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Core Values: Henrik Zetterberg at center of transitioning Red Wings

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are still central to the Red Wings. (USATSI)
Captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are still central to the Red Wings. (USATSI)

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In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Detroit Red Wings were a rather curious case last season and therefore a bit hard to fully evaluate. This was a team that had just two players able to play the full 82 games. Star players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg missed nearly half the season and others like Johan Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson, Danny DeKeyser, Stephen Weiss and more missed big chunks of the season.

Despite all that, the Red Wings made the playoffs. It's a testament to their organizational depth and Mike Babcock's coaching that they managed that, but last season may have signified the beginning of the end for Detroit.

For years, Detroit has often benefited from older, seasoned players who have made an impact. However, as injuries piled up last season to young and old alike, it showed that this is a team that has to start looking ahead. It's not about rebuilding, but there is likely going to be some restructuring over the next few years as contracts expire or players retire.

That's why this Core Values piece has been one of the more difficult ones to compile. It is clear that Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still at the center of this team, but it is less clear how long they will be able to keep it up. Datsyuk has three years left on his current contract and they're likely his final three years in the NHL if he even makes it to the end of the deal.

So what I've done for this piece is to mix a bit of the young and old. Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall are still at the top, but I'm also taking a bit of a leap in projecting which of the club's younger forwards are going to be part of this team for the long term. It's meant to represent the transition years the Red Wings are about to endure.

Here's what that looks like ...

Core Values: Detroit Red Wings

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Pavel Datsyuk (36, 3 years), LW Henrik Zetterberg (33, 7 years), D Niklas Kronwall (33, 5 years), G Jimmy Howard (30, 5 years), C Tomas Tatar (23, 3 years), D Danny DeKeyser (24, RFA), RW Gustav Nyquist (24, 1 year)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $30,075,000^ (43.5 percent of cap space consumed by seven players)
^ - Includes conservatively estimated $2.75 million cap hit for restricted free agent Danny DeKeyser who remains unsigned.

Average age: 29

Total point production in 2013-14: 92 goals, 152 assists, 244 points (42.1 percent of team's total point production)

Detroit Red Wings Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent.

About the Core

Henrik Zetterberg: Before having to leave the Olympics early to undergo back surgery, Zetterberg was having a phenomenal season for the Red Wings. Despite missing the final 37 regular-season games, Zetterberg finished tied for third on the team with 48 points. His 32 assists were second most on the team. That's two straight seasons of averaging better than a point per game for Zetterberg, who has 720 points in 759 career game with the Red Wings. Having the captain back should significantly alter the team's outlook for 2014-15, but coming off of a significant injury should temper expectations that Zetterberg will be able to be at full strength just yet. Whether he is or isn't, just having him back is going to be a big boost to the club. Though Zetterberg is getting up there in years, he still has seven seasons left under contract and plenty to contribute. The team is going to get younger around him over the next few years, you would have to expect, but he'll remain an important piece to the puzzle in Detroit as this happens. How he was acquired: 1999 NHL Entry Draft, seventh round, 210th overall

Pavel Datsyuk: Though aging, Datsyuk remains an elite player. With his sensational puckhandling skills, his keen defensive capabilities and ability to produce he is an extremely valuable asset. The clock is ticking on his NHL career however and with three years remaining on his contract, the end of the Datsyuk Era is unfortunately near. However, if he were to stay healthy after a season in which he missed 37 games, Datsyuk will help keep the Red Wings in the playoff conversation as long as he's around. The Wings are going to face some challenges in their own division, but having a player as experienced and skilled as Datsyuk at full health is a team with a weapon. Over his brilliant NHL career Datsyuk has 804 points in 824 games, all spent in Detroit. He won the Stanley Cup twice with the Wings and is a three-time Selke winner as the league's best defensive forward and a four-time Lady Byng winner as the game's most gentlemanly player. A year of good health will allow Datsyuk to stay viable as he reaches the twilight of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. How he was acquired: 1998 NHL Entry Draft, sixth round, 171st overall

From left, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard will help ease transition for Red Wings. (USATSI)
Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard will help ease transition for Red Wings. (USATSI)

