By Ashley Dunkak
JOE LOUIS ARENA (CBS DETROIT) – Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland summed up the state of the franchise succinctly Tuesday as players, unsmiling and quiet, milled around the Detroit locker room and packed up their gear.
“Nobody wants to be taking team pictures in April,” Holland said, less than 72 hours after the Red Wings lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
It is a point of pride that Detroit extended its postseason streak to 23 seasons, the longest such run in major pro sports in the United States. For an organization with 11 Stanley Cups, however, the standard is higher.
“Our best years, since I’ve been here, are [2007, 2008, 2009], and in that time we won I think 11, 16 and 15 playoff games, if I’m not mistaken,” head coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday. “We’ve got seven a couple times since but never been in the final four.
“That’s a five-year drought the way I look at it,” Babcock continued. “You can’t always be on top, but you can sure be going the right direction, and we have to get things going the right direction again.”
There is no way to say what might have been for the Red Wings this season, had injury after injury not derailed various players – most notably stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – in bunches throughout the year. As a result, Detroit turned to its minor league team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, for help.
Players in their early 20s – Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Danny DeKeyser, Luke Glendening and others – made major contributions for the Red Wings. Injuries should become non-issues over the offseason, but the Red Wings expect the influx of youth to continue and perhaps even accelerate.
“We’re going to be way younger than you’re used to,” Babcock said. “I think our veteran leadership is going to be Pav and Z and Kronner, and then we’re going to end up with a lot of kids on this team. I’m not certain going outside, unless you can get exactly what you’re looking for, is worth it when we got so much right here within. We think we can be a way better team just because of the growth right within our organization.”
Holland said that while fans dream of fast-fix free agent pickups in the offseason, it is simply not that easy.
“I think there’s this perception that July 1st free agents, there’s this hockey store, there’s this fantasy hockey league that I’m running, or playing in, that you can go get superstars,” Holland said. “Those days are over. That was a bit of the league prior to 2005. Those days are over.”
Detroit could trade away some of its prospects, of course, but Holland seems reluctant to do that.
“We’ll make a trade, but the trade’s got to make sense,” Holland said. “There’s no use me trying to trade three of these young players for one player, and you wake up in two years and those three players are going to be real players. Maybe these younger players are better than we think.”
In the case of two Griffins in particular, defensemen Alexey Marchenko and Ryan Sproul, it sounds like Babcock, at least, would like to see them in Detroit sooner rather than later. When Babcock got an inquiry about what he would most like to be added in the offseason, he did not hesitate.
“Right-hand shots,” Babcock said. “Marchenko and Sproul are right-hand shots that really can move the puck and play well. Are they guys that can fit in? I think that could help us.”
Another Griffin who could see more time in the 2014-2015 season is goalie Petr Mrazek, who played in nine games for the Red Wings this season. Regular goalkeeper Jimmy Howard had a rather rough year; both his goals against average and save percentage worsened, and he failed to duplicate the excellence he showed in last year’s playoff run.
“The bottom line is we need good goaltending, like every team in the league needs good goaltending, and so the challenge for him is to really compete off-season-wise,” Babcock said. “[Howard]’s 29 or 30 now, and so you got to work harder the older you get, in the offseason, to be that much fitter to improve your game.
“We need him to be back better than ever,” Babcock added later. “Whether Mrazek plays here or whether [backup Jonas] Gustavsson plays here – Gus got half our wins this year, so the bottom line is if you’re going to be playing every day, you’ve got to earn the right to play every day. And if you’re going to be a tandem, then that’s what happens. The other guy’s got to earn the right to have a half. So we’ll see what happens.”
The prospect whom fans most want to see might be 19-year-old Anthony Mantha. The Red Wings drafted him 20th overall in 2013, following a season in which he scored 50 goals and racked up 39 assists in 67 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. While Holland floated the possibility of Mantha coming to Detroit, the general manager also emphasized that Mantha has to prove he deserves the spot more than another player.
“If Anthony Mantha is ready to play in the National Hockey League next year and he beats somebody out, he’ll play in the National Hockey League,” Holland said. “But if he can’t beat anybody out, we’re not just going to put him on the team because he had a great junior career. I don’t believe in entitlement. I don’t believe in handing people jobs. I believe you come in and you take somebody’s job.”
Whatever changes the Red Wings make to try to improve upon the 2013-2014 season, Holland made it clear that most of the shuffling will take place within the organization.
“Part of our growth as a team has to be internal,” Holland said. “That’s just the game. That’s just, that’s the league that we’re in.”