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Nielsen’s first Wings season soured by playoff absence

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Frans Nielsen’s first season with the Red Wings didn’t go as planned.

And it comes down to one simple reason:

“We didn’t make the playoffs, so it’s been disappointing, absolutely,” said Nielsen at Tuesday’s locker clean out day, referring to the Red Wings’ 25-season consecutive playoff streak that ended.

Nielsen signed last summer with the Red Wings, as an unrestricted free agent (six years, $31.5 million), was intrigued by the organization’s winning ways.

But the Red Wings never could completely recapture the success of previous seasons this time around.

One reason, said Nielsen, was because of the team’s unwillingness to play a gritty, hard-edged game when needed.

“It’s a tough a league and you have to show up every night,” said Nielsen, who had 17 goals and 24 assists (41 points). “It’s not going to be pretty every night. You have to grind it out and find other ways to win.

“We couldn’t get away from that skill game, and when it was off, everything was just going wrong.

“We have to learn that when we don’t have a good night, we have to learn to find a way and grind it out an do the hard work.”

The pieces are in the locker room, said Nielsen, to have a competitive roster next season that is capable of beginning a new playoff streak.

Nielsen said a young player such as Dylan Larkin “was competing every night and working his butt off the last half of the year, and it was great to see”.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg, said Nielsen, was everything you could want in a teammate, and continues to be at the top of his game.

But, collectively, Nielsen feels the team needs to get a little “mean.”

“Some nights it’s not going to be pretty and it’s going to hurt to win,” Nielsen said. “Some nights we just didn’t pay the price.

“I believe in everyone in here. Talent-wise, we’re right there. We just have to bring a little more ‘mean’ attitude sometimes and play harder and do all the simple things.

“I know they’ve always had a tradition (here) of playing nice hockey with a lot of skill guys. But we have to learn how to play the other side of it, too, when we our game is not on.”

The NHL is so tight and defensive these days, said Nielsen, that teams can’t rely on winning on skill alone.

“Teams are so good defensively, so good, if you turn pucks over, that’s what teams are looking for,” Nielsen said. “It’s a tough league and you have to pay the price.”

Aside from the non-playoff season, Nielsen enjoyed his first season with the Red Wings organization, and was particularly struck by the fan support.

Sunday’s emotional goodbye to Joe Louis Arena particularly stood out.

“It was incredible,” said Nielsen, who spent the first eight years of his NHL career with the New York Islanders. “We had some tough years on Long Island and there was some empty nights (in the arena).

“But here, it was incredible. We pretty much were out of it (playoffs) the last month and there was still 20,000 fans every night. I don’t think you find that in many places in this league.

“It was almost like we didn’t deserve it, but they kept coming and supported us.”