Tomas Tatar (Bill Smith/Getty Images)
Detroit coach Mike Babcock is going to be a free agent, but if he wants to create a winner from the ground up, one of his best shots will be in Hockeytown. But if Babcock leaves, the Red Wings will be just fine because their promising prospects give hope for a brighter future.
Following Detroit’s Game 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told media that it was clear the current lineup is not as good as years past. For some fans, it caused concern that this was Babcock’s way of saying he’s on his way out, heading for greener pastures where there’s young talent that his coaching can mold and shape into perennial Cup contenders.
But maybe those concerns are a touch premature. After all, if you want to find a team with promising young talent coming down the pike, look no further than the Detroit Red Wings.
A question about the organization’s direction following three years of early playoff exits led to Babcock’s quote that stirred everyone up. Babcock, always blunt and honest with media, didn’t shy away from the question.
“Our team is not as good as it was,” Babcock told media following Game 7. “It’s very evident we battled our butt off to get into the playoffs.”
Babcock’s not wrong – he rarely is – but “not as good as it was,” doesn’t mean they can’t get back to where they were. While the stars of the roster are aging, Detroit is going to get younger in a hurry.
Already in the lineup, the Red Wings have a number of young players who could crack 29 other rosters in the NHL. Tomas Tatar, 24, scored 29 goals and 56 points in his second full season in the league. Gustav Nyquist, 25, potted 27 goals and 54 points just one season after bursting onto the scene with 28 goals in 57 games. Each of Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco found roles that they excelled in through parts of the campaign. And on the blueline, Danny DeKeyser looks to be a star in the making and he just recently turned 25.
Add to it that in goal, Petr Mrazek, 23, stole the starting job from Jimmy Howard and helped carry the Red Wings to seven games against a Lightning team that was heavily favored and you have the makings of a pretty good, young roster.
But looking deeper into Babcock’s post-Game 7 press conference, he knows this, too.
“You are what you are,” Babcock continued after Game 7. “(The Lightning) have a young team – they were bad here for long enough that they were able to rebuild it. They’ve got good young players and young players in key positions. Three of our best players are 34, 35, 37, so any way you look at it, we’re a team that has changed a ton of players. We’re a team that’s added a lot of youth to our lineup.”
In The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch issue, Detroit ranked ninth in the league for their crop of prospects. And that ninth place finish also comes as the Red Wings have six players within the top 75 prospects as ranked by polled scouts and GMs.
The issue for Babcock was who would replace his trio of aging stars – Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall. Babcock went so far as to specifically point out Datsyuk, one of the game’s greatest two-way stars and quite possibly one of the most offensively gifted and creative players of his generation.
“Who’s going to replace ‘Pav’?” Babcock asked. “In the end, you have to have big time players up the middle and on the back to be successful.”
But – and Babcock pointed this out, too – the Red Wings have those players coming. Over the next three to four years, Detroit will add to their current lineup with the likes of winger Anthony Mantha (sixth overall in Future Watch), center Dylan Larkin (10th), defensemen Xavier Ouellet (42nd) and Ryan Sproul (49th) and winger Teemu Pulkkinen (50th). Mrazek, who already has found his spot with Detroit, was ranked 71st.
There is never going to be a replacement for Datsyuk. There will never be another defenseman to suit up for the Red Wings that will bring exactly what Kronwall does. And Zetterberg, the team’s captain and leader, will be the last of his kind in Detroit. But that offers the chance for new players to step up, like Tatar and Nyquist already have.
Concerns in Detroit? There shouldn’t be many. While the defense is a bit thin, that’s nothing that can’t be solved through good drafting and some savvy free agent acquisitions or trades. Babcock may very well choose to go and mold a different crop of players, and if that’s the case the Red Wings, and their promising prospects, will be fine without him.