Development arrives for Red Wings before victories
Detroit — Mike Green is not even supposed to be here.
Playing without the veteran puck-moving defenseman the Red Wings have won twice, once in regulation, through 42 games.
But, if rebuilding plans had gone by design, Green would have been traded last spring. In return, the Wings would likely have even more than their 18 picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts.
They also would probably have fewer than 15 wins, which ties them for fewest in the NHL, and a worse goal differential than minus-27, fifth-worst entering play Thursday.
Such is the way, with rebuilds. Unpredictability can be a way of life.
Are they better off with Green or the draft picks? Discerning the answer is only part of a pervasive puzzle.
Hoping for the best among often meager alternatives while patiently drafting and developing is all part of reconstructing the roster.
And, developmentally, the first half of 2018-19 has been successful for the Wings.
What eludes them for a fourth season, arguably more, is the sort of success they claim to seek while rebuilding.
Losses mount. Hard-fought leads are easily relinquished.
Injuries bit where they were least bearable. Green and Danny DeKeyser are arguably the best two performers in a corps of defensemen that likely will take a few more seasons, at least, to rebuild.
Now, Trevor Daley is out, too, with a broken foot.
Too often incapable of retrieving and moving the puck from their zone, the Red Wings routinely spend too little time on the attack.
It limits scoring.
It also prevents the forechecking that, when the Wings forwards can get to the offensive zone to execute it, helps drive their success.
Puck possession in the offensive zone and effective forechecking helped them build early leads against the Flames, Panthers and Maple Leafs, and propelled their 13-6-2 run from Oct. 28 to Dec. 10.
They have won with Green. But, the priority is development.
Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dennis Cholowski, Christoffer Ehn, Filip Hronek, Nick Jensen, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Michael Rasmussen all have advanced this year.
Larkin is, of course, leading the pack of wannabes.
For the likely future captain of the Wings, stardom is not yet certain. But no one works harder at it, and the 22-year-old is on pace for a 30-goal, 70-point season.
Larkin clearly provided an All-Star performance in the first half of the season. But the numbers have worked, so far, to keep him off the roster of luminaries.
Until the injuries on the back end, and of their own, curtailed their output, Athanasiou and Mantha were pushing similar numbers.
Bertuzzi, with nine goals and 21 points in 39 games played demonstrates a scoring touch some observers failed to anticipate.
Cholowski’s passes and occasionally heady decision-making with the puck offer considerable promise. And, the 20-year-old is only nearing one-fifth of the way to the number of games played that provide a full apprenticeship for an NHL defenseman.
Jensen has shown strongly in the greater role required by injuries.
Without the injuries, Hronek may have had no role with the Red Wings this season at all.
A month ago, Jeff Blashill said the 21-year-old defenseman, who exhibits clear offensive promise and at times gaping defensive liability, did not play well enough in Grand Rapids for the Wings to elevate him.
With injuries affecting the lineup, Hronek has played 15 games and, recently, increasing minutes.
Deciding whether the Red Wings are better with or without Green requires knowing the course of the ultimately successful rebuild, a rearview mirror analysis from whenever that goal is finally attained.
But, in their situation, when development is paramount and winning a welcome byproduct, the Wings are developing.
The injuries have both helped and hurt the cause. Green’s offense and the stability DeKeyser helps provide, when he is playing at his best, clearly make better players of Athanasiou, Larkin, Mantha and others.
But the increased playing time has provided obvious developmental benefits, too.
As the first half of the season only underlines, the Wings development is uneven. It certainly lags among the corps of defensemen.
There is little resolution in sight.
Green, Daley and Jonathan Ericsson are signed through the end of next season.
Jensen, Niklas Kronwall and Luke Witkowski are unrestricted free agents after this season.
Beyond Cholowski and Hronek, the next best prospect might be Jared McIsaac, 18. A 2018 second round pick, 36th overall, McIsaac just finished playing for Canada in the World Junior Championship, and the Canadians are already talking about the benefit of having him back for a second championship next year.
It is not clear that Cholowski, Hronek, McIsaac, or other prospective defensemen the Wings have drafted in recent years will work out any better than Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Ryan Sproul and some other previous drafts choices the organization touted highly.
But Cholowski looks promising, and Hronek is getting an early look.
Wins in short supply
Development has come, as the Wings desired at the start of the season. The wins are in shorter supply than they hoped.
But that, depending on their luck in the lottery, might lead to better draft position.
So, are the Red Wings disappointing at his point in the season, and how are they likely to fare?
Despite frequent losses and leads generously given away, the first 42 games are mostly a success because some hopeful development occurred.
If it continues, success will mount, however slowly and unevenly.
It is the nature of reconstructing a long-successful NHL roster. There are seasons like this.
Given the Wings status and approach, there might be a few more.