Krupa: Wings win draft but still have long haul ahead

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The Red Wings opted to take forward Jonatan Berggren instead of a defenseman with their first pick in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft on Saturday.

Detroit — The Red Wings won a lot this weekend.

Some fans said it felt at least a little bit like the days, nearly a decade ago, when they could flip the channel or drive downtown to see the Wings dominating opponents.

The surprising results of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft invigorated many of the faithful. Again, the Red Wings outperformed most of the league.

But the impact on the roster only underlines how long it will take for their next deep run in the playoffs.

More: 'Good day': Red Wings find more value in NHL Draft

With the sustenance of the draft came harsh reinforcement of reality. The Wings are gathering momentum in a rebuilding process that will surely take at least a few years longer.

By selecting three offensively talented forwards Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Jonatan Berggren and the defenseman Jared McIsaac with their much-anticipated picks in the first two rounds, the Red Wings did not appreciably improve their near-term outlook.

After their two worst campaigns in more than 30 years, they are much farther off.

And after passing on a bevy of young defensemen who will likely play in the NHL over the next couple of seasons, and probably mount successful careers in the long run, the Wings only emphasized the stubbornness of the transition.

Even if Zadina joins Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Michael Rasmussen and Evgeny Svechnikov on the forward lines in October, finally injecting an appropriate amount of apprenticeship into one of the oldest lineups in the NHL, the Red Wings lack a key ingredient.

You know, the perennial one: puck-moving, defensively effective defensemen.

More: Ted Kulfan profiles each Red Wings 2018 draft pick

Glaring need

There is no one in the organization currently or prospectively capable of long NHL minutes and careers as a top-pairing defenseman.

Novenas and fasting may be dedicated to the hope that Danny DeKeyser, Filip Hronek, Dennis Cholowski or someone eventually fits the bill. But the grade for drafting and developing defensemen in Detroit for longer than a decade is failing.

The Wings’ inability in the 2018 draft to arrange for anyone who rates as likely to break through, despite McIsaac’s clear strengths, only points to the essential tasks of 2019 and 2020.

And, yes, in fact, maybe 2021.

The Wings can trade for top-tandem defensemen. Good luck. Teams rarely do, these days, especially without offering one in return.

They can also sign a huge free agent. But since the last collective bargaining agreement, for which some still may have been booing Commissioner Gary Bettman this weekend, teams lock up top-pair defensemen.

More: Krupa: Defense a big need, but Wings stick with best available

When they escape, the defensemen are often shopping for a Stanley Cup.

More reason to put Hronek, Cholowski and Joe Hicketts into the Red Wings lineup. But, also, more explanation for the difficulty of the task at hand.

It is starting to remind this aging fella of the juncture in the mid-1960s when, after Doug Barkley’s eye injury, Bill Gadsby’s retirement and trading Marcel Pronovost to the Maple Leafs, rebuilding the blue line took — well, no need to scare the children.

Does that mean passing on the next half-dozen ranked defensemen available after the unattainable Rasmus Dahlin is a mistake? No.

Veleno and the playmaking Berggren possess ample offensive skills, and, like Zadina, are geared to attend to enough other details of the game, all around the ice, to produce shift-by-shift impact.

They are reputedly Red Wings by trait. Management and scouts drew deeply from a cast of players who, as in past years, possess intelligence and hockey acumen.

The Red Wings seek, and often get, smart. Sometimes, it seems, it is at the cost of talent.

Zadina is talented, big time. Enough to arrive either this season, or next. Veleno and Berggren are, too.

If one could quibble, it would be about Berggren, selected Saturday in the second round at 33rd overall.

The Wings did take the next defenseman selected, McIsaac, 36th.

Lined up behind him are names of defensemen whose careers will be compared to Berggren’s in the years to come: Jett Woo (Canucks), Alexander Romanov (Canadiens), Olof Lindbom (Rangers) and Bode Wilde (Islanders).

In a deep draft, defensemen taken in the first half of the second round often land in the NHL.

Promising forwards

Against that, the Red Wings can argue Berggren’s hands are intended to help fill a gap opened when Pavel Datsyuk went home, and which will be gaping when Henrik Zetterberg retires.

So much of the Red Wings' offense must run through Zetterberg, still, because he makes the play and provides the pass.

Berggren is mostly assists, and his 1.5 points per game in the recent SuperElite season in Sweden led the league. In the same league, William Nylander recently scored 1.59 per game.

While Nylander did it at a bit younger age than Berggren, his 48 goals and 87 assists for 135 points in 185 games played for the Maple Leafs suggests Berggren can eventually make some plays in the NHL.

Berggren is unlikely to play for the Red Wings for a few years. But, the point is, rebuilding does not always proceed evenly, and entry drafts are never in the control of one team. And, the Red Wings have a lot of rebuilding to do.

There next star defensemen are unlikely in the organization, right now, and only a couple more seasons, perhaps a few, will determine whether the prospective batch of stars at forward ultimately shine.

This weekend, and a lot going on with the Wings, is less about 2018 than three seasons from now.

The logic of playing lots of younger player prevails, because the Red Wings will remain in draft and develop mode. So, why not provide more time for development at the NHL level, and if the result is better draft position 12 and 24 months from now, is that not good?

Meanwhile, each of their top four picks provides significant hope for successful NHL careers.

Veleno is likely to arrive in Detroit, eventually, scoring and responsibly defending.

And Zadina? His assuredness and skill, if matched to accomplishment, could help relight the franchise. That he dropped in the Red Wings lap in the sixth slot still exhilarates. He is potentially that good.

And the chagrin evident on his face when the Senators, Canadiens and Coyotes passed on him, and which remained there as Zadina lingered with his family and walked up to meet the brass, speaks of a competitive value around which a team, and fans, can rally.

The hope is Zadina limits showboating, after demonstrations of skill on the ice. But swagger is to be encouraged.

And Zadina is likely to contribute significantly, and reasonably soon.