Wings vets: So far, youngsters are mostly all right

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Center Christoffer Ehn was one of the young Red Wings who made his NHL debut on Thursday night.

Detroit — Thomas Vanek and Trevor Daley played with a lot of younger guys when the Red Wings opened their season on Thursday.

The two veterans, both acquired in part to improve the play of those around them, said they mostly like how the young guys have performed in training camp, through the preseason and on opening night.

But, with 81 games to go as a group, Daley and Vanek said the Wings plainly need to play better. There is a lot to clean up.

The Red Wings were far from the attacking, assertive force they hope will constitute a team tough to play against, even if it is not frequently victorious.

If their health is good, Daley and Vanek will both play their 1,000th games this season.

With Henrik Zetterberg around only for the ceremony of dropping the puck, Niklas Kronwall introduced in civilian clothes and Mike Green recovering from an illness, Vanek and Daley were the Wings’ only eminence grise against the Blue Jackets.

They expressed no desire, and acknowledged little need, to skate around the ice whispering in their younger teammates' ears. But they are capable of significant guidance.

So far, they think the kids are pretty much all right.

Some might have been nervous, and understandably so, when the curtain went up on the season for 11 players 24 years of age and younger, and for the NHL careers of five.

But their sense of the 3-2 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets in the first game of 2018-19 is that some fundamental failures left the Red Wings unable to even attempt to roll out much of their good stuff.

While Daley and Vanek were not sounding any alarms after one game as they spoke on Friday, they talked about the need to get some of the weeds out of the garden of team performance before they choke off the flowers.

“I think we have a young team, I think we have a good team,” Vanek said. “Jimmy Howard played really well and gave us a point and a chance for two points. That’s the positive out of it.

“On the other side, we didn’t generate much.

“That’s unfortunate because our depth is up front; we are good. But I think we just couldn’t get anything going.”

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Vanek, a 14-year veteran, can improve teammates with his playmaking and knowledge.

Wings coach Jeff Blashill said that Vanek came into the coaches’ offices recently to fetch a pad of paper with ice diagrams to draw up some face-off situations for his young teammates.

“For us to win, they’ve got to be good,” Vanek said. “There’s going to be a learning curve, for sure. But, at the same time, they are all smart hockey players.”

But, clearly, he had anticipated a problem.

The Red Wings were 29 percent on the draw in the first, and only 43 percent by the end. Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin were a combined 13-for-21.

“If you’re losing face-offs constantly and you are chasing the puck and, slowly, you get frustrated,” Vanek said. “And, I think we saw that in our game last night.

“But I think those are things you can address pretty simply. It’s nothing too major that we cannot correct. We’ll get better.”

One remedy is communicating on the bench.

“The one big thing is we have to constantly talk after every shift, to say, 'Where were you at?' to get that chemistry. But, last night, there wasn’t much talking because we barely had the puck,” Vanek said. “It starts with the face-off, but it’s our forecheck and how we break the puck out.”

Daley, a 15-year veteran, can solidify a defensive tandem. The Red Wings signed him in July 2017 to counter persistent problems with coverage in the defensive zone.

But, Daley said he did not change much of what he does, at all, while paired with the 24-year-old Libor Sulak, who made his NHL debut Thursday.

“You know what? No matter who I play with, I try to play my game regardless of who it is,” Daley said. “So, there is no difference.”

In a game in which he and Danny DeKeyser were the only Wings’ defensemen with more than five career NHL games, Daley said, “I thought we were pretty good.”

Once the Blue Jackets accelerated, in part, on the strength of power plays the Wings gave them while trying to grapple with the game, Daley said he hoped for more fight.

“I thought we could have done a better job of rebounding after that happened,” he said.

Daley said Sulak possesses some talent he and other defensemen crave.

“What he’s got is what a lot of guys really can’t have — the ability to skate,” Daley said. “You know, everything else is teachable, and I think it’s going to come with the more reps he gets, the games he gets.”

Meanwhile, Daley said he does not do a lot of talking to his partners during games, no matter if other defenseman is young or not.

“I’m not a big talker during the games,” he said. “Before, during preparation, we’ll talk. During the game, if there’s something I see or something I can help him with, I’m going to point it out.

“But, I’ve been playing this game for a long time, and so has (Sulak). And, you know, it’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were 6 years old. It’s just hockey.

“He’s a pretty good hockey player. Talking to him during the game? I don’t think I need to do that, too much.”

Twitter: @greggkrupa