Assessing the Detroit Red Wings’ off-season depends on what kind of person you are.
If you see the world sunny-side up, summer 2016 was a rah-rah moment for the franchise. The Wings, hovering around the playoff bubble for the past few seasons in the Eastern Conference, said goodbye to their best forward of the past decade, Pavel Datsyuk, but they brought in some veteran help. They threw $31.5 million over six years at center Frans Nielsen. They snagged Minnesota Wild castoff Thomas Vanek at the low-risk, high-gain price of $2.6 million over one year. They added center Steve Ott for veteran leadership. They re-signed speedy pivot Darren Helm and top blueliner Danny DeKeyser long-term. Detroit has made the playoffs 25 straight years and, to an optimist, the off-season sends the message the franchise wants a 26th berth. Maybe the Wings can ascend into something more than a bubble team if young center Dylan Larkin and goalie Petr Mrazek continue ascending and become organizational pillars.
The crabby pessimist, perpetually trailed by a rain cloud, isn’t so happy about the Wings’ summer. This team has finished with a .567 points percentage twice in the past three seasons, marking 16-year lows. The Wings haven’t picked in the top five at the NHL draft since Keith Primeau in 1990. They haven’t picked in the top 10 since Martin Lapointe in 1991. That’s 25 years, matching the playoff streak. Hardly a coincidence. The pessimist might say the Wings have become victims of their own success, which includes four Stanley Cups since 1996-97. They’re never bad enough to blow the operation up and rebuild around superstar draft picks, and they’re no longer good enough, it seems, for a deep Stanley Cup playoff run.
So who’s right? Will the Wings doom themselves to mediocrity if they limp forward with a good-but-not great roster, or are they on the cusp of a turnaround, fuelled by improving youth and an injection of free-agent talent? The person best equipped to tackle the topic is, naturally, Ken Holland, Detroit’s GM since 1997. And he’s refreshingly candid about the state of his team.
“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’” Holland said. “When you’ve got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Nielsen… we’ve either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may.