The Red Wings find themselves in a tricky position as the NHL's April 3 trade deadline approaches.
After dropping the last game of a previously perfect road trip on Thursday night in San Jose, the Red Wings are sixth in the Western Conference with 39 points. They're just five points ahead of the ninth-place Nashville Predators, but also just three points behind the Minnesota Wild for fourth -- which is the highest spot Detroit can realistically reach.
After the retirements of several stars recently -- including former captain and legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom last June -- the Red Wings are now trying to "rebuild on the fly," as general manager Ken Holland puts it.
That means any trade options this season will be weighed even more carefully than usual. Detroit isn't exactly a seller, but also isn't a lock-sure buyer.
"We're going to work the phones and explore if there's a move that can make us better," Holland told NHL.com this week. "I'm not going to make a move for the sake of making a move. We're a work in progress. We're trying to have patience, and the more we've been able to hang in the race … it maybe gives me more patience."
Much of that progress, however, was created by a spate of injuries -- including forwards Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson, whom Holland signed last summer in free agency. Helm and Bertuzzi have missed nearly the entire season with lingering back ailments and have undetermined timetables for returning, while Samuelsson should get back into the lineup next week after an extended absence with a non-displaced fracture in his index finger.
That's not to mention the shoulder injury that's kept another veteran free-agent acquisition, Carlo Colaiacovo, sidelined most of the season or defenseman Kyle Quincey's recently-fractured cheekbone. Power forward Johan Franzen also left the loss Thursday night in San Jose after the second period with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
So the injuries keep stacking up -- especially at forward -- and Holland is faced with a bit of a dilemma: Keep the status quo and find out if all the young guys who've helped get them to this point can keep it going, or see if there are moves that can be made for even more veteran help.
"I'm going to explore the market up front to see if there's a fit," Holland said. "I'm going to work the phones a little bit. I've talked to some people. All in all, we go back to last June when Lidstrom retired and we traded the signing rights to Brad Stuart. We thought when we signed Mikael Samuelsson and Damien Brunner and Jordin Tootoo … we hoped we would have more depth up front. We wake up today and we've been sitting out three, four or five forwards in a lot of games … and yet we're hanging in there."
They've also gotten good news about Quincey's facial fracture, which happened March 15 in Edmonton when he was hit in the face by the puck. It won't require surgery to correct and Quincey -- whom Holland acquired near the trade deadline last season for Detroit's first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft -- could be back in two weeks rather than missing the rest of the regular season. Holland mentioned that several times during a phone call on Thursday afternoon.
"I think we're at about 180 man-games lost to injuries and we're averaging six regulars out every night," Holland said. "They're starting to come back, but at the same time our kids have been given an opportunity and have done a tremendous job."
That leads right into the other part of the Red Wings' puzzle: At what cost would trading for another veteran be worthwhile?
The Red Wings, long known for making sure prospects are well-seasoned in the minors, have been forced to live outside their comfort zone because of the injury situation. They've put a number of young players into regular roles and gotten decent or better results from almost all of them.
Jakub Kindl, who just turned 26 in February, leads the team with a plus-17 rating, while fellow defensemen Brian Lashoff (22 years old) and Brendan Smith (24) have been solid as Detroit's second pairing -- notwithstanding a terrible turnover deep in their own end on Thursday night that led directly to the Sharks' critical second goal.
Up front, the Red Wings have gotten contributions from 24-year-old center Joakim Andersson -- filling in impressively for Helm on the third line -- along with 24-year-old Cory Emmerton, 23-year-old Gustav Nyquist and 22-year-old Tomas Tatar. They also got a sneak peek at exciting 21-year-old rookie goalie Petr Mrazek, who in two starts went 1-1-0 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
Those guys, plus a number of other Red Wings prospects and/or picks, are in Holland's stockpile of trade arsenal and are certain to come up in almost any talks he has with opposing GMs. Versatile forward Valtteri Filppula, who's 29, is also potential trade bait because he will become an unrestricted free agent this summer if not signed to a contract extension.
Detroit has been linked in trade speculation to veteran Calgary Flames defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Holland and his front office staff then must decide whether acquiring him would be worth it if the price were to include one of his young goaltenders -- Mrazek or 19-year old prospect Jake Paterson -- who dazzled for the Ontario Hockey League's Saginaw Spirit this season despite a rough showing in the playoffs.
"We've got a younger team and we're trying to rebuild it," Holland said. "We have to decide if now's the time … are we a playoff team, and not only that but is now the time to do something or should we continue letting the kids go? We've probably got better depth than we thought we did when the season started, and the [young players] are going to get better. So we're going to continue to evaluate."
If the right deal materializes, look for Holland to pull the trigger. If not, he can be content standing pat.
"Trades, to me, can't be forced," Holland said. "Trades happen because two sides each get something they want. Even if you think you have a need and want to do it, there has to be a fit. Somebody else has to have a need. It's a responsibility to work the phone and see what's available, but part of our deadline moves will be internal. We hope to get some of our injured people back."