Detroit — The NHL playoffs begin April 12, but for the first time in a long time, the Red Wings aren’t going to be there.
And the streak of 25 consecutive seasons of the Red Wings reaching the playoffs will come to an end.
“I expected more, I expected we’d be in the thick of things,” general manager Ken Holland said. “I didn’t know if we’d be in the playoffs or not. When you look at the standings in our division and in the Eastern Conference, there a lot of teams, some of them are going to miss the playoffs by a point or two and some of them are going to get in by a point or two.”
So what’s the plan to fix it? How do the Red Wings, and Holland, make sure it doesn’t happen again next spring, once the team is in Little Caesars Arena?
There will be other ways to do it.
Free agency. Making trades. The draft. And this summer, with the Vegas Golden Knights joining the league, there’s also the expansion draft, where teams will lose players, which could help a team like the Red Wings if they lose an expensive contract. It also could open a door to a trade with the Knights if a player the Red Wings like is exposed by another team.
It’s going to take, likely, a combination of all of those avenues for the Red Wings to improve. The team is hindered by the salary cap, and has few trading options.
There are talented long-term prospects in the organization (forward Evgeny Svechnikov, defensemen Filip Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi) who offer hope.
“We’ve got some players in Grand Rapids that we think are not very far away,” Holland said. “We’ve got to continue to draft, develop and push these players through the system and hope that some of them become way better than where we pick them in the draft.”
Captain Henrik Zetterberg said he feels the organization is close to returning into the playoff picture next season.
And fans are looking for a quick fix, too.
Here is how the team could go about reshaping their roster:
The NFL was in the headlines daily recently while in the midst of its free-agency season, and most hockey fans would love the Red Wings to go down this route again after using it successfully in the past.
But the times are different, especially given the salary cap, the number of quality free agents are few, and teams are reluctant to pass out lengthy and expensive contracts that will hurt them in the future.
At this point, don’t expect the Red Wings to go down this path when unrestricted free agency begins July 1.
The list of prospective unrestricted free agents who can help isn’t long, either, and the Red Wings are also limited.
They’re stuck by the fact they have 16 players on the roster signed through next season for roughly $62 million.
Lengthy — and some would say generous — contracts to Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm and Niklas Kronwall are likely put the Red Wings in a salary-cap bind for several years after this one.
That bind could be unwound if they’re able to trade a player or lose someone in the expansion draft (players on shorter terms such as Jimmy Howard, Mike Green, Gustav Nyquist).
The Red Wings will have at least seven roster spots to be filled, with restricted free agents Tomas Tatar, Andreas Athanasiou and Xavier Ouellet to be signed.
The NHL salary cap is roughly $73 million this season. It’s projected to be between $75 million and $76 million next season, given the rate it has risen in recent years.
With seven roster spots and approximately $14 million, that’s an average of $2 million.
The Red Wings would love to add a top-pair defenseman, as would many other teams, but acquiring one won’t be easy.
The Red Wings are hopeful of packing some of the 11 picks they own into a possible trade.
“We’ve got 11 picks in 2017,” Holland said. “We’ve got an extra second-round pick in 2018 (acquired in trade), which is looking like it should be a deeper draft than this year. I also think every draft, players come out of the second, third and fourth rounds. We’ve got more spins of the wheel.”
With teams fearful of losing key players to the expansion draft, or hamstrung by the salary cap, there could be defensemen available.
The Red Wings could also entice teams by offering a suddenly red-hot Tatar in the offseason, or possibly goalie Petr Mrazek, to facilitate a move.
Holland has been reluctant to trade a prospect or picks. But with the excess of picks this time around, he appears more open to making such a trade.
The Red Wings used to deal first-round picks casually while acquiring Hall of Fame talent — when there was no salary cap. Those days are over, although Holland doesn’t regret them.
“Those first-round picks you’re talking about was (Anders) Eriksson and two first-round picks for Chris Chelios,” said Holland, alluding to one such deal. “I’d do that again.
“We traded a first-round pick as part of a package for (goaltender) Dom Hasek. I’d do that again.
“We traded a first-round pick as part of a package for (defenseman) Mathieu Schneider, who helped us keep the program going. He was a good fit for Nick Lidstrom.
“We traded a second-round pick for (defenseman) Brad Stuart, who helped us win the Cup in 2008 and helped us go on that run.
“Fast forward to where we are this year, and all those decisions that we made, I’d do them all over again to get four Stanley Cups, six Presidents’ Trophies and to get into the playoffs 25 straight years.”
This isn’t going to be the quickest fix, and probably not one Red Wings fans will consider the sexiest or most exciting, but the Red Wings view the draft as an important way of rebuilding.
Acquiring those draft picks for Smith, Vanek and Ott gave the Red Wings more young players to pick in the draft (as well as trade possibilities).
The Red Wings are likely to pick in the top 10, maybe even in the top five depending how these final two weeks end up.
The only apparent disappointment is, many scouts view this draft is not particularly deep, or at least not filled with sure-fire impact players.
Still, the Red Wings surely will land a player who should be helpful, if not immediately, then relatively soon.
With the Vegas Golden Knights entering the NHL next season, existing teams will be losing one player each, helping stockpile the Knights’ roster.
There’s the opportunity, certainly, to expose forwards such as Abdelkader or Helm, or defensemen like DeKeyser or Ericsson, or Howard, to loosen the salary cap problems. (Clubs will have two options for players they wish to protect in the expansion draft: Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender; or eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goaltender). But there’s also the possibility to make a trade with the Knights.
Still, the Red Wings will lose someone, too.
A possible protected list: Forwards: Abdelkader, Athanasiou, Frans Nielsen, Nyquist, Mantha, Tatar, Zetterberg (Dylan Larkin is exempt, not having enough pro service time. Defense: DeKeyser, Green, Kronwall. Goalie: Mrazek.
That would leave forwards such as Helm, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening available, along with defensemen such as Ericsson, and goaltenders Howard and Jared Coreau
Contract lengths and 2016-17 cap hits for the Red Wings:
■ Petr Mrazek: Ends 2018, $4 million
■ Jimmy Howard: Ends 2019, $5.291 million
■ Jared Coreau: Ends 2018, $612,500
■ Danny DeKeyser: Ends 2022, $5 million
■ Jonathan Ericsson: Ends 2020, $4.25 million
■ Mike Green: Ends 2018, $6 million
■ Nick Jensen: Ends 2019, $812,500
■ Niklas Kronwall: Ends 2019, $4.75 million
■ Ryan Sproul: Ends 2018, $625,000
■Restricted free agents:Xavier Ouellet, Robbie Russo
■ Justin Abdelkader: Ends 2023, $4.25 million
■ Luke Glendening: Ends 2021, $1.8 million
■ Darren Helm: Ends 2021, $3.85 million
■ Dylan Larkin: Ends 2018, $925,000
■ Anthony Mantha: Ends 2018. $863,333
■ Frans Nielsen: Ends 2022, $5.25 million
■ Gustav Nyquist: Ends 2019, $4.75 million
■ Riley Sheahan: Ends 2018, $2.075 million
■ Henrik Zetterberg: Ends 2021, $6.08 million
■ Restricted free agents: Andreas Athanasiou, Tomas Tatar
■ Unrestricted free agents: Mitch Callahan, Drew Miller