NHL analysts: Red Wings' rebuild on right path

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The NHL playoffs are continuing with exciting games and nonstop action, but the Red Wings are nowhere to be found.

They haven’t been in three years, as the organizational rebuild continues, steady and painstaking as it has been.

Dylan Larkin, center, Tyler Bertuzzi, left, Filip Hronek (17) and Anthony Mantha (39) are some of the young pieces at the center of the Red Wings' rebuild.

The addition of Steve Yzerman as general manager, replacing Kenny Holland who was moved upstairs then moved on his own to Edmonton, has ignited renewed enthusiasm.

Yzerman was a Hall of Fame player with the Wings and built an impressive resume as an executive in Tampa, giving Wings’ fans a mountain of hope.

So, with the addition of Yzerman, the development of young players such as Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha, and prospects such as Filip Zadina, Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski on the way, there appears to be glimmers of rebirth.

At least that’s the belief nationally around the NHL.

The Detroit News surveyed several longtime NHL analysts around North America to get their opinion on the Red Wings.

Where does the organization stand right now in the midst of its rebuild? What does the arrival of Yzerman mean for the Wings? What is the belief nationally of the Wings’ players?

Generally, there is a sense of optimism from analysts regarding the Wings’ immediate future.

Here are their thoughts:

Where do you think the Red Wings are in their rebuild? They’ve missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons and most of the roster will likely remain the same heading into next season. Is there noticeable progress?

Barry Melrose, ESPN analyst: They have to get better on defense but their forwards are good. They’re fast. For the most part, in today’s NHL, if you can get a big, fast guy it’s better than a small, fast guy, and Detroit has a lot of bigger guys. You don’t have to go further than Colorado. They used a lot of draft picks on fast guys and they’re a contender. It just goes to show you have to skate in today’s NHL and Kenny had the framework for that and I’m sure Stevie will continue.

Kevin Weekes, NHL Network analyst: This current cast of young players is improving. Kenny leaves Steve in a good spot and a good place based on some of those players, be it Andreas Athanasiou, Larkin, Mantha, who has a big ceiling, and on the back end Cholowski and Zadina are on the way on the roster. They’re in a good place. They’ve stocked the pond.

Mike Zeisberger, NHL.com national correspondent: I like where they are going. Zadina, (Joe) Veleno, guys like that, they haven’t had really high picks even during this rebuild, but I really like some of their young people. To me, up front, this is the most promising foundation of young forwards than I’ve seen in Detroit since they started this rebuild in a while.

Last month, the Red Wings brought back Steve Yzerman to be the team's general manger.

What did you think of bringing back Steve Yzerman into the organization? Was it the right move at the right time?

E.J. Hradek, NHL Network analyst: It seems like a match made in heaven. There’s been a long relationship with Steve and the Ilitch family. Steve did not have to come back. He had a good setup in Tampa, with a great situation, a great owner there in Jeff Vinik — he’s kind of the Mike Ilitch of this era who hires people and lets them do their job. But Steve felt like he wanted something different in his life and he’s connected to Detroit. It was something that people thought would happen and eventually it happened.

Melrose: He’s a perfect guy to bring the franchise into the next time frame where they are good again. He’s proven to be a real good drafter, identifying personnel. Kenny is leaving him with a good start; the cupboard isn’t bare. The Ilitches felt it was time to make a change and Stevie was available and he’s a perfect guy for the job. He’s learned a lot from Kenny. He’s learned to be a great judge of talent, and he’s surrounded himself with great people, Pat Verbeek (assistant GM) being an example. Steve does his homework and he isn’t above listening to other people.

Weekes: Steve has earned his stripes. He’s put in his time. He wanted to learn, he took a different path after he learned from Kenny, and he ran his own shop in Tampa and built a great organization. This is great opportunity for Steve. There’s a lot of familiarity and history and he’s part of the fabric of an established franchise. He’s a great worker, he’s a grinder, and with Steve there will be a lot of passion and work ethic.

Ken Campbell, The Hockey News senior writer: It’s something the fan base needed. Some hope, and this bides some time to see where they are and how they will go forward. If you bring in a guy like Steve Yzerman, it’s huge instant credibility. They’re still a fair distance away right now, but they’re not that far away from the playoff picture. 

Zeisberger: He obviously wanted to be there. Steve is real good at designating his lieutenants and he listens to them. It’s not my word is the final word. He listens to people. That’s something Steve will bring to Detroit and that’s something he learned from Kenny. It’s the way he always operated.

Any thoughts on Ken Holland and his departure from the organization? Are you surprised? Did you expect it?

Melrose: Kenny is leaving Steve with a good start. Kenny could have easily done this too, but the Ilitches felt it was a time to make a change and Steve was available and he’s a perfect guy for the job.

Campbell: This was a function of timing. Kenny went to Sweden with the front office and to see if this was going to work out. If he was still a Red Wing a year from now he’d be a Red Wing for life. But Edmonton came to him with an incredible offer, a team who has the best player in the world, and a blank canvas and the autonomy he needs.

