The Detroit Red Wings ended a third straight season without a postseason bid, counting on a core of players 24 years old and younger to end the postseason drought next year.
Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Bertuzzi each set career highs for scoring and Anthony Mantha matched his highest point total.
Even though Detroit had more points in the standings than just three teams in the NHL, the quartet is generating hope for the future.
“It’s extremely satisfying to see what these young guys can do,” 38-year-old defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I think if people can stay patient with this process, Larkin is going to lead the way to bring the franchise back to where we all want it to be.”
Thomas Vanek, a 35-year-old wing, saw the young group grow collectively and individually late in the season.
“Confidence is never given,” Vanek said. “Confidence has to be earned. They earned it in a game or two, then all the sudden Mantha goes from 6-5 to 6-8 and he’s a different player.”
The 22-year-old Larkin took a step toward living up to the $30.5 million, five-year deal last summer, scoring a career-high 32 goals and having 73 points to lead the team. He also played with some toughness, becoming the first player in franchise history to lead the team in goals, points and penalty minutes in same season since 1927.
Larkin, though, was not happy with the team’s performance in a 7-1 loss to Buffalo at home on Saturday to close with two straight losses after winning a season-high six games.
“It’s tough, especially with the way we’ve been playing in the past couple of weeks, to finish like this,” he said.
Mantha, likewise, was not ready his development and production because of the year the Red Wings had as a team.
“Our team’s almost dead last in the league and we’re not even close to playoffs so that’s the big picture,” he said. “Personally, I think I took strides. I think a lot of guys in here took strides and hopefully we can bring it on a different level next year.”
The Red Wings ended talk about who would be their coach next season, giving coach Jeff Blashill a two-year contract extension earlier this month. They also decided to stick with goaltender Jimmy Howard, signing him to a one-year deal last month to keep him under contract next year.
It may take longer to know if former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman is going to come back to lead the front office.
General manager Ken Holland, who made the decision to keep Blashill, has one year left on his contract. Yzerman could potentially come back to work for the Red Wings after Tampa Bay’s season ends, nearly a year after he stepped down as the Lightning’s general manager.
No matter who is coaching or running the franchise, the Red Wings desperately need Larkin, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi and Mantha to lead the way on the ice.
“Can they carry a hockey team to wins? That’s a big question they’ll answer on a nightly basis next year,” Blashill said. “It’s a heck of a responsibility. I don’t think there’s very many young players throughout the league that are able to carry their team. We’re going to ask that group of four up front to be a huge piece to carrying this team and they’re going to have to spend the summer getting way better.”
The Red Wings are likely not ready to be major players in free agency because they’re more than a player or two away from contending for a championship. They will have some decisions to make with their own players eligible to be unrestricted free agents, including Kronwall, who played 79 games for a second straight year to show he can stay healthy and be productive.
Kronwall said he hasn’t decided if he wants to play another season or retire.
“He’s made a huge argument that he can for sure play one more season and good for him,” Blashill said. “He’s put himself in a spot where he can make that decision. He’s not being forced in that decision. The decision, I think, ultimately, will be his.”