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Red Wings see bright future ahead

by Eric Gilmore /
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- His team's playoff run had just ended minutes ago Thursday with a painful 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, but Red Wings coach Mike Babcock couldn't help but look ahead to next season.

"I'm pleased with the effort," Babcock said. "I'm pleased with the growth of our young players, our high-end forwards. (Pavel) Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were fantastic in this series, which I think is really important, and they showed great leadership, which is fantastic.

"We still feel we have a really young core and an opportunity to get better. As we continue to change our organization and try to be current, we need these guys to be great."

The Red Wings' roster has some key players in their mid-to-upper 30s, as well as a few in their 40s. But Datsyuk is 32, Johan Franzen 31 and Zetterberg and defenseman Niklas Kronwall are 30. Then there's goaltender Jimmy Howard, just a pup at 27.

After watching the Red Wings sweep Phoenix in the first round then push the Sharks to seven games, Detroit general manager Ken Holland said there's certainly no need for a major overhaul.

"We still feel we have a really young core and an opportunity to get better. As we continue to change our organization and try to be current, we need these guys to be great." -- Mike Babcock

"The League is really, really, really close," Holland said. "Do we have to make some moves? You always got to make moves, but I think we have the nucleus of a good team. But I'm sure that 14 other teams in the West think the same thing. It's hard to make the playoffs and it's hard to win a round and it's hard to get to the final four."

The Red Wings may well have made the Western Conference Finals if they hadn't gotten off to such a slow start in their series against the Sharks, dropping the first three games. Six of the seven games were decided by one goal, and the other was decided by two, thanks to an empty-net goal.

"You know what? When we won the Cups we won games by a sliver, and when you lose you lose by a sliver," Holland said. "I think all seven of these games, any team could have won any of these games. Unfortunately, we got behind the 8-ball, 3-0. If we could have won one of the first three, who knows what would have happened. I think you keep doing what you do. We're going to have to make some moves, but we'll see."

Holland and Babcock will have to wait and see whether 41-year-old defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a six-time Norris Trophy winner, will be back for another season.

Let the lobbying begin.

"He has a lot of hockey in him still," Zetterberg said. "In my eyes he gets the Norris Trophy this year. It would be great to see him next year."

"I'm hoping he wants to come back," Holland said. "I don't think he's in any position to make a decision any time soon. Obviously we need to know before July 1."

Lidstrom scored 62 points this season, becoming the oldest NHL defenseman ever with at least 60. Even at 41, he still has more than enough skill to keep playing, but he said it will be a "tough" decision, just as it has been the last few years.

"I'm going to take my time with that," Lidstrom said. "I'm not going to make any decisions in the near future. We're going to have our year-end meetings that we usually have and talk to the coaching staff and management and decide what I want to do."

The Red Wings don't have to worry about their future in goal after Howard's rock-solid season and playoff performance.

"Obviously this is going to be tremendous for his growth," Holland said. "He's 27 years of age. He's really just coming into his prime. He's played a lot of big games -- Game 7 Phoenix last year, Game 7 (San Jose) this year.  You're down 3-0, four straight elimination games. He's really coming into his prime. We believed probably halfway through last year we had a real goalie. We rode him into the playoffs a year ago. So we think we have a tremendous goaltender."

Howard pointed to the improvement some of the young Red Wings made this season.

"Guys are starting to come into their own," Howard said. "Sometimes these bumps in the road, they make you stronger and they make you more mentally tough. Our young guys have improved all year long, and you just continue to strive to get better."

Thursday's loss left Babcock disappointed over what might have been if his team had advanced to the conference finals against Vancouver, but optimistic about what the Red Wings could accomplish next season.

"You thought in your heart and your mind you're winning for sure and moving on and having an opportunity in Vancouver," Babcock said. "I thought the team that came out of this series had a real opportunity at winning. You have very few chances to win. You want to be good on your opportunities."
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