Niklas Kronwall: One of the few Red Wings to stay healthy for most of the season (even though he did leave one game on a stretcher), Kronwall has remained an effective No. 1 defenseman for the team. He posted a team-best average of 24:19 a night, nearly three minutes more than the closest teammate. He also finished tied for the team lead with 49 points, posting a team-best 41 assists. That marked the second-highest point total of his career. If the D corps around Kronwall stays healthy, Babcock may be able to knock his minutes down a bit, but it has to be comforting to the club to know he excelled in a bad situation last season. At 33 years old, he may also be getting up there in years, but there's no denying he is still effective at both ends of the ice and positively impacts the team in a variety of ways. From punishing body checks to positive possession numbers, Kronwall delivers when called upon. How he was acquired: 2000 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 29th overall

Jimmy Howard: Also hobbled by injuries at various points of the season, Howard still managed to make 51 appearances in 2013-14. Unfortunately for Howard and the Red Wings, it wasn't a great year. He posted a .910 save percentage, which looks worse next to the .923 mark he posted the season before. As the team enters this transition, however, Howard needs to be sharp. He has a respectable career save percentage of .917 in 285 appearances, all with Detroit. Howard has three seasons with save percentages over .920. That's probably where he's going to need to be to help this team get through the transition while remaining competitive. As older players depart and younger, less-experienced players enter, the goaltender becomes a great equalizer. That can be Howard as he has definitely shown it at points throughout his career. With five years left on his contract, Howard has a lot left to do in his career. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 64th overall

Tomas Tatar: One of the key pieces of the future for the Red Wings, Tatar played his first full NHL season in 2013-14 after coming up through the Red Wings' AHL system. Nothing gets handed to young players and Tatar certainly earned his way onto the big club. He put up 19 goals and 39 points in 73 games. More will be expected of him as he now has that experience under his belt. At just 23 years old, Tatar has already accomplished a lot, having starred in the AHL and going to the Olympics with Slovakia in February. Now he'll have to help ease this transition for the Red Wings as they move into the next era of the organization which may include a lot of changes. He needs to be a producer like he was in the AHL to make his impact felt. Having just signed a three-year deal, the team has shown some faith in him, but that contract is more of a bridge, so there's a really good chance the team is going to get a lot of value out of that deal over the next three years. The potential is there for Tatar to become a star for this franchise, but it's up to him to fully realize it. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 60th overall

Danny DeKeyser: In all honesty, this spot probably should go to Jonathan Ericsson, who had a really strong season despite being limited by injury. DeKeyser gets the nod on upside, however. Signed as an undrafted free agent, DeKeyser immediately leapt into a sizable role for the team last season. He played the second-most minutes of any Red Wings skater on average and was thrown into tough situations routinely by Babcock. DeKeyser wasn't hidden much in what amounted to his rookie season. DeKeyser has good two-way capabilities and at 24 still has plenty to learn. As he continues to develop, there's a good chance he'll be the heir to Kronwall as the team's top defenseman. He's still awaiting a new contract as a restricted free agent, but the team should be able to get him on a reasonable deal to start. Unfortunately for DeKeyser, he missed significant time last season with an injury and that isn't ideal for development, but another year under Babcock's tutelage could go a long way for DeKeyser in his career. He has size, he has some skill and mobility, and above all, he has potential. It's a risky pick for the Red Wings core, but DeKeyser and Brendan Smith need to be the leaders of the transition on Detroit's blue line. How he was acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on March 29, 2013

Gustav Nyquist: The Red Wings' explosive second half of the season was led primarily by the speedy Nyquist. He took the NHL by storm in his first real opportunity to take a big role. He really responded to the challenge, scoring a team-best 28 goals in 57 games. To expect Nyquist to repeat that feat is asking a lot. He posted an 18.6 shooting percentage, so he's probably not going to touch that again. That said, his blinding speed and natural scoring ability should lead to production that will be among the Red Wings' leaders next season. With just one year remaining on his contract, Nyquist could do himself a big favor by scoring at a high clip in order to earn that big-money deal. After his shooting ran cold in the playoffs, there are certainly signs that there's more he needs to work on, but that ridiculous second half suggests he's going to be a producer in the NHL for a while. He's the type of guy who really offsets this team's aging players with the electricity he brings to the ice just about every shift. Nyquist may be a premature addition to the core based on his lightning-in-a-bottle 2013-14, but if the Red Wings are going to advance to the next era, Nyquist is likely to be a part of it. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, fourth round, 121st overall

