DETROIT – As disappointed players cleaned out their lockers at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday, there was plenty of talk as to what went wrong and how the Red Wings can return to Stanley Cup contention next year.
Last Saturday, the Boston Bruins won their fourth straight game to eliminate the Red Wings in five games in their first-round series. The early exit means the Wings have been bounced in the opening round of the playoffs two of the past three years and haven’t reached the conference finals the past five years.
“First of all, we gotta stay healthy next year,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “We obviously saw some good things this year due to our injuries. I think we have some good kids down in Grand Rapids that’s going to be knocking on the door in September. I think right now if you look at the roster we have a good team, obviously we have to add on a few pieces, a few guys will leave and have a good summer, work hard and get back at it.”
Obviously, injuries were a big factor for the Red Wings, who squeaked into the postseason during the final week of the regular season. Their roster was decimated by injuries, but beyond that world-class athletes like Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were headliners on injured reserve for long stretches. While there was a time prior to the Olympic break that the Wings’ playoff hopes was on life support, the team was resurrected by a youth movement.
Young players like Gustav Nyquist, Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco made their marks during the regular season, and the forwards, in particular, came on strong in the second half of the campaign, but they must continue to grow if the Red Wings’ future is to remain bright.
But as shiny as the future may be for the young guys, the Wings really need their core group – Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm and Stephen Weiss – to return healthy.
“A big summer for our guys is absolutely critical,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We had so many injuries this year. So if you’ve been an injured player for a long period of time, if you’re Darren Helm, Franzen with a concussion, if you’re Z who’s had surgery, or if you’re Pav and you’re getting surgery or you’re not getting surgery, your conditioning is absolutely critical.”
Bothered by an injured left knee, Datsyuk struggled through the last four months of the season. The Red Wings gave him a month off after he returned from the Sochi Olympics but his power and quickness were absent against the Bruins. And even now the Russian star doesn’t know if he’ll have surgery or not.
“I need to do MRI and I need to do testing and we’ll see,” Datsyuk said. “Not sure yet.”
The roster will receive a shake up from an injection of young, free agents or both. Young players Sheahan and Luke Glendening will no longer be waiver exempt next season, and defensemen Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Alexey Marchenko and Mattias Backman will push for roster spots.
“Part of what’s going on here is a transition to youth,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “I’m going to go to Grand Rapids, they’re again in the American League playoffs. Some of the young players that haven’t been here are playing down there, but the first thing we have to decide is how many of these young guys in our organization are ready to play on our team at the start of the season next year. Times have changed in the National Hockey League in free agency. July 1 is a time for adding support players, secondary players. Teams now sign the best players to long-term contracts, they don’t hit the market. I told the team this morning a lot of what we’re going to try and do has to be internal. I think 29 other teams are going to be in the same boat as we are.”
According to CapGeek.com, the Red Wings have 17 NHL players already under contract for next season. They also have seven players – David Legwand, Daniel Alfredsson, Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary, Kyle Quincey and Jonas Gustavsson – representing $20.1 million in salary that will be eligible to hit the open as unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Previously, Alfredsson has said he will take a few weeks to decide his future. “You need time to get away from it,” he said. “I’ll talk to Kenny and Babcock later this week. Both sides want to know what the other side is thinking.”
The league’s salary cap is expected to grow by more than 10.5 percent to $71.1 million and that should help the Red Wings upgrade in some areas of need. Though it’s not a very deep free agency market, Detroit’s front office will have salary-cap space to go after a goal-scorer and a right-hand shooting defenseman to compliment a sable of lefties led by Niklas Kronwall and Ericsson.
“I don’t know if there’s really any big pieces out there available that really fits our team but if there is something I’m pretty sure that we will look at it,” Zetterberg said. “But in the same way I think the core team and the main part of next year’s team are in here now.”