Niyo: Wings' reality check needs sales pitch

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Wings defenseman Xavier Ouellet, front, watches Minnesota's Christian Folin celebrate after scoring a goal in the third period against the Red Wings on Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Detroit – They're all on thin ice now. But the trouble is most of them can't move, or won't move, even if they're moved to try.

And so the challenge for the Red Wings, still mourning the loss of their Hall of Fame owner Mike Ilitch, who’ll be honored with a public memorial Wednesday at the Fox Theater, is two-fold as they get ready to pack up their belongings and move across town to begin a new era of hockey in Detroit.

Making an honest effort – something this organization has done better than almost any other for more than a generation – isn’t enough anymore. There needs to be an honest reassessment, too, and with the NHL trade deadline looming in two weeks and the Red Wings languishing at the bottom of the standings, it has to start now.

Not with the players, or even the coach, necessarily, though they all share in the blame for the position this team is in, last place in the Eastern Conference with more than two-thirds of the regular season already gone. All they can do on the ice right now is keep trying to defy the odds, which currently give them a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs according to The Hockey News.

“It’s difficult,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said Tuesday after practice. “It’s a different year, so far, and it has been tough. … It’s been extremely frustrating, going out there every night expecting different results but still not being good enough.”

But they simply aren’t, and a rash of injuries notwithstanding – Detroit leads the NHL in man-games lost to injury – this is not a great surprise. The Red Wings have been trending in this direction the last few seasons, scraping to get into the playoffs and then getting bounced in the first round each time. And to reverse course, it’ll require an about-face, philosophically speaking.

It’s up to the front office, and ownership, to finally admit what even their most diehard supporters acknowledged long ago. The plan to "rebuild on the fly" never really got off the ground after the last holdovers from the 1997 Stanley Cup champs retired in 2012, and it’s past time to quit pretending otherwise.

That probably should’ve happened a couple years ago, at least, and it certainly should’ve guided their thinking last summer when Pavel Datsyuk left the Wings in the lurch. But it didn’t, and that makes for an even more daunting task for general manager Ken Holland, particularly as Chris Ilitch officially takes over the ownership duties of the Red Wings and Tigers.

Holland has said he’s “fighting it” – the idea of a complete rebuild – because it takes time and there are no guarantees. He’s right about that, of course.

No quick fixes

But there are no quick fixes, either. That much should be obvious as well, just as it’s clear these Red Wings – losers of four in a row and nine of their last 11 since mid-January – are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, ending the longest active postseason streak in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues.

Jeff Blashill, the second-year head coach whose job security may hang in the balance these final two months, said Tuesday, “The one thing you learn in this business is not to listen to the outside noise, per se.”

Wings’ Vanek takes ‘wait-and-see’ approach to rumors

But it’s the numbers, not the noise, that’s the problem from here on out. The Wings aren’t just seven points out of the final wild-card spot in the East. They’d have to leapfrog eight other teams to get back in it. That isn’t going to happen.

What happens next remains to be seen, but it should start with Holland -- for the first time in his 20 years as GM – unloading some playoff rentals before the March 1 deadline.

Tomas Vanek, one of the Wings’ few pleasant surprises this season, and one of Holland’s rare successful free-agent moves in recent years, seems a likely bet to move, no matter how much he likes it in Detroit.

“I mean, could I see myself staying here? Yeah, that would be great,” Vanek said Tuesday. “But it’s a business and Kenny’s got to make a decision. If there is a deal to be made, it’s gotta be right on both sides. But I’ve been through it before. Would it surprise me if he gets something good? No, not at all. If I was the GM, it’s something I would look at.”

Pending free agent

Defenseman Brendan Smith, another pending free agent, also figures to be shopped. But as for what the Wings could get in return, that’s harder to predict. This is widely viewed as a relatively weak entry draft in 2017, so teams may be more willing to part with first-round picks. Could the 33-year-old Vanek, who has 14 goals and 36 points in 43 games fetch one of those? Probably not, but a second-round pick and a prospect seems possible. Smith, meanwhile, probably won’t return more than a mid- to late-round pick. So if you're expecting something like what we saw with the Tigers' brief fire sale in 2015, you're going to be disappointed.

The other problem for Holland, whose own contract runs through next season, is the looming NHL expansion draft in June, which may keep teams from taking on players with deals that extend beyond this season. There aren’t many untouchables on Detroit’s roster, but assets like Tomas Tatar or Gustav Nyquist or even Mike Green, who is signed through 2018, might not get you a fair return at the moment. Teams already are facing tough decisions with their protected lists as it is, so the more likely time for GMs to make hockey deals will come in June.

But therein lies the larger issue for the Red Wings. Their issues are entrenched, and not easily solved. As problematic as the math is in the standings, it’s equally so on the financial side. Amid talk of a flat salary cap in the NHL, Detroit faces a serious numbers crunch for the foreseeable future thanks to all the long-term contracts Holland has handed out at ownership's behest, spending good money after bad to keep that treasured playoff streak alive.

There’s almost no wiggle room for next season, and they’re locked into more than $50 million for just 10 healthy players in 2018-19, if you include cap hits for Johan Franzen and the Stephen Weiss buyout.

There is some young talent to build around in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Petr Mrazek, and there’s more on the way, presumably. There’s a legitimate shot at some lottery luck this summer, if the standings don’t change much between now and April. And, of course, there’s a sparkling new arena awaiting in September.

But there’s no avoiding the sunk costs here, and no ignoring what has to be done.

It’s time to break the ice.

Twitter @JohnNiyo

So you're saying we have a chance ...

The Red Wings have a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to The Hockey News, which projected each team’s points and playoff chances based on 10,000 simulations of the remaining games this season.

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals 100%

Pittsburgh Penguins 100%

Columbus Blue Jackets 100%

New York Rangers 99%

Montreal Canadiens 93%

Ottawa Senators 71%

Boston Bruins 67%

Toronto Maple Leafs 59%

Florida Panthers 41%

Philadelphia Flyers 22%

New York Islanders 18%

Carolina Hurricanes 12%

New Jersey Devils 2%

Tampa Bay Lightning 14%

Buffalo Sabres 5%

Detroit Red Wings 1%