Friday April 22nd, 2016

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Different year, same results.

For the second consecutive spring, the Detroit Red Wings were sent packing by the Tampa Bay Lightning. This one, though, hurt a little bit more. Last year, the Bolts eliminated the Wings in seven games. This time around, it only took them five ... and they got it done without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman.

The ease with which they dispatched Detroit was telling. The Wings managed just eight goals in the five games, and were a league-worst 4% on the power play. And those numbers weren't surprising. Detroit struggled with a 23rd-ranked offense (2.55 goals per game) and middle-of-the-road special teams all season.

That brought criticism down on Jeff Blashill, but the rookie coach did a commendable job with what he had to work with. He'll be back next year and will be better for the experience.

That puts the spotlight on the handiwork of Ken Holland. Detroit's GM deserves full marks as the architect of the team's 25-year playoff streak, but also some scrutiny for his cautious approach in the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era. That has to change. No one's expecting a teardown, but Holland has to make a larger commitment to the youth in his organization.

Lightning eliminate Red Wings in Game 5

Before anything else can happen, the team will need to address the future of Pavel Datsyuk. The veteran center said he'll need some time to decide whether he'll honor the final year of his deal with the Red Wings or return home to Russia.

“I'm not thinking about two days or how many days,” he told reporters after Thursday's loss. “I need a little bit cool down and emotions go out and start thinking about it more.”

Even at 37, Datsyuk made a significant contribution to the Wings this season. And his departure would leave a hole in their top-six that would be difficult to fill.

But it would create an even bigger problem on the business side. If he bolts, the Red Wings would still be on the hook for a $7.5 million cap charge because of rules governing contacts signed by players who are 35 and older. Money for nothing, especially under a static ceiling, would be devastating to Detroit's chances next season.

It's possible that his rights could be traded to a team that is looking to reach the cap floor, but no one's going to do the Wings any favors. To take that hit, they'd demand that a significant asset come along with him. That means a solid prospect or a high draft pick, possibly a first rounder. That'd be painful, but that's a price Detroit may have to pay to reclaim that cap space. They'll need it, either to add another veteran (Stamkos is an option as a UFA) or to re-sign some of their own restricted free agents. Forwards Riley Sheahan and Teemu Pulkkinen, defensemen Danny DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko, and goaltender Petr Mrazek will all need new deals this summer, and with $58 million committed to just 16 players, there's not a lot of wiggle room.

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Each of those players is part of a promising young core (all are 24 except for DeKeyser, who is 26) that gives the Wings hope for the future. Mrazek, in particular, is key. Though he struggled towards the end of the season, he put his name in the Vezina Trophy discussion early on and was solid when called on to replace veteran Jimmy Howard in the playoffs. He looks like the answer between the pipes moving forward.

Mrazek wasn't the only youngster to make significant strides. Dylan Larkin exceeded all expectations in his rookie season. Though he slowed down considerably after the All-Star break (not an unusual development for a college player who is used to a shorter season), he established his credentials as one of the top prospects in the game. His skating, smarts and mature two-way instincts suggest he'll be a star in this league, likely sooner than later.

Andreas Athanasiou showed flashes of brilliance, and the kind of game-breaking speed that could make him one of the rare players worth the price of admission. There were blemishes apparent in his game, especially away from the puck, but nothing that can't be smoothed over by experience and coaching. He has a chance to become an exciting part of their top-six.

Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin on rare fast track to stardom with Detroit

So does Anthony Mantha. The 21-year-old winger is still wildly inconsistent, but he notched a couple of goals in a late-season call-up that suggested the two-time 50-goal scorer with Val d'Or could translate those skills to the next level.

With veteran Kyle Quincey likely to leave as a UFA, Xavier Ouellet might be able to earn a full-time job on the blue line next season. The 22-year-old didn't make much of an impact during limited exposure this year, but he had a career-high 29 points in 61 games with AHL Grand Rapids. His high-end skating and transition skills could be a nice fit on the bottom pair.

All told, it's a decent group, especially considering that the Red Wings haven't had a top-10 draft pick since 1991. But it also hints at a painful transition ahead. The Wings are notorious for their slow-roast approach to their prospects, but the time has come to commit to the kids ... even if it means they don't extend the playoff streak to 26.

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