Detroit — Despite the disappointment of losing in overtime of Game 7 to the Chicago Blackhawks, there was an overall air of optimism as the Red Wings left Joe Louis Arena Friday after cleaning out their lockers.
“I think you look back last year standing here, Nick (Lidstrom) retiring, Homer (Tomas Holmstrom) retiring, losing Stuie (Brad Stuart), you didn’t really know what to expect this year,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “So standing here now going in for next year, I think you’re a lot more positive. We know we have a good group of guys here. Make some additions this summer and keep building on what we have. We know we’re going to do good things.”
While everyone expected the Wings to go through a painful transition period, they seem to be a bit ahead of schedule on their rebuilding efforts.
The fact is that the Wings can’t build the way the remaining four teams standing — the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins — did, precisely because they’ve made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons and counting.
Those other four teams have had top three draft picks, the players who are expected to turn into stars.
“We haven’t picked in the top 14 since 1993,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “We don’t have a guy coming through the system that I’m going to say to you is a superstar that we can plant in the middle of the locker room. We’ve got to grow them. We’ve grown (Pavel) Datsyuk, we’ve grown Zetterberg, we’ve grown (Niklas) Kronwall, we’ve grown (Jimmy) Howard, we’ve grown (Darren) Helm, (Justin) Abdelkader.
“We’ve got the Tomas Jurcos and Riley Sheahans and Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, they’ve got to come through the system just like Kronwall and Zetterberg and Datsyuk did. There are no quick fixes.”
Before the salary cap, owner Mike Ilitch made sure the team was able to go get players like Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, etc. No team can afford to do that now.
Early on, the Wings also had the advantage in European scouting. Now every team scouts and picks European players.
This season, injuries to veteran players like Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson, Darren Helm and Ian White opened the door for the Wings to incorporate young players like Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff.
Many of those players were put in major roles during the postseason and gained experience that can’t be taught in practice or even regular-season games.
“I felt like with the young guys that came in and stepped up, played important roles on our team and they were a big reason why we got into the playoffs and got to the second round and took Chicago to Game 7,” Justin Abdelkader said. “Hopefully we can build off of that for next season and take that momentum and the experience of the Game 7s, which were big for us, and they’ll be helpful for us.”
Also vital to the Wings’ success were Danny DeKeyser, the defenseman from Western Michigan who signed as an undrafted free agent at the end of March.
“I was so impressed,” Daniel Cleary said. “Playing and coming into the NHL as a defenseman is not easy and he came in and he played so well, his attitude and his confidence and he’s such a great kid. He really gets it. He’s going to be a great pro, he’s going to be a great Red Wing. His ability to make plays and passes and his skating and his steadiness, he’s only going to get better.”
The Wings got an offensive boost from Damien Brunner, the 27-year-old player who dominated the Swiss League.
“It was exciting and a lot of fun, I mean, my first NHL season and I get a chance to play with the Red Wings,” Brunner said. “It was an honor to put that sweater on and I’m happy that it turned out the way it did.”
The Wings hope to re-sign Brunner, an unrestricted free agent. Valtteri Filppula is a question mark as another team might offer him more money than the Wings can afford. Cleary and Drew Miller are also unrestricted free agents.
Whatever happens with the free agents, the Wings’ leadership with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Kronwall and Howard is established, the young players have improved, there are more kids on the way and Holland will always be looking to improve the team.
“We did a great job and I think we improved our roster drastically and I think we’re in a much better spot than we were and yet we haven’t been a final four team since ’09, so we’re a work in progress and trying to get better,” Babcock said.