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Red Wings determined to avoid this outcome next season

Injuries contributed to team missing playoffs for third straight year

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- If there's one thing that the Detroit Red Wings can all agree on, they do not want to be in this position at this time next year.

After missing the playoffs for the third straight year as the team continues to rebuild, the overwhelming feeling is disappointment.

"I would say one feeling is how much today sucks," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said bluntly. "It sucks. It sucks being out, it sucks not getting ready for the playoffs, it sucks having to answer these questions, it sucks having to have another meeting about how we're not good enough. I would say that more than anything else. Because the only people that can change that are us."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Coach Blashill on locker clean out day. #RedWingsFull video: https://t.co/9128FQCfem pic.twitter.com/d1ftvqYGcG

For one of the team's young leaders, today and this past Saturday's 7-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres is something that will stick in the team's craw.

"I think this day. The game against Buffalo. That kind of still stings for me," Dylan Larkin said. "We battled so hard all year and to have that one game leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I'm sure the fans who came, out of their mouths, too and the coaches.

"But you know what? We can't be here. It's been three years where we haven't been in the playoffs now. It's pro sports. The fans need us in the playoffs. We want to be in the playoffs. That's what it's all about. At some point, something's gotta click. I think for me, you could say it every year, but this feeling stinks and we don't want to be here again."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "We had a lot of guys that are hopefully going to be the future of this team take steps and play well down the stretch. That's the hope."@Dylanlarkin39 on locker clean out day.Full video: https://t.co/0BIR85l9dE pic.twitter.com/uCkhyRAfSY

The reality is the Red Wings finished with the fourth-worst record in the league at 32-40-10, the 28th-ranked penalty kill at 77.1 percent, the 19th-ranked power play at 18.1 percent, allowed the fifth-most goals with 277 and had the fifth-worst goal differential at minus-50.

"Certainly we got to cut the goals-against down," general manager Ken Holland said. "Everybody in there knows it. We got to be better on special teams, we got to be better in this. The reason we're out and we were out probably two months ago is we weren't good enough in enough areas. We know it."

Part of the issue, although not an excuse, was health as the Wings were hit right out of the gate with a rash of injuries and illness, particularly to the veterans on the blueline.

That forced rookies like Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts into difficult situations with almost no help.

In all, Mike Green lost 39 games to illness and injury, Trevor Daley lost 38, Danny DeKeyser lost 30 and Jonathan Ericsson lost 26.

Niklas Kronwall, the team's oldest player at 38, missed the first three games of the season but played the final 79 to finish with the most games played on the team.

It was the first season since 1996-97 that no Wings player appeared in all 82 games.

"If you look at the year, start out 0-7, 0-5-2, all of our defensemen were down," Holland said. "We had a lot of young kids, played fine, we had a couple of tough games in Boston, in Montreal, then our defense came back. We went 13-7-2, crawled our way back into it, got within four points of a playoff spot, started to get back and within a week or 10 days, we lost (Anthony) Mantha, Green and DeKeyser, all for six weeks. I don't know if we won more than two or three games in the next 15-20 and that was all she wrote."

Still, the Wings were competitive in most games, but often could either not close it out when they did have a lead, or could not come back to win.

Which is why when he was asked what needs to get better, Larkin was as blunt as his coach.

"Winning games. It's not simple but we have to find a way," Larkin said. "Everyone needs to take a step. We need that factor in one-goal games. Who's gonna score the two goals? Our power play needs to be better, especially in close games. That's on us. That's on offensive guys making offensive plays and defensive guys playing defense. We need all to be better at our jobs in that sense. We need a difference-maker, a guy to score that goal we need to put the dagger in, whether we're up a goal or down a goal."

Even when the Wings went through difficult stretches, they usually found a way to get back on the right track even if they couldn't sustain it.

It is that ability to persevere through adversity that builds mental toughness, something they will need moving forward.

"This is a hard league," Thomas Vanek said. "And I said it a couple of days ago when we talked. The reality is we're not good enough. You gotta bring something to the table to get better. A lot of it is those (young) guys, because the veteran guys, I can still play but I can't play like those guys can. That's the reality, too. This team will only go as far as those guys will take them. I think they're ready for it and they can do it."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "I love the game. I still think I can score 20+ goals in this league, help out these kids, be a good mentor, be a good leader. There's still something left in the tank for me." More from Thomas Vanek on locker clean out: pic.twitter.com/C1R6o3AmAb

Vanek missed 18 games due to various injuries as well or he might have contributed more than 16 goals and 36 points in 64 games.

Kronwall, who knows what it takes to win in the NHL as he was on the 2008 Stanley Cup championship team, said next season's goal still should be to make the playoffs.

"I think it's always has to be. If you don't have that goal going into the season, I don't know what you're doing," Kronwall said. "It doesn't matter what lineup you put on the ice, if you give your best effort each and every night, if you work as hard as you possibly can, that teams that works the hardest most nights wins. It doesn't matter what lineup you have, and I think we showed that down the stretch. We outworked the other teams. That's why we were able to get on a bit of a winning streak. It all comes down to hard work."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "I think it always has to be. If you don't have that goal going into the season I don't know what you're doing... It all comes down to hard work."Nik Kronwall on next year's expectations to make the playoffs: pic.twitter.com/noJFgAIqWP

Kronwall, who has yet to decide his future, said this season is an important one, both to remember the bad things that happened and the good things.

"I hope it's a reminder of how hard it is and how hard you have to work every day," Kronwall said. "You can have a few wins and you can score some goals, but if you're winning games, those goals, yeah, they matter maybe to you personally, but no one's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, he scored 20 goals that year.' Did they make the playoffs? Did they have a run? Where did they go?

"At the end of the day, you want to stand there with a Cup above your head. That's the only thing that matters. You want to get yourself into the postseason and give yourself a chance. We play hockey because we love the game but if you love the game of hockey, try playoff hockey. That's really what it is. Nothing beats playoff hockey.

"You can't beat it."

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