Red Wings leaning on young talent now more than ever

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dennis Cholowski

Detroit — In six seasons, the Red Wings have gone from struggling for a another shot at the Stanley Cup, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, to battling to remain in playoff contention.

There has been some more emphasis on rebuilding, recently.

Now, the stars are gone.

Zetterberg joined Datsyuk in departing prematurely, his back issues roiled for more than a decade, remedied only temporarily by surgery.

The struggle for the playoffs has become what Ken Holland and his management team sought to avoid: A team consecutively eliminated, for which improving chances in the draft lottery seems a useful alternative.

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But having mostly decided against managing down the success of the team to increase lottery odds and create playing time for prospects, the Wings find their fortunes in considerable decline, nonetheless.

Holland has delivered on his assertion that two or three new players would be in the lineup for 2018-19.

Defenseman Dennis Cholowski, 20, (first round 2016, 20th), and forward Michael Rasmussen, 19, (first round 2017, ninth) will start the season in Detroit, along with forward Christoffer Ehn, 22, (fourth round 2014, 106th) who surprised even his coach, Jeff Blashill, by snaring a roster spot.

Evgeny Svechnikov, 21, (first round 2015, 19th) may also. But his status is unclear because of an injury.

With three veteran defensemen in various stages of injury and recovery, the Red Wings also retained Libor Sulak, 24, a six-feet-two, 207-pound free agent signed last signing last year, whose skating impressed in preseason.

Five new guys is a radical departure.

But the Wings did dispatch their promising 2018 first round pick — 18-year-old Filip Zadina, taken sixth-overall — to Grand Rapids.

The roster has been in flux since Mike Babcock described it that way as early as 2012-13. Regardless, the players and coaches say they will strive for the playoffs.

The true purpose of the season, however, is plainly development.

The approach should be: If the development is good enough, the playoffs may come. But given the status of the roster, do not expect them.

If that is how the season trends, the Red Wings should provide more playing time for prospects and consider any diminished performance advantageous for the lottery.

Without Zetterberg, offense is likely to be even scarcer than the past two seasons, when the Wings were 24th and 28th in goals for, and 25th and 26th in goal differential.

Anthony Mantha

Improved performance must occur throughout the lineup, if the breach is to be filled.

The further development of Andreas Athanasiou, 24, Tyler Bertuzzi, 23, Dylan Larkin, 22, and Anthony Mantha, 24, would be critical.

Much falls on Larkin’s shoulders this season. He is a potential successor to Zetterberg as star of the team and captain, and he has a new five-year, $30.5 million contract.

A better offensive season from Frans Nielsen, 34, who will receive more time on the power play, and a significant lift from the returning Thomas Vanek, 34, also would help.

If Cholowski’s ability with the puck at the blue line with the man-advantage, along with Rasmussen’s net-front presence brighten a dreary power play (24th in 2017-18, 17.5 percent; 28th 2016-17, 15.1 percent), the Wings’ offense could improve.

“I think there’s multiple guys who are going to have to step up in Z’s absence,” Jeff Blashill said.

“I would never put it on just one person. I think it spreads evenly, throughout the team.

“We’re going to have to have depth of scoring, and four lines that can go out every night and play against everybody and really hound pucks and compete and work,” Blashill said.

The Red Wings talk about winning more close games. The lack of scoring and some defensive breakdown cost them in a lot of one-goal games, last season.

“That’s one of our goals, to sort of flip that our way,” said defenseman Danny DeKeyser.

“I think it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to bear down a little bit, make the simple plays,” said DeKeyser, 28, who signed in 2013.

“And then, when you do have the lead, just know the situation, know who’s on the ice. And when you have the puck, get it deep, instead of trying to make a play when you don’t really need to do it at the blue line.

“It’s things like that that can really help us out.”

But, the fact of the matter is, one of the top couple of picks in the 2019 draft would help, too.

If losses begin adding up, giving the prospects more ice time and accepting losses as the cost of better odds in the lottery makes sense. It is up to management to create the circumstances of playing for the best lottery odds.

The players will never try to lose, even without Zetterberg prodding them.

Those circumstances would test the commitment of management to rebuilding the Red Wings.

During a 7-1 preseason, the 6-2 loss to the Maple Leafs was played against NHL regulars.

It resulted in an inexperienced team trying to turn a stampede. But, before the Leafs broke free, the Wings had tied the game, 1-1, and turned it in their direction.

Asked if he expected a good number of big losses with signs of improvement from the developing team this season, Blashill said he hoped not.

“Is that a potential issue with our hockey team with young players in big spots?” he said, restating the matter. “That’s a potential issue that we hope we can get better at, real fast.”

Twitter @greggkrupa