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Red Wings Future Lies in Ability to Forgo the Past

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For Detroit to continue to properly re-build, it may require some sacrifice

Anaheim Ducks v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Red Wings and their fans have enjoyed their fair share of success and memorable moments over the last quarter-century of competition in the NHL. Personally, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t periodically re-watch videos of the infamous brawl against Colorado in ‘97, or when Yzerman handed the Stanley Cup to Vladdy a year later, or one of the numerous Pavel Datsyuk highlight reels available on YouTube from time to time.

While reminiscing of glory days gone by à la Uncle Rico may not be healthy in large doses, there’s certainly nothing wrong with looking back in remembrance of happier times. And we as all know, we certainly needed more than a few pick-me-ups during the 2017-18 season.

However, last season’s shortcomings in Hockeytown didn’t come as much of a surprise to many of the faithful, and it also allowed the Red Wings to land a pretty fortuitous haul in the 2018 NHL Draft. If you couple this year’s exciting draft class with the previous two, there are some promising prospects ready to start challenging for roster spots sooner rather than later.

But if history has taught us, die-hard fans of the winged wheel, anything, it’s that Ken Holland loves his veteran players, for better or worse. There’s definitely a large part of the fan-base that feels that the addition (er, re-addition) of Thomas Vanek and the the contract extension of Mike Green will once again take away coveted roster spots from promising young and exciting talent.

In my honest opinion, this year’s free-agency signings don’t necessarily indicate the feeble attempt of hopelessly grasping on to past success in the same vein as some of Holland’s previous July 1 contracts. I don’t believe that our general manager is as delusional as most think that he is. At the very least, Holland may be less delusional now than he was two to three years ago.

To put it bluntly, he knows his team isn’t going to compete for the Stanley Cup in the immediate future.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press last week, Holland stated that he believes there can be a balance in Detroit of both youth and veterans:

“We signed some veteran players because it’s important we have some veterans around our kids, but at the same time, it’s important that those kids get an opportunity. We believe we can make both things happen.”

So how can the the Wings, a team that is once again projected to be one of the oldest average aged rosters in the league in 2018-19, continue to re-build into younger and more competitive squad? Here are some thoughts on some possible scenarios.

The captain calls it quits

Let me be clear, I don’t want to see Detroit’s bearded-leader hang up his skates in 2018-19, but I can also see the silver lining if it were to become a reality. Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t officially hinted at a possible “retirement” other than he will continue to play as long as his back/health allows him.

But yet there seems to be an unshakable feeling among many that the small possibility of the beloved Swede not returning exists. However, it’ worth noting that “Hank” was recently spotted on Erik Karlsson’s social media swinging his golf clubs in Scotland with some familiar faces.

Zetterberg, who will turn 38 in October, hasn’t missed a regular-season game in any of the past three seasons, will undoubtedly do what is best for himself and the organization. “Z” carries on the proud tradition of Detroit captains/legends that came before him and I personally can’t see him just abruptly leaving and creating another financial crunch for the team. However, if his lingering back-issues preventing him from playing the entire 2018-19 season, LTIR seems a much more believable reality.

Ansar Khan of MLive proposed an interesting roster projection that would be contingent on Zetterberg not participating in the upcoming season during a recent Q&A:

Here’s what I came up with just the other day while scribbling some stuff on a napkin at Starbucks:

Anthony Mantha-Dylan Larkin-Filip Zadina

Andreas Athanasiou-Frans Nielsen-Michael Rasmussen

Gustav Nyquist-Darren Helm-Thomas Vanek

Tyler Bertuzzi-Luke Glendening-Justin Abdelkader

Extras: Martin Frk, Luke Witkowski

It’s a bold, but enticing roster. Chances are the opening-night lineup wont look exactly like this, but possibly by the end of the season or at the beginning of 2019-20 it could be a bit closer to the truth.

Bringing Vanek back insures a skilled and veteran presence to help mentor the Wings’ youth in the possible absence of Zetterberg, but it surely doesn’t replace him. When Zetterberg does indeed decide to call it a career, it will be a huge part of closing a chapter of Red Wings’ history, but it will also help to begin the writing of new one also.

Trading youth for youth

It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when fans were hoping that players such as Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Petr Mrazek would be the names to help lead the Wings back to the promised land. As we now know, Tatar and Nyquist developed into decent and fan-favorites, while Mrazek became an expendable piece.

By trading Tatar to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the Wings were able to acquire Joe Veleno with the second to last pick of the first-round in 2018 NHL Draft. Veleno brings a lot of skill, speed, and depth to the center position and is a solid addition to a team in the midst of re-build.

So could Detroit trade a player like Nyquist or the recently re-signed Andreas Athanasiou? Ideally, the Wings would/should package one of the aforementioned names for a young puck-moving blue-liner such as Justin Faulk. It has been rumored that Detroit has kicked those proverbial tires on Faulk, and one would have to assume that either Nyquist or Athanasiou would be a name included in that deal.

It’s no secret that mobile, young, skilled, puck-moving defensemen are in high-demand these days, and the Wings are hoping that their 2016 first-round pick, Dennis Cholowski, can develop into that style of player - but it may be a long-shot.

Ideally, head coach Jeff Blashill’s defensive-system, like many NHL teams’, would run best with a solid zone breakout. Unfortunately, the Wings currently lack the player to make that type of scheme a successful reality.

The asking price for a Faulk or a Jacob Trouba may be too-rich for Detroit at the moment (assuming Trouba is even on the market, and he hasn’t been mentioned for a while), as most teams would certainly inquire about Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin before Nyquist and Athanasiou, but that’s not to say it’s not worth exploring.

Athanasiou is explosive and exciting, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s still more to be desired. Perhaps a productive 2018-19 campaign would drive up AA’s trade value, making it more enticing for a team willing to do business.

Nyquist, like Tatar, is a fan-favorite in Hockeytown. But also like Tatar, could become an acceptable expendable piece if the return is attractive enough. The “goose” can be a bit too soft/pushed off the puck at times, and in all honesty, could be challenged for a roster spot in the upcoming future.

The bottom line

Like most things in life, these above scenarios are full of what-ifs and not written in stone, but rather hypothetical situations that could help the Red Wings continue to develop into a fresh/modern-era NHL team. There are no easy answers or quick-fixes, and the team may not fare any better in the standings than they did last season - but there’s always hope.

And sometimes you may procrastinate or dread losing a favorite object, person or possession, but you can also find joy in the search and subsequent enjoyment of the replacement.