By Dave Waddell –
It would’ve been appropriate had the Detroit Red Wings wore a question mark on the chests of their sweaters rather than the winged wheel this season.
Questions were the only thing the Wings had in abundance in a season where Nick Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart asked for a trade closer to home.
Could goalie Jimmy Howard survive without the greatest defenseman of his generation patrolling in front of him?
Would a no-name and young defense be able to headman the puck to a group of forwards who had their own question marks beyond Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen?
The questions that were perhaps the most important of all were whether this was still a playoff team and could they hang with the NHL’s big dogs?
After knocking out Anaheim, the NHL’s third-best squad in the regular season during the first round of the playoffs and taking the league’s best team, the Chicago Blackhawks, to overtime of a Game 7, the answers provided this season have to be considered encouraging.
The Wings overachieved and not by an insignificant margin.
In the playoffs, Detroit iced a team where three-quarters of the line-up was under 30. Half a dozen of those players had insignificant or no NHL playoff experience.
When was the last time a Wings’ team could claim that?
“That would be more than true,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock of whether he thought his team had overachieved.
“I thought the guys worked real hard. I thought it was a competitive group that tried to get better each and every day.
“Our leadership group – Zetterberg, Kronwall, Datsyuk – set the bar very high. In all the years I’ve been in coaching, I thought that group helped the coaching staff and their teammates as much as any group I’ve ever been around.”
Babcock, who is a shoo-in to be named Canada’s Olympic Team coach for 2014 in the near future, may have done his best coaching job since he joined the NHL.
He claimed no team he’s ever coached has experienced such internal growth and been more fun to coach.
It’s a testament to the professionalism of the Wings’ players to have persevered through a difficult regular season with admittedly a very demanding coaching staff. They have emerged from the other side having delivered a message that the expectations of the Wings’ demise is greatly exaggerated.
As painful as it was to witness at times, the Wings’ youth movement has proven to have much quality as well as substance. Detroit appears on the verge of doing the most difficult task in sports, retooling without tanking.
“We made mistakes but I don’t think we made mistakes because of lack of work ethic,” Babcock said.
“I thought we competed. I thought this group was spectacular as far as that and energy.
“I enjoyed coaching this year maybe as much as I ever enjoyed it. I had a great time.”
By season’s end, the Wings were icing a highly effective all-rookie line of Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner.
Rookie defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser have also emerged as central pieces while Jonathan Ericsson has established himself as a top-four defender.
With winger Tomas Tatar among the youngsters also pushing hard in Grand Rapids, which has reached the AHL league final for the first time in the Griffins’ history, the Wings have options.
More importantly, they enter the off-season with some answers.
“We’ve got some big decisions because there’s a push from below,” Holland said.
“When the season started last year, guys like Brian Lashoff, Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Smith, they were all in Grand Rapids. Tomas Tatar’s in Grand Rapids, we signed a Danny DeKeyser, there’s five or six players that at the start of the ‘12-’13 season weren’t on our roster. Those guys are all on our radar screen.
“Other than DeKeyser, they’ve all got to go through waivers. I’m pretty comfortable saying that none of them are going through waivers.
“We started the year with 23 players and you add those five, that’s 28, so we probably have 27 or 28 players.
“We’ve got some tough decisions to make and at the same time, obviously I don’t think it’s a big free agent market.
“So much like the Red Wings were built in the ‘90s, through the draft, you know Fedorov and Yzerman and Lidstrom and Konstantinov, we’re trying to do the same thing now.
“We’ve got to build through the draft.”
Of course this summer isn’t entirely about more youngsters coming forward. Holland has plenty or work to do in securing the services of several veterans.
Perhaps, he has no decision greater than Valtteri Filppula’s future.
Filppula is the great tease, giving glimpses of his talents, but never showing his gifts on a regular basis. If he wants more than $4-million a year he’s simply not worth it after such a dreadful season.
As swiftly as he skates and the versatile options he offers, Filppula is by far the softest player on the roster and the easiest to knock off the puck.
Other veterans like Dan Cleary and Drew Miller are tougher calls. Cleary, who is nicknamed Bear, had a great playoff and his character and grit cannot be questioned.
Only his ability to will his body through 82 games and playoffs is a question mark.
Miller has also shown what a useful player he can be and he’s vital on the penalty kill.
It’s a question of how far the Wings want to push their youth movement next season.
Others up for renewal include restricted free agents Smith, Andersson, Nyquist and Jakub Kindl along with unrestricted free agents Ian White and Damien Brunner.
Brunner was coy about his plans, but White certainly has played his last game as a Wing.
Like everyone, Holland wasn’t sure what he had on his hands entering this season. He likes what he’s seen and knows now where his club is in the NHL’s pecking order.
“My feeling is we’re in the thick of things,” Holland said.
“We’re not at the top of the heap, but we’re in a pile of teams, there are 24 of us in that pile. There are maybe three or four ahead of us in the class, but we don’t have those young studs.
“We don’t miss the playoffs to get those guys, so we have to go through a longer process”.