Gave: State of Red Wings? ‘Happy,’ according to GM Holland

At the break, a team many figured to finish in the middle of the NHL pack now ranks among the NHL's best teams.

Rick Osentoski

The leader of the free world may have had his hands full Tuesday night creating some optimism in this country with his State of the Union address, but this much we know after the Red Wings’ 5-4 shootout victory over the Minnesota Wild: The state of Hockeytown seems to be in the eyes of the beholder.

To a legion of doubters who predicted this was the year the Wings’ playoff streak would end, it’s a bit shocking. To a few veteran players and their coach who saw little happening last summer to improve their team through free agency, it’s more than pleasantly surprising.

But General Manager Ken Holland is more guarded in his appraisal of his hockey club, even as it vaulted itself to near the top of the NHL standings.

"I’d say we’re relatively happy where we’re at," he said, "but we have a ways to go."

Coach Mike Babcock was more effusive in his judgment.

"I don’t think any of us would have thought we’d be in this spot," he said. "And that includes the general manager and myself."

Especially, Babcock added, "in the offseason, when not much happened. It might have been a little disappointing to some. I know I heard from a couple of our veterans about it."

But the Wings were on top of the world Tuesday, winning a rare shootout after squandering a three-goal third-period lead. It was their fifth straight win and seventh in eight games.

"That last period here tonight was not that great, but we found a way to win," captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "We really wanted that second point tonight."

So at the break, a team many figured to finish in the middle of the NHL pack and have to claw its way into the playoffs now ranks among the NHL’s best teams. The Wings are second in the Atlantic Division tied with the New York Islanders at just a point back of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay. They’re just three points back of Anaheim, which led the NHL with 66 points.

"Obviously, when you look at the state of our hockey club based on the numbers, you have to feel pretty good," Holland said. "As we speak, we have 63 points in 47 games. Probably a third of our team is under 25.

"And we think we have some good prospects in the organization with kids like (Anthony) Mantha, (Dylan) Larkin, (Ryan) Sproul, and obviously (Petr) Mrazek. These are kids who have identified themselves as being pretty good playing against others in their peer years.

Not to mention rookies Teemu Pulkkinen and Xavier Ouellet, who gave fans in the 170th straight Joe Louis Arena sellout a glimpse of their bright future by scoring goals in the win over the Wild. It was an NHL first for Pulkkinen, the second for Ouellet.

Holland is entering his 30th year with the franchise, starting as a scout in 1985, has been around long enough to see patterns emerge. He feels like he’s watching another unveil itself before our eyes, but he remains guarded in his optimism. He was part of the effort from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, when the Wings painstakingly built a perennial Stanley Cup contender through the draft — and got a little lucky along the way with a franchise player like Steve Yzerman.

"By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the process started all over again," Holland recalled. "That’s when Datsyuk and Zetterberg showed up."

They were the backbone of a team that won the Cup in 2008 and went to Game 7 of the Finals the following year. Now they Wings are starting to see the same thing with a new crop of kids coming up and playing at a surprisingly high level considering most of those youngsters have less than a year of seniority in the NHL.

Forwards Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening are rising stars in this league. Ouellet joins them on the blue line. And Mrazek — 4-0 since Jimmy Howard went down with a groin injury — is establishing himself as Detroit’s goalie of the future.

Complementing those young legs that can get a bit over-exuberant at times is the extraordinary veteran leadership from guys like Zetterberg and alternate captains Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall. It all adds up to a proud franchise with a future threatening to meet its distinguished past.

"I’m proud that we’ve been the team that had 100 points for a league record 12 consecutives, that we’ve been in the playoffs 23 straight years," Holland said. "But…we’ve only won one playoff round in the last three years, and obviously our expectations go beyond that.

"Our ultimate goal is still to win the Stanley Cup. And as we wake up today, we’ve played our way into a position where we control our own fate."

Relatively happy indeed.

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