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Niyo: Red Wings wonder if history will repeat itself

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nobody in the Red Wings dressing room wanted to be there Tuesday. Not like this, anyway. Not like last year, when the tradition-rich franchise’s 25-year playoff streak ended and a new reality finally started to dawn.

But better now than later, they agree. And better late than never, right?

“Eventually, there’s no other way than to start to rebuild,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “And we’re right in the middle of it.”

Well, that’s the hope, at least, one that his eventual successor, Dylan Larkin, one of the few bright spots in a dreary, 73-point hockey season in Detroit, echoed as he stood in front of his locker, taking note of his surroundings inside Little Caesars Arena.

“You look all around this building, and there’s reminders of the past and the Stanley Cups and the great players,” Larkin said. “And as a young player in this organization, I want that.”

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They all do, certainly. But as another season ends too soon for players and coaches alike, the attention is now focused where it should’ve been before it was, before the talent on the roster and the product on the ice left management — and ownership — no choice.

And with Christopher Ilitch announcing over the weekend what had been anticipated for some time — that Ken Holland will continue as general manager on a two-year contract extension — the question really isn’t what the future holds. It’s whether relying on the past truly is the best way forward.

Ownership seems to think it is. Marian Ilitch’s wishes no doubt played a role in sticking with the status quo, but it was her son who sat at the podium Saturday night and touted Holland’s history — more than two decades as GM, and all the years of scouting before that — as a reason to stay the course.

“When I fly in an airplane,” Ilitch said, “I always love to fly with a pilot who's done it before.”

That’s a point the 62-year-old GM reiterated in his own defense Tuesday, harkening back to the “Dead Things” era and the revival that began about the same time Holland’s journeyman playing career ended.

“I lived a rebuild,” he said Tuesday, his voice rising just a bit. “It’s not like I’ve just read a book about it. I’ve lived it.”

New playbook

Yet as he surely knows, things are different now. It’s a different league, a different challenge, and perhaps most important, it’s a different cast around him, from his superior above to some of the scouts below. And while this organization loves to talk about the past — understandably so — the same-old answers simply won’t do.

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Holland, to his credit, seemed to acknowledge that Tuesday, pausing to take stock of all the institutional knowledge that has left the building. That Jimmy Devellano, the architect of those Stanley Cup-winning teams in the late-1990s, lives in Florida now. That Jim Nill, Holland’s right-hand man for so many years, left in 2013 to run his own team in Dallas. That Steve Yzerman, the once (and future?) heir to Holland’s throne, is busy chasing an elusive title in Tampa these days. Along with their front-office expertise, those two GMs also took some valued scouts with them.

Holland is quick to laud the growth of his assistant GM, Ryan Martin, and Kris Draper has proven to be a quick study — and an influential voice — in an apprentice role since his own playing career ended in 2011. But Holland admits another voice might be needed.

“Could we use another person that’s got that experience to join us?” he said. “Certainly that’s something that I’m considering and thinking about.”

And if ownership is as serious about this rebuild as it claims to be about the family’s other pro sports franchise, there’s no time like the present to show it. The Tigers have made a big to-do about upgrading their scouting and player development operations, investing millions in an analytics department and so on. But with the Wings, even at this critical juncture, it still feels like it’s less action and more talk.

“We’re discussing every day how we can be better,” Holland said.

That discussion includes Ilitch, who took part in the team’s midseason scouting summit in Las Vegas back in January and also spent time with Holland and his staff watching some of this year’s top draft prospects at the Five Nations Tournament in Plymouth in February. But where all that talk leads remains to be seen.

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The team added Bryan Campbell as its director of statistical analysis and hockey administration a few years ago, but the Wings still lag behind others on the analytics front. Holland did say Tuesday he has tasked assistant video coach Jeff Weintraub with an analytics project involving the top 10 players in this year’s draft. (“We haven’t done that before,” he said.)

They’ve embraced new ideas in other areas, too, with Shawn Horcoff, the team’s director of player development, incorporating the Power Edge Pro system used by the Nashville Predators, among others, into the preseason training regimen at the AHL and NHL level.

“So we’re trying to do things a little bit differently,” Holland said.

Frankly, they have no choice if they want to make this work. The days of unearthing European gems others don’t see are long gone, and the big-market payroll advantage is no more.

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“Forget anything that happened before 2005,” Holland said. “That was a different world.”

It’s one he and the Wings have only now decided to fully explore, though.

Picks aplenty

For the second consecutive year, the Wings head to the draft with 11 picks in tow — most in the league. And as Holland put it Tuesday, “The reality is we’ve probably got two NHL drafts ahead of us, right?” Because that total includes four selections among the top 40, and seven in the first three rounds — two firsts, two seconds, and three thirds.

They’ve also got an 8.5 percent shot at landing the No. 1 overall pick in this month’s draft lottery, thanks in part to their post-trade deadline tank job — an NHL-worst 4-13-3 down the stretch. So with a little luck — OK, a lot of luck — they just might land Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a generational talent who turns 18 this week but will be expected to turn a franchise’s fortunes soon after that.

“He’s gonna change someone’s team overnight,” Larkin said.

Even if it’s not this team, there’s still ample opportunity to reshape the Wings’ future, a process that Holland says is already underway.

As a proof of life, he points to last year’s first-round pick, 6-foot-6 center Michael Rasmussen, dominating with his junior team in the Western Hockey League playoffs. He sees Dennis Cholowski, the team’s 2016 first-rounder, coming on after a disappointing start to his season that saw him cut from Canada’s world junior team. Yet Holland knows all too well it’ll take a lot more than that, which is why he’s been stockpiling picks the last 18 months.

“I’m trying to speed the process up,” he said. “Now we’ve got to turn those picks into players.”

Once they do, Holland, who on Tuesday confirmed Jeff Blashill will be back for another years as head coach, vows the Wings’ young prospects will be “put into the lineup when they are ready to play at this level — not before.” (“Just because you were born in 1997 doesn’t mean that you can play in the NHL,” he said.) But his strident views about youth being served too early at the NHL level have softened a bit — by necessity, if not by choice.

“Our defense is old,” he said, not sugarcoating his poor drafting record at the position in the salary-cap era.

And as he projects next year’s opening-day roster in Detroit nearly six months out, Holland expects at least a couple new faces to be in the mix. Up front, Tyler Bertuzzi is one, and 2015 first-rounder Evgeny Svechnikov figures to be another. But Holland said Tuesday that Rasmussen could join them. So might 20-year-old defenseman Filip Hronek, the 2016 second-round pick who was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team last week, and perhaps Joe Hicketts, the undrafted 21-year-old who got a brief audition this spring. Holland and Blashill are headed out on the road to watch them all play in person this week, before turning their attention to back to the draft. (Holland will lead a contingent to the under-18 world championships in Russia next week.)

The Wings may yet decide to re-sign veteran defenseman Mike Green, who is coming off neck surgery, to a short-term deal this summer. But while they won’t be out from under some of the bad contracts Holland handed out for years, they likely won’t be chasing other top free agents this July, or next.

Someday, that’ll be a priority again.

“But for right now, what am I trying to do?” Holland asked, before answering. “I’m trying to put together lots of young players that give our franchise — and give our fans — some hope.”

Of course, he knows his presence does quite the opposite for some.

“I respect their passion,” he said. “I understand their frustration. I understand their disappointment. I understand why they would have those feelings. And I guess it’s up to me and my people to prove that the plan that we’ve got is a good plan.”

Time will tell. But at the moment, it’s the only one they’ve got.