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Red Wings not ready to start selling -- yet

Chance at Stanley Cup Playoffs remains but time running short

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Ken Holland wants to be patient. He never has had to sell before the NHL Trade Deadline since becoming general manager of the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, and he wants to wait until almost the last moment before deciding what to do this season.

The Red Wings have one game in the week leading to March 1. So if they're out the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the last week of February, Holland will have plenty of time to maneuver then.

"I want to give our team every opportunity to try to play our way into the mix," Holland said.

But there is a sense of urgency when the Red Wings play the Boston Bruins at Joe Louis Arena in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

It is the first of five games in eight days that could have a significant impact on whether they give themselves a chance to make the playoffs for the 26th consecutive season and keep Holland from trading pending unrestricted free agents like forward Thomas Vanek before the deadline.

The Red Wings have 44 points, six behind the Ottawa Senators for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference and the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division; each team has two games in hand on the Red Wings. They are seven points behind the Bruins but have played three fewer games. 

Not only do the Red Wings play the Bruins on Wednesday, they play them at TD Garden in Boston on Tuesday and play the Maple Leafs at Joe Louis Arena 24 hours later. Win those games in regulation and the Red Wings will make up ground quickly. Lose them in regulation and they will fall even further back.

There won't be another potential swing like this until after the trade deadline. The rest of the Red Wings' division games are in March and April.

"I think my first year in [Minnesota], we had a two-percent chance of making it in and we put a good second half together and we were right back in the picture," said Vanek, who played for the Minnesota Wild in 2014-15, when they had 43 points through 43 games, rallied to make the playoffs and defeated the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round.

"I understand the outside the criticism, where you look at this team and you say it's not a playoff team," Vanek said. "At times, the way we play, we're probably not. … But the good thing here is, we have great leadership. We do believe in each other. We know we have to get better and work. But when we do things right, we can win games against the best of them."

The Red Wings have been the opposite of the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, with a poor home record, lots of injuries, a struggling No. 1 goaltender, the worst power play in the League. Lots of things have gone wrong for them.

But they're starting to get healthier. Goaltender Jared Coreau has come up from Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League and has two shutouts in his past four games. There is still life at Joe Louis Arena in its final season.

The Red Wings gave up a goal 27 seconds into their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. They fell behind 2-0 in the second period. But they tied the game 2-2. They trailed 3-2 later in the second. But they came back again and won 6-3, and the place was jumping. 

Then they defeated the Montreal Canadiens in a grinding 1-0 game at home Monday, giving them back-to-back wins against the defending Stanley Cup champions and the first-place team in the Atlantic.

Maybe it's too late already. Maybe the hole is too deep and there are too many teams to leapfrog to make the playoffs again. Maybe Holland will have to trade his pending unrestricted free agents -- Vanek, Drew Miller, Steve Ott, Brendan Smith -- to gather assets for the future. Maybe he should make more moves to clear out veterans and open opportunities for younger players.

Vanek, 32, has been traded prior to the deadline before, when the New York Islanders sent him the Canadiens in 2014. He is the Red Wings' most attractive chip with 30 points in 33 games. He knows the deal.

"I like it here," Vanek said. "I enjoy my time here. I like the guys. My family likes it here. So obviously I'm hoping to put a good streak here together to get ourselves back in the picture so I can be here. But obviously I understand the business side of it. … If I'm moving, I'm getting pretty good at that too."

But the Red Wings aren't giving up yet.

"We have enough good players," captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "It's a hard task that we have in front of us, but we still have a chance."

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