Krupa: Coaching uncertainty just one issue as Wings look ahead

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Consistency eluded them.

The Red Wings were capable of outplaying better teams. But sometimes, as in Games 4 and 7 against the Lightning, they would lose, regardless.

They took a ton of penalties, a worrisome development utterly uncharacteristic of "Red Wings hockey."

Their developing defensemen are not yet capable of providing enough defense or offense from the back end to take them to the conference semifinals, let alone the Stanley Cup.

Their need for another goal scorer is perennial, and rarely more obvious than in Game 7 against the Lightning.

A new sniper is evermore necessary, now, because of Johan Franzen's concussions, Erik Cole's heartbreaking spinal injury, the major disappointment of Stephen Weiss, the preseason retirement of Daniel Alfredsson and the aging of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar proved they are not mere flashes in the NHL pan. But they do not quite add up to enough firepower, and seem unlikely to replace Datsyuk and Zetterberg as dominant forwards in the league.

Two prospects in the AHL and Big Ten, Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, glimmer, but on a far morning horizon. To what extent will they rise, and when?

The Wings are as deep with proven goalies as any other franchise. But they now lack a clear No. 1, with Petr Mrazek pushing Jimmy Howard for the dominant role.

And the depth between the pipes at least suggests the potential for a roster move.

Meanwhile, Mike Babcock, arguably the best coach in the business, is a free agent.

The roster continues to develop. The window for making it to the Stanley Cup Finals with Zetterberg, 34, Datsyuk, 36, and Kronwall, 34, is another year smaller.

What to do?

Test whether quality free agents are any more likely to want to play for them than they have been in the past few summers.

Ryan Suter and Zach Parise went to the Wild mostly because of their families, and hoping they could take The State of Hockey franchise to a cup.

Matt Niskanen chose the Capitals with his former Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik mostly because their joint arrival increased the chances of contending for the Stanley Cup — especially with a new coach, Barry Trotz, demanding defensive execution from Alex Ovechkin, and others.

Dan Boyle went to the Rangers to play on the power play with his old friend, Martin St. Louis, and because he always wanted to play for the Blueshirts.

Enticing free agents

But the extent to which free agents also shunned the Red Wings because they cannot discern whether they are rebuilding or in decline is not quite clear.

It could be a big factor for some free agents.

Unfortunately, the varying play this year may only deepen the dilemma among the players in a fairly shallow talent pool, available this summer.

Each of the top defensemen, Mike Green (Capitals), Cody Franson (Maple Leafs), Paul Martin (Penguins), Christian Ehrhoff (Penguins), Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim) could well improve the Wings' corps, but perhaps only in secondary roles.

The Red Wings also may trade with the Leafs for Dion Phaneuf.

Although he largely failed in Toronto, a more limited role with the Wings might boost his offense, grit and general performance.

Pairing Phaneuf with Kronwall and dropping Jonathan Ericsson to the third pair would be an upgrade.

Forwards Mike Ribeiro (Pedators), Joel Ward (Capitals), Carl Soderberg (Bruins) and Antoine Vermette (Blackhawks) are not the sort of big-time snipers the Wings crave.

That is too bad, because the goal of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals while Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall are still starring is increasingly fleeting. Thoughts about what to do with the roster "for next season," are beginning to be overwhelmed by thoughts of "How do we replace Z., Pavs and Kronner?"

As with so many facets of rebuilding the roster of a perennial Stanley Cup contender on the fly, it is a delicate balance.

Direction must be clear

Beginning three seasons ago, the Red Wings rejected another course: stripping the roster, collecting high draft choices for a few seasons and managing the salary cap down the road to reconstruct and maintain a Stanley Cup contender.

It would have taken several seasons, perhaps, just to get back to the playoffs.

But will the rebuild on the fly eventually require nearly that much time? Will it be as successful?

What is clear on May 1, 2015 is that the roster needs work, and the sniper and the two quality defensemen are not ripened fruit on a tree in Ken Holland's backyard.

Last summer, when the desired free agents were not signed, again, Babcock said he received calls from the veterans, who were overseas and around North America.

If roster moves do not come this summer, they may not call this time.

The explanation will have become too familiar.