The Detroit Red Wings missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 26 seasons, but the organization still won a championship, a positive step for the future.
Grand Rapids, the Red Wings affiliate in the American Hockey League, won the Calder Cup for the second time in five years by defeating Syracuse on Tuesday. There were Red Wings jerseys in the sellout crowd of 10,834 at Van Andel Arena. There were octopuses on the ice.
Most important, there were prospects competing at a high level, and another wave of prospects learning firsthand what it takes to win in the playoffs as a professional.
"We had a very disappointing year in Detroit," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said Wednesday. "At least two hours away in Grand Rapids in the state of Michigan, with some players that are going to end up to be Red Wings down the road, they got to play hockey until the middle of June."
The Red Wings finished 14th in the Eastern Conference. They want to compete for a playoff spot in 2017-18, when they move into Little Caesars Arena. That's realistic if players like forward Justin Abelkader and goaltender Peter Mrazek improve, and forwards like Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha take another step.
But they know they aren't Cup contenders. To reach that level again, they need to draft, develop and think long-term.
That's why Holland has told Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee he will not trade assets to keep McPhee from taking anyone in the NHL Expansion Draft. The Red Wings will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender when Holland submits his list by 5 p.m. ET on Saturday. McPhee's selections will be announced at the NHL Awards on Wednesday.
"We're going to submit it, and he can pick a player," Holland said.
That's why the NHL Draft in Chicago on June 23 and 24 will be critical. The Red Wings have the No. 9 pick, their highest since they selected forward Martin Lapointe No. 10 in 1991, and picks in each round afterward, including four in the third and two in the sixth. They must use them wisely.
And that's why the Calder Cup victory was encouraging.
Video: DET@PIT: Bertuzzi pads the lead with PPG
Forward Tyler Bertuzzi, 22, a second-round pick (No. 58) in 2013, won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. He had 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 19 games.
Center Tomas Nosek, 24, an undrafted free agent, had 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists), ranking third in the playoffs in scoring. Forward Evgeny Svechnikov, 20, a first-round pick (No. 19) in 2015, had 12 points (five goals, seven assists).
Each is likely to play for the Red Wings at some point next season. One or two could make the team out of training camp.
Goaltender Jared Coreau, 25, an undrafted free agent who played 14 games for the Red Wings this season, went 15-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. He could be in the mix with Mrazek and Jimmy Howard, depending on what happens this offseason.
"It was an important run for Jared Coreau's career and confidence," Holland said. "We'll see what goes on with the goaltending."
Video: DET@BOS: Coreau extends the pad to deny Marchand
Dominic Turgeon, 21, a third-round pick (No. 63) in 2014, established himself as a defensive center and penalty killer.
Joe Hicketts, 21, and Dan Renouf, 23, each an undrafted free agent, played in the top six on defense. Hicketts is listed at 5 feet 8, 180 pounds, but played twice for Canada in the World Junior Championship and captained the team once.
"He's undersized, but he wants to be one of those small players that defies the norm," Holland said.
Then there were defenseman Dennis Cholowski, 19, a first-round pick (No. 20) in 2016; center Axel Holmstrom, 20, a seventh-round pick (No. 196) in 2014; defenseman Filip Hronek, 19, a second-round pick (No. 53) in 2016; defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, 20, a third-round pick (No. 73) in 2015; and forward Givani Smith, 19, a second-round pick (No. 46) in 2016.
Holmstrom played four games, Hronek two, the others none for Grand Rapids in the playoffs. But each spent time with the Griffins and Red Wings director of player development Shawn Horcoff. Holmstrom, Hronek and Saarijavi each likely will play in Grand Rapids in 2017-18. The others likely will go back to junior, but will be more prepared for when they eventually reach the pros.
"This is a fabulous experience for those guys," Holland said. "Even though they didn't play in the games, they did the next best thing. They're practicing every day. Shawn Horcoff gets to take them to the gym every day. They're traveling. They're living it."
The Red Wings want to keep a winning culture at all levels of the organization, trying to contend for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and eventually the Stanley Cup again. Hoisting the Calder Cup does nothing but help.