Who's next in line

Anthony Mantha's arrival is eagerly anticipated. (USATSI)
Anthony Mantha's arrival is eagerly anticipated. (USATSI)

The Red Wings have a multitude of players coming up through the minor leagues who could make an impact on this roster for a long time. The most exciting of the bunch hasn't yet stepped foot in the NHL, however.

The one young player that everyone will be talking about heading into next season is 2013 first-round pick Anthony Mantha. The dazzling forward averaged a goal per game (yes, one goal per game) in the QMJHL last season. He is a dynamic talent and big things are expected out of him. Though the Red Wings are often slow to bring prospects along, Mantha has great potential to break the trend after putting up 81 goals in 81 games last year. On top of that, he's 6-feet-5 and 204 pounds. If he's ready, that's a big boost to the Red Wings' forward group.

As Mantha makes the transition to the pros, it will still be important for players like Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan to step up. Both saw some time last season and Sheahan in particular is likely to get more responsibility this season as he played well in limited action with 24 points in 42 games. Jurco is a slick-skilled forward who could be a future top-six player.

The Wings also have gotten great contributions from Joakim Andersson and Luke Glendening, who can be part of a rising youth movement among the team's depth players.

That has been largely led by Justin Abdelkader, who has been a solid energy player for the club. He and defenseman Jakub Kindl fall somewhere in the middle of this transition, though they are more there to fill out depth than actually be key contributors.

On defense, Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul could get an opportunity to join the NHL roster this season, but may need a bit more time in the minors for seasoning before making the jump. Both are promising individuals.

The Red Wings also boast a really strong goaltending prospect in Petr Mrazek. He has already put together two strong seasons in the AHL and looked good in limited NHL action for the Red Wings as well. At only 22, he's likely the heir apparent to Jimmy Howard.

The Red Wings take their time with their prospects and it has been a tried and true method over the years, but as this team gets older, more of these players are going to be seizing bigger jobs for this club. It should start this coming season.

Overview

The Red Wings may be getting older and last season was not exactly the most fun, but it's really hard to count this group out next season. There has been a lot of criticism launched at this team for its adherence to old standby players like Daniel Cleary and Johan Franzen who are noticeably in decline. That's warranted, but it's the rest of the story that makes things interesting.

As old as this team has gotten, and it could get older when the team re-signs Alfredsson as it sounds they will, the youth group they're building underneath is actually quite good. With the excitement surrounding Mantha's NHL arrival, it's easy to forget a lot of the other younger players listed above. All could be major contributors to this team over a long period of time.

The issue at present is that the team is being awfully slow to hand the keys over to the young guys and that may actually end up holding the organization back less in the short term and more in the long term.

There's no reason to discard the aging stars at this point like Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall. They are still important players. It's filling the rest of it out with guys like Cleary, Franzen, Weiss, Kyle Quincey and the like. Those players are starting to block the opportunities for young guys to step in with cheaper contracts and probably not nearly as big a drop off as you would expect.

It seems that the organization's reluctance to hand bigger jobs to younger players may be the part where this organization starts running in place as opposed to moving forward. Babcock is a big part of that, relying more on veterans he trusts than young guys who still have a lot to prove.

But there have been more instances of late where Babcock put more faith in younger players, particularly DeKeyser, Tatar and Nyquist, and let them run with it. In those three specific instances it has paid off.

That's the kind of thing that will have to keep happening as the organization enters this new era, one that will soon include a new arena. One of the proudest franchises in the NHL, the Red Wings have always been a little too eager to cling to the past. For the better of the organization, they'll have to focus more on what's next as opposed to what was.

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