Red Wings: The Anatomy of a Rebuild

What does a rebuild of an NHL hockey team entail? If you are a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, you probably know that it’s not pretty. The Wings have been “rebuilding” for the last couple of years, and they are steadily getting worse. This season has been what most fans hope is the bottom of the rebuild. It ought to be the bottom because there isn’t anywhere to go but up.

This article is going to investigate what an NHL franchise rebuild entails, giving you some insight into what to expect in the coming years, and how long the whole process should take if everything goes to plan. General manager (GM) Steve Yzerman has given some insight into his vision of this process and has presented a long-term solution to the problems facing the team, but he keeps reminding everyone to have patience.

Steve Yzerman, Christopher Ilitch
Steve Yzerman and Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. after Yzerman is introduced as the new executive vice president and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The results fans are looking for will take some time.

Where Does a Rebuild Begin?

Rebuilding the Red Wings began quite a while ago. But it didn’t start in the direction that it probably should have. The previous GM of the Wings was Ken Holland.

Holland deserves a lot of credit for maintaining the team as a juggernaut during his tenure as GM. The process of building the Wings into a Stanley Cup contender started in the early ’90s under Bryan Murray. It continued through the ’90s under Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman until June 18, 1997, when Holland took over as the GM. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Holland’s Red Wings won three Stanley Cups (1998, 2002 and 2008) and extended their playoff-appearance streak an astounding 25 years in a row, before finally being ousted in 2016.

Related: Steve Yzerman – The Captain

Rebuilding the team began sometime after the 2015-16 season when the Wings management realized their talent had both aged out of contention, and they were woefully short on talented draft picks to use as collateral to bring talented players to the team. Up until that point, Holland was trying to keep a team knitted together to keep the playoff appearance streak alive. When the streak ended, it was clear that the team needed an overhaul.

General manager Ken Holland
Ken Holland (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Unfortunately for the Red Wings and their fans, Holland had used many different contract negotiation techniques to hold onto the minimal talent that he had in the years just before the streak ended. No-trade clauses and long-term contracts were given to players to entice them to re-sign with the Wings with the hopes of continuing the streak. When it ended, the Red Wings were left holding onto players that they couldn’t move because of the no-trade clauses and because the players weren’t worth their contract value. Teams weren’t willing to take on inflated contracts for players that weren’t producing at the NHL level.

The real rebuilding of the team began with the hiring of Yzerman.

The Situation Under Stevie Y         

Yzerman came into the organization last summer and started observing the team. His first pick in the NHL draft was Moritz Seider, a highly sought-after defenseman who is to be the team’s replacement for Nicklas Lidstrom. While Seider was a controversial pick at the time (he was predicted to go 12-15th, but Yzerman took him with the sixth pick), he has turned out to be everything management thought he could be.

Related: Steve Yzerman’s Best Lightning Trades

Throughout the preseason, he refused to name a captain of the team, and he continued throughout the regular season without a captain. Players have stepped up as the alternate captains, but nobody has shown enough leadership to get the “C” during this season. This may also be a ploy to attract talented veterans to sign as free agents. Players who are playing with the likes of Sidney Crosby or another superstar, and have no chance of wresting the “C” away might be persuaded to join the Red Wings where they have as good of a chance as anyone to earn the title of Captain.

There have been calls from the fans and the media to fire coach Jeff Blashill, but Yzerman has fended them off with stoic determination, stating that he thinks Blashill is doing as good of a job as he can given the players he has.  There isn’t much doubt about the truth of that statement. The Wings have been dealing with one of their worst seasons for injuries, causing them to play most of the season with a team laden with AHL players. Blashill has shown an aptitude for developing and getting the best out of those players, even though it isn’t enough to win most games.

Jeff Blashill Detroit Red Wings
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yzerman has made a few trades throughout the season, bringing Robby Fabbri and Brandon Perlini to the team, then traded Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green at the trade deadline for several second-round pics and Sam Gagner, while claiming Dmytro Timashov on waivers from Toronto.  These moves won’t impact the Wings’ success this season, but they poise the Red Wings for success moving into the future.

Where Do the Wings Go from Here?

There isn’t much doubt that the Red Wings will be making moves over this off-season. They need to rebuild the core of the team and put pieces around their talented players like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha that will allow those players to have the levels of success that they should be having.  When the rebuild is nearing completion, expect to see Larkin and Mantha putting up at least double the production that they are currently.

Dylan Larkin Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Wings need defense desperately. With young prospects like Lindstrom and Seider, the team is prepared to make the moves to bring solid veteran talent to the squad. Pairing an offensive defenseman with Lindstrom, who is more of a stay-at-home type, and pairing a defensive defenseman with Seider who has legitimate scoring talent, could help shore up the core of the defense.

Goaltending is also a significant point to address. Howard is on his way out, having only two wins on the season at this point, and Bernier is an excellent backup goaltender at best. Playing Bernier as an every-night goalie is going to burn him out, in a very Jimmy Howard-esque manner over the next couple years.

That also falls back onto the lack of defense, but if a Stanley Cup contender type goalie comes available in the next couple years, don’t be surprised if the Wings go after him with vigor.

Elias Lindholm, Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
Calgary Flames center Elias Lindholm celebrates his goal in front of Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal)

This process is going to take a while. Yzerman has said it could take four or five years. Contracts have to end so they can be renegotiated. Young players have to develop into complete NHL players. Free agents have to be signed and trades need to happen.

None of those things can happen in one season when a team is as far gone as the Red Wings are. So, if you are a Wings fan, strap in and hold on for a bumpy ride over the next few years. Enjoy the good games the team plays, and try to look for the good when there isn’t much happening. We’re on the way up from here, but it’s a long road.