Detroit Red Wings making progress in their rebuild, even if it’s hard to see day to day

Detroit Free Press

Shawn Windsor | Detroit Free Press

They were supposed to be a bit better this season, these young(ish) — and rebuilding — Detroit Red Wings. And, for the most part, they have been.

Even if their record doesn’t show it, even if they put forth a stink bomb as they did Friday night at Little Caesars Arena against the Florida Panthers, falling behind by three goals in the time it took to park the Zamboni after its pre-game cleansing of the ice.

It hasn’t been much fun to watch. Partly because the Wings’ best hope to compete is to muck up the rink and create a lucky bounce or two. Partly because several of the players who are supposed to reignite the franchise aren’t yet in town.

‘WE SHOWED UP AND BATTLED’: Wings respond after gut-punch losses on, off the ice

Hockey is like that most of the time. A team nabs a promising prospect near the top of the draft and the prospect doesn’t get to the big lights for a season or two.

It’s not like Wings fans can drive an hour to Toledo and see, say, defenseman Moritz Seider, the team’s first-round pick two years ago, like Tigers’ fans can drive there to see that club’s youngsters. Seider, taken with the sixth overall pick, is playing in the Swedish League, as is the Wings’ top pick from the 2020 draft, forward Lucas Raymond.

Those two may be tantalizing talents, but few have any idea what that talent will look like anytime soon. And for the prospects who are already here, progress is difficult to measure with an amateur’s eye.

Because lots of that progress comes in practice. Because subtle improvement in positioning and decision-making aren’t always noticeable in games.

Take Filip Zadina, the Wings’ top pick from 2018, who arrived via the Czech Republic and who has flashed a two-way feel all over the ice, and who has improved his understanding of how to play from a year ago even if it hasn’t translated into mathematically measurable production

Wings coach Jeff Blashill, told reporters last week that Zadina was gaining more confidence, “even in practice, you could see him making plays. When you are young, you value, probably, production, and as you get older you start to realize it’s all about winning. Not that he doesn’t want to win, he totally does. But a lot of times when you’re young you end up pressing for offense or cheating for offense, and I think he’s done a pretty good job of not doing that.”

[ How Filip Zadina’s game has evolved to help the Wings ]

So, yeah, it’s not the kind of leap that stirs the imagination. But understanding the fundamentals of NHL hockey is critical to wherever Zadina is headed.

The more he gets the basics down, the easier his natural gifts should flow. Still, watch him play now — he’s all of 21 — and the gifts aren’t hard to spot, and at this point in a rebuild in this sport, that’s about as good as it gets for youngsters, unless a team lands a generational outlier.

It’s too soon to say what the Wings have in their recent draft picks, obviously. And that’s part of the torture when watching an NHL team rebuild.

‘BEAT DOWN’: Red Wings fighting frustration of close losses

In comparison, when the Pistons land a lottery pick, it’s easier to see the impact. Mostly because the players get to play at the NBA level almost immediately.

Consider their last draft, when they took Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bay and Isaiah Stewart in the first round. Hayes struggled out of the gate and then got hurt. Bay and Stewart didn’t play much at first but got enough time to show they deserved more time, then used that time to show a lot more.

Now, there is buzz with the Pistons for the first time in years, because it’s not so hard to imagine the future. The Wings are at a disadvantage in this way. If you want to have hope, you have to place it in the potential of players you can’t watch, and in the man who is selecting the players:

Steve Yzerman.

He is just getting started, of course. He understands how long this will take. He also knows his team is better than it was a year ago, despite numbers that say otherwise

[ Here’s why the Wings are better at ‘answering the bell’ after losses ]

The Wings lost five players to COVID-19 protocol earlier this season and until then, showed consistent grind and grit, not that Yzerman is building a team in that mold. He and Blashill just want a team that competes.

For the most part, the Wings have. Though they did not Friday night.

Said Frans Nielsen:

“I thought we started to figure out what it takes to win, what we need to do.”

He was bummed. Disappointed. Irritated.

“Unacceptable,” he said. “For whatever reason we didn’t’ show up tonight.”

Unless that becomes a regular habit, the Wings are getting what they need from this season so far, though they still aren’t getting enough from forward Anthony Mantha, who can flick bodies off his shoulder in the corner one moment, then look oddly disengaged the next.

Helping Mantha discover how to engage more steadily is a priority this season. The 6-foot-5-inch forward has all the skill in the world. But, already, he’s 26. And Yzerman is trying to push this enterprise forward.

Rebuilds can be frustratingly slow and unpredictable this way, especially in a sport that relies on a lottery. Even beyond the lottery, though, teams need luck, to hit on draft picks, to uncover potential on other teams’ benches, to stay healthy.

Teams also need a collective, professional desire. With few exceptions, these young Wings are showing that, and showed it again Saturday afternoon, when they took the ice to play the Florida Panthers again.

This time, they gave up just a goal in the first and showed considerably more spirit, scoring twice in the second and hanging on for just their fifth victory of the season.

For now, that will have to do. Small gains. Subtle signs. Lots of effort.

The rest is about potential.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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