The Detroit Red Wings still have a chance to make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 25th consecutive season.
But are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?
Nope. That ship has sailed.
Detroit’s top-end talent is aging rapidly and with few exceptions, those who will eventually take their place probably won’t develop to the level of the stars they are replacing.
So the next question is: Is trying to make it to the playoffs for a 25th consecutive season biting the Red Wings in the butt?
Let’s take it a step further. Would the Red Wings be further ahead by undertaking a rebuild ASAP or is keeping the streak alive really the top priority?
The problem with keeping the streak alive is, in an age when top draft picks and young players are paramount to building the foundation of a championship team everywhere except in Edmonton, the Red Wings have become one of those teams that is barely good enough to make it into the postseason, not good enough to win the Cup and, consequently, the recipient of a mid-first round draft pick. Teams like that can spin their wheels for years – just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The fact is the Red Wings have not been a serious contender for the Cup they have won four times in the past 18 seasons for a few years. They remain one of the NHL’s model franchises, but a rebuild of the on-ice product is required.
The team that has been capably led by captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for so long needs some fresh blood. Some high-end talented fresh blood, in fact.
Hank, as he is known around The Joe, is 34 and has clearly lost a step.
Datsyuk is 37 and he has slowed down even more.
Both are still good hockey players, but in today’s superfast game, Zetterberg and Datsyuk stand out more for what they can no longer do than for what they still bring to the table.
The problem is, unlike when Zetterberg and Datsyuk were part of the supporting cast on a team that was led by future Hall of Famers, the best candidates to replace them aren’t quite ready for prime time.
Dylan Larkin, who is the organization’s rising star, is unquestionably one of the best rookies in the NHL – and this is a very strong crop of freshmen. With 23 goals and 45 points in 79 games it is obviously to anybody who has watched Larkin make a seamless transition from college hockey to the NHL that he is a star in the making. But he is just 19 years old.
Anthony Mantha has decent upside, but his development has not moved at the pace the Red Wings envisioned when they chose him 20th in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The Red Wings have other goods prospects, too, the likes of Evgeny Svechnikov, the pesky Tyler Bertuzzi and Xavier Ouellet, but when The Hockey News ranked every team’s prospects this year, Detroit’s kids were 20th in the NHL.
It might actually help the Red Wings to finish a little lower in the standings in a transition season to get that elusive high pick. In the past five drafts, Detroit’s first picks were: 19th, 15th, 20th, 49th, 35th.
During the Red Wings time at the top of the NHL, it was often said they were a smart organization because they took their time with their prospects; forced them to learn the pro game in the AHL. A quick peak back, though, offers another possibility; with future Hall of Famers like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Igor Larionov, Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille, Slava Fetisov, Dominik Hasek and Chris Chelios playing ahead of them, the prospects simply couldn’t crack the lineup.
When players like Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey finally established themselves as full-time NHL players, they were good, but not great.
For years the Red Wings have received well-earned pats on the back for their ability to snag great players later in the draft. The list goes on and on and on: Zetterberg 210th in 1999; Datsyuk 171st in 1998; Ericsson 291st in 2002; Helm 132nd in 2005; Quincey 132nd in 2003; Gustav Nyquist 121st in 2008; Valtteri Filppula 95th in 2002; Jimmy Howard 64th in 2003; and Tomas Tatar 60th in 2009.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland and his scouting staff are to be congratulated.
But unless their prospects are going to take giant leaps forward in the next few years as Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall continue to fade, a change of direction might be the best bet.
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