As the Detroit Red Wings emptied their lockers one day after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, coach Mike Babcock didn't appear overly heartbroken about the end of his team's season.
Babcock said he planned to spend time with his family and "do as much water skiing as humanly possible" this summer. But he's eager to get back to work in the fall, and he agreed with the assessment that his team exceeded expectations in what was largely expected to be a rebuilding season following the retirement of defenseman Niklas Lidstrom and the departure of veteran forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Jiri Hudler.
"I don't think we made mistakes from a lack of work ethic ever this year. I thought we competed. I thought this group was spectacular as far as that and energy. I enjoyed coaching this year as much as I ever enjoyed it. I had a great time," Babcock said Thursday. "Obviously I was disappointed, but we're proud of what happened here.
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"I also think we revitalized our fan base a little bit. We don't have to talk about the past; we can talk about the present. Sometimes when you've been so successful for so long, you get hung up on the people that went before you. It's about who's here now and we've got a good group."
More than anything, that group went from struggling to find its way early in an abbreviated season to coming within one overtime goal of advancing to the Western Conference Final. The balance that emerged on this team relied primarily on the leadership of returning veterans as well as the play of a strong rookie class that included Danny DeKeyser, Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner.
"Our leadership group, [Henrik] Zetterberg, [Niklas] Kronwall, [Pavel] Datsyuk -- those guys set the bar very high. I think that group helped their coaching staff and helped their teammates as much as any group I've ever been around," Babcock said. "Our upgrades this year were from within, not outside. Obviously signing Brunner and DeKeyser were big coups for us. They both became impactful guys for our team."
Not surprisingly, the end of the season was followed by disclosures that several players were coping with injuries. General manager Ken Holland revealed that Kronwall was banged up and forward Daniel Cleary was suffering from a second-degree separated shoulder and a fractured finger. DeKeyser, who impressed Babcock with his play after being signed following the end of his college season at Western Michigan, missed the series with a hand injury but might have been able to return for the conference final.
Forward Valtteri Filppula reportedly suffered a high-ankle sprain in Game 7 against the Blackhakws, and goalie Jimmy Howard had a pulled hamstring at the end of the first-round series against the Anaheim Ducks.
Cleary's situation is complicated by his impending free-agent status, though the 34-year-old sounded like a player who wants to be back in the fall.
"My shoulder feels better. Everybody is kind of dinged up," said Cleary, a first-round pick in 1997 who bounced around before finding a home in Detroit eight years ago. "Taking off the jersey in Chicago, I had to take a minute. I don't want to get too emotional, but the relationship I have with Detroit is very special for me."
The biggest adjustment for the Red Wings next season will be a move to the Eastern Conference. Babcock has already begun researching what he and his team can expect in the East next season.
"I talked to [former Detroit assistant and current Ottawa Senators coach] Paul MacLean; he says it's more physically demanding right from the get-go as far as fighting and physicality," Babcock said. "We'll be excited for short trips and good sleeps."