For 25 years, the Detroit Red Wings were the example of a model franchise. Whether it be their Stanley Cup wins in the late-1990s or their ability to turn late-round picks into NHL stars, Detroit was the team everyone wanted to be.
But when the Red Wings failed to beat the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday evening, Detroit was eliminated from playoff contention for the third-straight season. The last time the team missed the playoffs in three or more consecutive seasons? They took the spring off from 1978-79 until 1982-83. To put that into perspective, a two-year-old Niklas Kronwall was the only current roster player that was alive at any point during that stretch. Suffice it to say, for fans hoping for Little Caesars Arena's maiden playoff voyage, this is uncharted territory. The Red Wings haven't been faced with this kind of rebuild in the modern era.
In terms of young prospects with a chance to make an impact, Filip Zadina is the man tabbed with leading the way. Zadina, the Red Wings' 2018 first-round pick (sixth overall), has had a season full of ups and downs. He had just one point for a Czech team that had high expectations at the World Junior Championships. He struggled to find his footing in the AHL out of the gate. But when he finally scored for Detroit against the Colorado Avalanche March 5, Zadina offered hope to a fan base that has been left without much optimism.
At this point, there’s nothing to suggest Zadina isn’t going to be a major factor in Detroit’s future, but he’s going to need a lot of help. The raw tools are there, and Zadina is a dynamic scoring forward who is very tough to slow down when he has the puck and has proven himself to be one of the best under-20 forwards in the AHL. He should be able to earn a spot in the top six full-time next year, even if they elect to start him in the AHL.
But if the Red Wings are going to make the rebuild work, they need to build a stronger base. The reliance can't simply be on Zadina. Much of Detroit's core – Darren Helm, Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green – is over 30, and the team is still without a promising young goalie for the future. It’s not like nobody saw this coming, either.
Since 2000, the team has gone without a first-round pick eight times, and since 2010, 23 of their 71 draft picks have gone on to play in the NHL, with nine of those players currently on their roster. In addition, the Red Wings have had just two top-10 picks since 1990: Zadina and Micheal Rasmussen. In Detroit’s case, sacrificing young talent was the price of success, and though it worked out for a long time, those days are long gone, and the Red Wings are no longer competitive.
The draft is far from the only method of obtaining young talent, of course, but it needs to be a building block for the future. There are some key players like Dylan Larkin already on the roster, but there's not enough to make this team a contender just yet. In the system now are Rasmussen, who spent the year in a depth role with the Red Wings, and Joe Veleno, both of whom look as though they will be impact NHLers at some point up front. There's likewise potential for Filip Hronek, Dennis Cholowski and Jared McIsaac to lead the charge from the back end. Signing Taro Hirose and Ryan Kuffner out of the NCAA adds to the prospect pool, but there are still a lot of “what-ifs” when it comes to depth in the system.
The 2018 draft was an exceptional one for Detroit, but that's not going to be enough. Detroit has 10 picks, including three in the second, for the draft in June, with a top-five pick essentially guaranteed at this point.
Is the future bright in Detroit? There are signs pointing towards that direction. But years of misery have proven to be the downfall from decades of success, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s been a challenging couple of years for the Red Wings, but the tides will truly start to turn if they manage to build around their young stars like Zadina for the future.