Krupa: Red Wings must draft best player, regardless of position

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Oliver Wahlstrom

Detroit — The Red Wings will not secure their future in the 2018 NHL Draft. They have much more rebuilding to accomplish.

They may not select a defenseman that will hasten reconstruction the roster.

And, whether the Wings accomplish a goal they should consider primary, drafting more effectively than they have in some recent years, is unlikely to be known for a few seasons.

If that seems a disappointing outlook for draft day, it is not.

Rather, it suggests an ambitious goal, for the Red Wings.

With a lot of draft picks, including the No. 6 selection in the first round Friday, amid considerable concern about the immediate and long-term future of the franchise, the false hope of imminent salvation is seductive.

The draft, after all, is usually gratification delayed.

However, the Red Wings can accomplish something that has eluded them too often: Picking a player in the first round who has a successful NHL career, and can contribute to a deep playoff run.

More: Wings’ Athanasiou among top NHL trade targets on draft weekend

More: Red Wings prep for critical draft: 'No room for error'

They are too early in the reconstruction of the roster to be encumbered by either the position of a player, or overly-specific attributes.

The Red Wings need to draft a contributor to their eventual success Friday.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and at different positions.

The task is far less about the current needs of the roster than the overall neediness of a franchise.

It is in obtaining reliable help that the Wings have fallen short, too often, recently. Keen judgment is required, in part, because the choice is greatly affected by a process of elimination over which the Wings have almost no control.

Some stockpiling needed 

Five teams select before them.

Their decision will be determined in part by what the Hurricanes, Canadiens, Senators and Coyotes do, after the Sabres select Rasmus Dahlin.

The circumstances make it more difficult to assure the ultimate success of a selection, further discounting the importance of some considerations.

Quinn Hughes

The Red Wings will want to do better than Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and Riley Sheahan, three first-round picks from 2005 to 2010.

If rebuilding the roster is to accelerate beyond a plodding pace and result in improved play in a few seasons, when Dylan Larkin is 24 and Anthony Mantha 26, the Wings need to have better success now, in the draft.

Their first-round selection need not save the franchise. Even though, with two seasons out of the playoffs totaling 101 regulation and overtime losses, a rescue is increasingly required.

But the Wings must stock players who have successful NHL careers, and make enough difference in the reconstruction to contribute to success in the playoffs.

They cannot keep looking down to Grand Rapids for long-promised prospects that do not pan out.

On that basis, a prospect’s position and size may be gauges too narrow.

They should not select defensemen Noah Dobson or Quinn Hughes merely because, six years after the departures of Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart, their defensive corps remains in disarray.

Perhaps the forward Oliver Wahlstrom, of the National Team Development Program in USA Hockey, one of the most dynamic offensive performers in junior hockey in North America last season, will have the better NHL career.

And while the Wings may be deeper at forward than at defensemen, they have no guarantee that Larkin, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Evgeny Svechnikov or anyone else will provide the star performance they require on the front lines, with Pavel Datsyuk gone a third season, beginning in October, and Henrik Zetterberg perhaps about to play his last.

If Wahlstrom, who is committed to Boston College, is going to be a star, and his offensive talents speak of the possibility, the Red Wings may be wiser selecting a forward, despite the clear deficiencies among their defensemen.

Or, for example, if Wahlstrom is off the board or not likely a star, deciding to select Dobson over Hughes because he is bigger and the Wings could use some size along the blue line is not a sufficient determination.

Goal is clear 

Rather than trying to fill specific needs or predict how the 2021 roster will look, the Red Wings must cap their months-long draft process by selecting a player who will be on the roster contributing to the greater success of the team three years from now.

After long development and disappointing stints with the Red Wings, Kindl and Smith are currently out of the NHL.

Sheahan is a defensive forward and reliable face-off man, likely destined for a journeyman’s career.

A rebuilding franchise, which drew increasingly fewer fans to their seats as the first season in Little Caesars Arena wore on, needs much more.

The reconstruction of the Red Wings roster requires that management and scouts reassert their reputation as reliable identifiers of talent, and soon.

GM Ken Holland, fresh from a two-year contract extension, knows he competes against the best hockey managers and scouts in the world to provide a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup.

“Certainly, that’s the goal,” Holland said recently. “We’ve got some work to do.

“I’ve got work to do.”

The success of that work will be measured, in no small part, by whether the player the Red Wings obtain with their sixth pick in the first round has a successful NHL career.

That, not position, size or specific attribute, is the standard.

And, the Wing need to step up.