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Niyo: Red Wings in limbo, stuck in mediocrity

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Pavel Datsyuk talks to reporters Monday at Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit — So this is what limbo sounds like.

We already knew what it looked like, watching the Red Wings run themselves through the rinse cycle again this season, stuck in a mediocrity of their own making.

But on Monday, as players cleared out their lockers following a fourth first-round playoff exit in five seasons — a chore once reserved for May or June at Joe Louis Arena, but no more — the collective frustration was audible, if not intractable.

Pavel Datsyuk is all but gone, and seemingly full of regrets, including the unwieldy contract he’ll leave behind. Others, from Jimmy Howard to Darren Helm to Tomas Tatar, know they might be going, too, like it or not. Even the entrenched, or entitled, know they’re on shaky ground, if only because of where they all stand.

“We’re not far off,” Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said Monday, “but we’re not playing.”

No, they’re not. And while the 25-year playoff streak remains a source of pride, this new Red Wings tradition — the first playoff team eliminated for the second time in three years — is a problem. One that general manager Ken Holland couldn’t ignore Monday in his postseason news conference, a nearly-hourlong session that essentially tied a toe tag on the franchise’s storied past while putting a not-so-pretty bow on the uneasy present.

Holland, with two years remaining on his contract and an emphatic vote of confidence from ownership earlier in the day, clearly isn’t going anywhere. But he’s keenly aware of the criticism suggesting his hockey team isn’t, either.

“I know what a championship team looks like,” Holland said. “I also know what an expansion team looks like.”

And in so many words Monday — and to Holland’s credit, there were so many words — the Red Wings general manager acknowledged he sees neither here in Detroit right now. Maybe for the foreseeable future, too, though Holland, entering his 20th season in his current post, wasn’t quite conceding that point, even as he talked about crystal balls — he doesn’t own one, in case you were wondering — and other fanciful ideas.

No easy solutions

We can all agree something’s broken here, and that's a much-needed concession, I suppose. But “there are no quick fixes,” Holland insisted. And if the fans want to fantasize about what Steven Stamkos might look like wearing the Winged Wheel should he bolt Steve Yzerman’s Lightning in Tampa this summer, that’s fine. Just don’t get your hopes up.

“There are no magic men that come in and wave magic wands and find superstars,” Holland added. “It doesn’t happen.”

Ilitch family ‘absolutely’ backs Wings’ Holland

Yet something has to happen here, doesn't it? Because the magic is gone. And in his next breath, there was Holland repeating what he has been saying ever since Nicklas Lidstrom retired four years ago.

“You need stars,” he said. “You need stars.”

He thinks — or hopes — he has a couple of budding ones in rookie Dylan Larkin and goaltender Petr Mrazek.

But beyond that? Well, that’s the problem, one Holland & Co. have tried — and failed — to address again and again. (See Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Shea Weber, Matt Niskanen and so on.) And it’s one that’ll only be magnified by Datsyuk’s pending departure and the salary-cap trap the Red Wings have set for themselves.

The former seems like a mere formality now. With Datsyuk posing for farewell photos in the locker room Monday, Holland admitted it’d be “naïve” to think he’s coming back. And there’s no escaping the latter, either, with all the back-diving deals and no-trade clauses the Red Wings have handed out just to keep this current roster together.

That leaves Jeff Blashill, who took his lumps — some of them self-inflicted — as a first-year head coach, asking the same question his predecessor was asking a year ago on his way to Toronto.

"But who's gonna replace Pav?” Mike Babcock wondered aloud after last year’s early playoff exit.

“We need some of our younger players to become elite players in the NHL,” Blashill said. “Who is that gonna be? I can’t answer that.”

Regression

It wasn’t the players they were counting on this past season, that's for sure. Gustav Nyquist went from 27 goals to 17, Justin Abdelkader saw his goals-per-60 fall by more than 30 percent, and Tomas Tatar saw a similar dropoff, which left him grumbling about his role — he spent time on the fourth line in the playoffs — after managing just five shots in five playoff games.

“Obviously, this team will need some changes — I don’t know who’s gonna be affected by that,” Tatar said.

“But we have to do something else, something different, to get back on track.”

Howard, Helm wouldn't object to leaving Red Wings

Even Danny Dekeyser saw his play decline on a deteriorating blue line, finishing with just 12 assists and 20 points in 78 games. Holland called him a “legitimate top-four defenseman” and reiterated he’s a big fan, which means he’s probably due for a hefty raise as restricted free agent.

Holland insists he’ll be “more aggressive” in pursuing trades this summer, and Zetterberg, while accepting his share of the blame for this latest playoff pratfall, readily endorsed that idea. (“You have to be a little aggressive if you want to be in the race,” he said.) A top-pair defenseman like the Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk seems like an obvious target.

But it’s the homegrown young talent — go ahead and add Brendan Smith to that group — along with top prospects like Anthony Mantha and coveted draft picks that other NHL teams will want for the kind of help Holland is seeking.

The Red Wings absolutely will explore trade possibilities for Howard, assuming they can strike a deal with Mrazek, another restricted free agent. And they’ll try to get out from under Datsyuk’s final-year cap number, though not if it requires a ransom.

“There’s got to be deals that make good business sense,” Holland said.

But therein lies the dilemma here. The Red Wings are caught in between a rock and a hard place, and it’s about as uncomfortable as it looked this spring for a franchise that enjoyed a much different perch for a long time.

“We’ve won enough in the regular season to be in the top half of the league,” Holland said. “But we’ve lost too much to be a factor come playoff time. This is the first offseason, in my opinion, where what we did over the last eight months wasn’t good enough. ...

“It was a very disappointing season."

And a daunting challenge ahead.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/John_Niyo

Looking ahead

Key developments from Monday’s Red Wings locker-room cleanup:

■ General manager Ken Holland said he doesn’t expect Pavel Datsyuk will return next season

■ Goaltender Jimmy Howard wouldn’t be surprised by — and would accept — a trade

■ Unrestricted free agents Darren Helm, Kyle Quincey, Drew Miller and Brad Richards are uncertain they will return

■ General manager Ken Holland said coach Jeff Blashill did a good job and will be better next season

■ Chris Ilitch said the Ilitch family “absolutely” supports general manager Ken Holland