Played well enough, in fact, that Tuesday he found himself skating on a line with Gustav Nyquist and practicing with the No. 2 power-play unit. And with Pavel Datsyuk sidelined for at least another couple weeks by a shoulder injury, Nestrasil, who'd have to clear waivers if he's sent down, certainly has earned a right to play his way into a longer-term role.

No veterans' benefits

And that's why the sight of Stephen Weiss and Daniel Cleary wearing gray jerseys as lineup extras again in practice Tuesday may yet mean something here.

Sure, it's another reminder of just how poorly Holland's free-agent forays have panned out in recent years. But it's also another chance for Babcock, who'd like to keep everyone on edge this season, to show he's serious about this meritocracy thing.

Weiss, who signed a five-year, $24.5 million deal with the Red Wings in July 2013, played just 26 games last season before undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. And at times in the preseason, he looked like a guy who's a long way from finding his game. Cleary says he's healthier, but he still doesn't look like he can contribute much on the ice.

Together, those two forwards are scheduled to make as much as $7 million this season, including bonuses. Bump Kindl from the lineup Thursday and that's nearly $10 million in street clothes, much as it was last season in the playoffs.

"I used to say every year, 'Tie goes to the veteran,' " Babcock said at the start of training camp. "Now, the best player is playing, period."

Well, even after Tuesday's moves, this season opener against the Bruins offers him a chance to reaffirm that message. Call it a protest vote, or simply voting with your conscience, but the polls are still open. And the season is only beginning.