With the Red Wings failing to advance past the first round against a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that they outplayed for most of the series, a summer of questions about the team will be asked as happens every year to every team, even the one that wins the championship.
While blame is the most pointed aspect of discussion for a team that has not advanced to the conference finals in six years, it does not serve well in assessing the team going forward. It can be argued that the Wings were simply a recipient of bad luck, the bounces not going their way, and a healthy Johan Franzen and Erik Cole may have pushed them towards a deeper run with the pair of bigger bodies who can score matching up well in the series.
Regardless, looking forward, the tendency may be to dwell on the failure of this group and consider a need for big changes. That would be wrong. Again, puck luck and health decided the Tampa series, not a poorly constructed team. Great changes would actually delay actual improvement and deeper playoff runs.
Detroit’s next best chance for a championship may not be next year or even the year after that, but in three years time. That’s not to say that that the Wings can not win a championship next spring. They may. But the current construction of the team reveals that, just like Los Angeles and Chicago, the perfect mix for a championship run with all cylinders running is a few years down the road.
Datysuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Kronwall are all in their mid to late-thirties. Their production may decline in the upcoming seasons, but it’s also worth remembering that Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios all enjoyed productive years right into their forties. With the age of that group, suitable replacements ready to take on the first line and defensive spots need to be met and that’s where the development of the Wings must emerge.
Gone are the days when teams could simply buy superstar players off the open market. The stars of tomorrow have to be developed today in the minor and junior leagues. Without proper development, teams flounder (case in point, examine the Edmonton Oilers). The Wings learned this lesson a long time ago and will continue to reap the benefits, but the next group of potential stars of the team are still ripening.
Forwards Anthony Mantha, Teemu Pulkkinen, Dylan Larkin, Zach Nastasiuk, Axel Holmstrom, Dominic Turgeon, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou as well as defencemen Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko, Ryan Sproul, Joe Hicketts and Nick Jensen represent the next wave of Red Wings. Some of that group may not develop. Some may turn out to be depth players at best, but some may be the stars that Detroit needs to replace Zetterberg, Datsyuk and company. High on that list are Mantha, Pulkkinen and Larkin, the combination of which could form a potential dynamite first line.
When those prospects are combined with budding Wings stars already on the roster in Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Danny DeKeyser, the Wings future looks set. It may seem like that crop has been around forever, but they are still learning the ins and outs of the league and who better to learn from than Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall. A few more years of development will show their true potential.
In two or three years time, with Nyquist, Tatar and DeKeyser entering their prime years and Mantha, Larkin, Pulkkinen and Ouellet learning their ways, having a slightly behind step Datsyuk and Zetterberg won’t be that much of a concern. To have that kind of talent together on one team would bode well for playoff success, again, health-depending.
When you also consider the depth of Detroit’s goaltending, it’s optimistic. While Jimmy Howard may have lost his way near the end of the season and been forced out of the number one job, it is premature to consider trading or burying his contract. He should arrive at camp in September eager to reclaim his job. The best scenario for the Wings is to have both Howard and youngster Petr Mrazek ready to roll and competing for the number one job. Mrazek is the Wings goaltender of the future and that future may be soon, but having Howard regain his form would greatly boost the Wings options. Two great goalies are better than one.
So for next season, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen (health depending), Tatar, Nyquist, Sheahan, Glendening, Miller, Helm, Abdelkader, Jurco, Andersson and Weiss at forward and Kronwall, DeKeyser, Ericsson, Smith, Quincey and Kindl on defense and Mrazek and Howard in goal. Free agents Cole, Dan Cleary and Jonas Gustafsson are not expected to be back. Veteran defenseman Marek Zidlick impressed during his brief stay and a new contract may be offered to him. And there’s always that possibility that a youngster such as Pullkinen, Mantha or Ouellet may push a veteran out of a spot, which may be welcome by the club.
What the Wings do need over the summer are complimentary pieces either via free agency or trade. They have been linked to Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf and those talks may continue now before they collapsed over the trade deadline. Another right handed shooting defenseman would be needed as well, especially if Zidlicky is not resigned or Marchenko fails to make the club after camp. One of the problems that has become evident over the years is that the defense is in flux. After Kronwall, the corp consists of solid defenders that make the right play, but no one that really sparks the offense and plays with the dynamism of Lidstrom or Rafalski. Phaneuf would help, but not completely fix that issue. Another year of development for both DeKeyser and Smith, both of whom had very good playoffs, into further development of that kind of player is needed, especially since the free agent market is so thin.
Also needed are more size on the Wings. A healthy Franzen and Cole may have tipped the Tampa series in their favor, what the Wings really needing were big bodies who could drive to the net. Abdelkader certainly helps in this regard, but he is only forward who really dug into this area. This is the same role that made Todd Bertuzzi strangely valuable for the past few years. One more large forward who can go to the net a la Tomas Holmstrom, complimenting a healthy Abdelkader and Franzen, would help the Wings create the matchups they need to succeed.
And then there’s the situation surrounding Mike Babcock. Whether he returns to Detroit could be decided as early as tomorrow. If he decides not to come back, Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill is waiting in the wings (pun intended). Having already coached many of the Wings future stars in Nyquist, Tatar and Sheahan and guiding them to an AHL championship, he would serve as a great transition coach, and it may be good to have a fresh new voice for this team. Having said that however, Babcock is still the best coach in the game, and the Wings would be lucky to have him back. Considering the coaching vacancies out there, Babcock’s best option may be to stick with Detroit anyway.
So the Wings won’t stop contending for the Cup anytime soon, but that championship team may be down the road a few years still. Just imagine the potential lineup:
Mantha – Pulkinnen
Nyquist – Tatar
Datsyuk – Abdelkader
Jurco – Glendening
Kronwall – Ericsson
Marchenko – DeKeyser
Smith (Phaneuf) – Ouellet
That is a championship roster in waiting. Unforeseen circumstances may still arise with injuries and trades, but the Wings would be wise to stay the course and not do anything drastic. Knowing Ken Holland, that is exactly what will happen.
It is disappointing when teams can’t advance due to bad luck (health issues and puck luck) and questionable league interferences (suspensions). But the Wings are well-equipped to continue growing and contending for years to come.