Weekes: There was a going to be a lot of interest given Kenny’s resume and experience and expertise. Based on his passion, work ethic, his resume and how sharp he is, you know how these guys are wired. Kenny was going to be in demand.

Zeisberger: I don’t think Kenny was looking to get out of Detroit. But speaking with a couple of his friends, he was blown away by the Oilers’ offer. He’s a BC (British Columbia) boy, too, which isn’t far away. He has the passion. But like I said, I don’t think he was looking to leave Detroit. It’s not like he took it right away. He had to think about it before he took it.

Back to the roster, do you see building blocks there and is there promise for the future? What do they have to fix?

Hradek: They have to rebuild the defense. There’s age there. The constant for the Red Wings when they won their Cups was Nicklas Lidstrom. They were blessed to have such a great player in front of the group and they had great players around him, like Brian Rafalski, Chris Chelios and those types of defensemen. That’s where they have to rebuild. Defense is so important in this game now, having those young puck-moving defensemen in a league that’s such a speed league now. I was surprised last year at the draft when they opted to pass on Quinn Hughes. It’s an area of need back there, an area they need to rebuild.

Campbell: Veleno may turn out to be a steal of the draft. He could turn out to be a surprise.

Weekes: I like their forwards. Tyler Bertuzzi is a guy I was saying they needed to bring him up; he provides something they didn’t have. Larkin, he was making plays this year after being a speed guy. Cholowski on the back end was really impressive. I love Athanasiou and they have to find a way to keep him there (at center).

Zeisberger: A guy like Zadina is still so young. People may look at some of those 18-year-olds that have burst on the scene quicker, but I really like him as a player. He’s a natural goal scorer. No coach has taught him to do what he does. I really liked that pick. And the kid, Veleno, he was supposed to go significantly higher according to the scouts I talked to, so that was a steal. So you look at those two, and put them with Mantha, a guy like Larkin, who feels like he’s been around forever and he is still in his early 20s.

What needs to be done to improve the roster?

Hradek: They’ve got to find the young defensemen. They have a number of talented forwards, so much so maybe they can move one to get a really good defenseman. Let’s say Colorado, just as an example. Could Colorado be in position to move a Tyson Barrie with the arrival of Cale Makar? So they could be looking for a high-end forward. Maybe they can find another defenseman in free agency, maybe Detroit becomes a destination again. Just fill out the defense and identify the goalie for the future.

Zeisberger: It’s just what is going to happen with the blue line, and who is going to take over in goal in two or three years. Fans, honestly and rightfully, want to see steps in the right direction and who is going to be the young foundation pieces. But I really like what they are building up front.

Any thoughts on bringing back coach Jeff Blashill?

Campbell: Extending him was very wise. I don’t know of anybody who believed missing the playoffs was because of Jeff Blashill. Or he was being outcoached. Team USA certainly thinks he’s a good coach. He works very well with young players, he’s good for the market. It was a smart move bringing him back.

Zeisberger: It goes beyond wins and they obviously were seeing the development under this coach. The organization is in a rebuild and we’ve watched some of these young guys develop. It’s been a slow process at times but that’s the way it is with young players. He hasn’t had a lot to work with but if you see some of these guys improve, and they have, you can’t pull the plug on him. Now, if you come back to me in two years and they’ve flatlined, not only in record but development, maybe you take a stronger look at it.

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Nobody likes to talk about timelines in sports because there are so many variables and things can change so quickly. But what is a realistic time frame before the Wings should contend?

Hradek: We’ve got to see what moves are made between now and the start of next season. If there’s an addition via trade or free agency. They have young players like Cholowski, who might be ready to take the next step in his development. You can turn things around one season to the next relatively quickly and be much more competitive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wings be in the mix for a playoff spot depending on some factors. If they go to a more conservative approach, they’re a year or two out. But it depends on the moves that are in the works. The problem with the Wings might be the division they’re in. There are so many talented teams right now.

Weekes: I don’t think it needs to be too long. You can make a case in the next year or two they can be playing meaningful games in March. It wouldn’t surprise me. They’ve restocked the pond and now some of those kids are coming to LCA and there are more coming from last year’s draft and this draft coming up. We’ll see what the free agent period will glean.

Zeisberger: Obviously the division keeps getting better. Tampa, Boston and Toronto are real good teams. Montreal just missed the playoffs. Now you have Florida adding (coach) Joel Quenneville and if you believe the rumors the Panthers could also be getting (Artemi) Panarin and (Sergei) Bobrovsky (in free agency). People don’t have patience for rebuilds like the way they did. You have to think they have to make the playoffs in two years.

Melrose: You look at Carolina today and it is a serious Stanley Cup threat. Detroit, with the new building, free agents will want to go back to Detroit. And with the young guys, they can change things real quickly. It’s being proven just about every night in these playoffs. It doesn’t matter where you finish — just make the playoffs and you have a chance of winning.


Twitter: @tkulfan