By Will Burchfield
Twitter @burchie_kid

For the first time in a long time, the Red Wings are gunning for the future at the cost of the present.

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Rebuild? Not quite, not yet, but the signs are there.

Detroit traded its leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek to the Panthers on Wednesday in exchange for defenseman Dylan McIlrath and a 2017 third-round draft pick, according to Bob McKenzie.

McIlrath, the 10th overall selection in the 2010 draft, brings size (6’5, 236-pound) and physicality to the blue line, but has struggled to find consistent playing time in the NHL. The 24-year-old was waived by the Rangers last month and has spent most of the 2016-17 season in the AHL.

Per Craig Custance, Detroit will get Arizona’s third-round pick (from Florida) if the Panthers make the playoffs. The Panthers are currently one point out of the second wild card.

Vanek, who signed a one-year, $2.6 million contract last summer, had 15 goals and 38 points in 48 games with the Wings. The left winger was a pleasant surprise after being bought out by the Wild at the end of the 2016 season, and Detroit parlayed his strong performance into two future assets.

In addition to the draft picks the Wings received in the Brendan Smith trade, the Tomas Jurco trade and as compensation for the loss of Mike Babcock, they now have 11 selections in the 2017 draft, including six in the top three rounds. It’s an ostensibly shallow draft, yes, but the Wings have a knack for finding overlooked talent.

Let’s be clear: Ken Holland never wanted to sell. Beholden to the organization’s winning tradition and its historic playoff streak, he afforded the Wings as much time as possible to make a push up the standings and save their season. But with 21 games to go and the team buried in 15th place in the East, nine points out of a playoff spot, the diagnosis was clear.

It was time to cut the cord.

A Vanek trade was rumored to be in the works for weeks, and Holland took his time pulling the trigger. The ultimate return might be underwhelming, particularly in what’s shaped us a seller’s market, but it’s worth remembering that plenty of question marks surround Vanek’s play.

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“As good as he’s been in Detroit, I think people still remember how he played in Montreal after that trade deadline deal with the Islanders (in 2014),” ESPN’s Craig Custance told 97.1 The Ticket on Wednesday morning. “At one point I believe he was a healthy scratch in the playoffs.

“He’s got some warts to his game defensively, too, so I think there’s a little bit of buyer-beware with Thomas Vanek just because you’re not getting that complete player. If he’s not contributing offensively for you come playoff time, then what does he really bring to the table?”

It also bears mention that in the aforementioned trade between the Canadiens and Islanders, Vanek, at the time a point-per-game player, reeled in a similarly underwhelming return: a prospect and a second-round pick. Considering all that’s transpired since, from a flameout in Montreal to a buyout in Minnesota, it’s not much of a surprise that Vanek didn’t net the kind of assets many Wings fans were hoping for.

As for the Martin Hanzal trade in which the Coyotes secured a first- and second-round pick from the Wild, the deal for Vanek isn’t really an apt comparison. Hanzal, by nature of playing center, is an inherently more valuable commodity, his inferior offensive numbers notwithstanding.

Vanek indicated on Monday that he intends to test free agency this summer, which, in theory, could lead to a reunion with the Wings. Theirs has been a productive marriage, and Vanek has said numerous times that he and his family enjoy living in the Detroit area.

But the trade complicates things. For one, Vanek suggested he’d be more inclined to re-sign if he weren’t dealt ahead of the deadline. Posturing? We’ll see. For another, the Wings no longer own Vanek’s negotiating rights and will have to wait, along with the rest of the league, to talk with him until the start of free agency.

By flipping Vanek now, they may have forfeited the chance to bring him back next year.

All that being said, it was the right move for Holland to make. At this point in the season, Vanek meant nothing to the team on the ice. His value was as a trade chip, plain and simple. So the Wings cashed in on his rising stock, selling reasonably high just eight months after buying low. That’s the kind of investment – conceptually, anyway – that allows for long-term success.

In a conversation with Fox Sports Detroit on Tuesday night, Holland stressed the importance of replenishing the organization’s pool of draft picks.

“You look at what’s gone on here with the Red Wings for the last ten years or so, we’ve always been spending picks at the trade deadline…so this is an opportunity, I think, to get some picks back,” he said.

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Don’t call it a rebuild, not yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.