The Red Wings remain on the playoff periphery, too good to fail but not good enough for a Cup run. GM Ken Holland believes his team can ascend rather than descend, however.
Assessing the Detroit Red Wings’ off-season depends on what kind of person you are.
If you see the world sunny-side up, summer 2016 was a rah-rah moment for the franchise. The Wings, hovering around the playoff bubble for the past few seasons in the Eastern Conference, said goodbye to their best forward of the past decade, Pavel Datsyuk, but they brought in some veteran help. They threw $31.5 million over six years at center Frans Nielsen. They snagged Minnesota Wild castoff Thomas Vanek at the low-risk, high-gain price of $2.6 million over one year. They added center Steve Ott for veteran leadership. They re-signed speedy pivot Darren Helm and top blueliner Danny DeKeyser long-term. Detroit has made the playoffs 25 straight years and, to an optimist, the off-season sends the message the franchise wants a 26th berth. Maybe the Wings can ascend into something more than a bubble team if young center Dylan Larkin and goalie Petr Mrazek continue ascending and become organizational pillars.
The crabby pessimist, perpetually trailed by a rain cloud, isn’t so happy about the Wings’ summer. This team has finished with a .567 points percentage twice in the past three seasons, marking 16-year lows. The Wings haven’t picked in the top five at the NHL draft since Keith Primeau in 1990. They haven’t picked in the top 10 since Martin Lapointe in 1991. That’s 25 years, matching the playoff streak. Hardly a coincidence. The pessimist might say the Wings have become victims of their own success, which includes four Stanley Cups since 1996-97. They’re never bad enough to blow the operation up and rebuild around superstar draft picks, and they’re no longer good enough, it seems, for a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.
So who’s right? Will the Wings doom themselves to mediocrity if they limp forward with a good-but-not great roster, or are they on the cusp of a turnaround, fuelled by improving youth and an injection of free-agent talent? The person best equipped to tackle the topic is, naturally, Ken Holland, Detroit’s GM since 1997. And he’s refreshingly candid about the state of his team.
“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’” Holland said. “When you’ve got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Nielsen… we’ve either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may.
“If you’re going to do a massive rebuild – get a core of players that you think can carry your team for a decade – you’ve got to miss the playoffs five, six, seven years in a row. That’s what Pittsburgh did. That’s what Florida did. That’s what Chicago did. You can just go team after team. You don’t miss one year, and all of a sudden, ‘Boy, we’re back.’ ”
Holland has a point. Even if we accept the Wings are just as likely to miss the playoffs as they are to make them in 2016-17, this franchise is nowhere near rock bottom. It’s not in position to tank and bottom feed for half a decade. It still has too much talent. Larkin, whom Holland says will get a look at center in training camp, showed outstanding promise as a rookie. He won the fastest skater competition while representing the Wings at the 2016 All-Star Game and contended for the Calder Trophy before hitting a statistical wall in the dog days of winter. Same goes for Mrazek, who at one point in 2015-16 looked like a Vezina Trophy contender before his effectiveness fell off dramatically in the second half.
Holland points out that a significant number of the Detroit core – including scorers Tatar and Nyquist, checking centers Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening, D-man DeKeyser and up-and-coming forwards Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou – are 27 or younger. It may not be an elite youth crop following the Pittsburgh or Chicago model, but it’s not a roster you punt away to tank for superstar draft picks. Not by a long shot. With all the existing potential on his team, Holland decided to push forward instead of stepping backward this summer.
“My philosophy as a manager, and my owner’s philosophy is, ‘The Detroit Red Wings: we’re playing to win,’ ” Holland said. “We’re trying to be a playoff team. We’re trying to get in, give ourselves a chance to go on a playoff run. I guess at some point in time, when you miss the playoffs once and then twice and three times, maybe you determine we don’t want to just miss and pick 14th. Then we’d want to miss and pick sixth or miss and get a lottery pick. But right now we don’t want to pick 12th. We want to pick 16th or 18th or 20th. We want to be a playoff team. And I also think if you get in, once you get in, anybody’s got a chance. If we had started the playoffs in January, neither San Jose nor Pittsburgh would’ve been in the tournament.”
The way Holland sees it, with a couple of breaks, the franchise’s direction would be perceived far differently right now. The Wings have won a single playoff series in the past five years but led the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 in the second round of the 2013 playoffs and lost in overtime in Game 7. They led the eventual finalist Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 in the Atlantic Division semifinal in 2015 and lost in seven games, with top blueliner Niklas Kronwall suspended for the deciding contest. Who knows how far the Wings might have gone in those years?
And so Holland felt dipping into the free agent pool was a worthwhile pursuit this summer. That started with the versatile Nielsen, a relatively late bloomer with the Islanders. He became a full-time NHLer at 24 and has enjoyed his best years in his early 30s. He turned 32 in April, but his play hasn’t slipped a bit. He’s recorded at least 44 points in five straight non-shortened seasons and has received Selke Trophy votes every season since 2009-10. Holland said he sees Nielsen as the Wings’ No. 2 center at worst and quite possibly their top guy, a replacement for Datsyuk, who left for SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL.
“What we like about him is, we’ve always wanted our best players to play a 200-foot game, and he plays a 200-foot game,” Holland said. “He can play on the power play. He can play penalty killing. He’s going to backcheck. He’s good defensively. He appears to be a guy who gets 20/50 – 20 goals and 50 points. You’re always hoping people do a little bit better, but if you look at the NHL Guide and Record book, that’s where he fits.”
The Vanek signing obviously carries boom/bust potential. He fell out of favor in Minnesota and wound up bought out this summer. He’s fresh off arguably the worst season of his career. But he’s not too far removed from being one of the NHL’s better offensive weapons. Holland pointed out the Wings precipitous drop from first in power play efficiency in 2014-15 to 13th in 2015-16 and hopes Vanek can help there.
“He’s a big guy, he shoots right, and we don’t have a lot of right shooters,” Holland said. “He’s always been good on the power play. Last year, he had 18 goals. We’re hoping our offense will be lots of people who get 15 or 20 goals. Tatar and Nyquist maybe score a little bit more.
“We’re hoping we’ve got a guy who wants to prove people wrong. He’s not an age where he’s way over the hill. He’s certainly still young enough that if he’s motivated and puts in a good summer, we think he can be a real asset for us.”
If Vanek doesn’t deliver, and if Nielsen doesn’t prove worthy of top-line center status, maybe the Wings miss the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century. Holland doesn’t deny that possibility by any means. He knows the jig could be up any time. He insists no franchise can rely on late-round gems as an official strategy despite the fact his brain trust has hit with so many. He’s realistic. At the same time, he’s nowhere ready to roll over. He’s willing to make trade-deadline moves to upgrade his team in the short term next winter if he feels he has a contender on his hands. Parity in the NHL is so potent nowadays that we can see the Pittsburgh Penguins fire their coach mid-season and crusade all the way to a championship. We can see the Sharks miss the playoffs and come within two victories of a Cup the next year. We can see the L.A. Kings win it all as a No. 8 seed.
So while even Holland admits there may come a time when the Wings undergo an honest rebuild, that time is not now. And writing the franchise off hasn’t been the smartest idea in the past.
“I’m proud of the job that we do,” he said. “When Steve Yzerman retired in ’06, many people thought the ceiling was going to collapse. And then we kept it going, and when Nick Lidstrom left in 2010, they thought the ceiling was going to collapse. And now Datsyuk is gone, and they’re waiting for the ceiling to collapse. And at some point in time, they’re probably going to be right.”
But probably not yet. There’s too much upside on his team to quit on it.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin