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Detroit's next generation takes wing

5/2/2013

ANAHEIM -- When the Detroit Red Wings were making their playoff push down the stretch, most of the focus was on extending the playoff streak to 22 consecutive seasons -- and its significance to veteran guys like Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall who didn't want the playoff streak to end on their watch.

There's another reason why making the playoffs was important, and it could end up being the more critical of the two. It meant a chance for the next wave of Red Wings to taste the postseason.

This is an abnormal season for Detroit. Even though the Red Wings are capable of winning a series, and some have even picked them to beat the Ducks, they aren't a Stanley Cup contender. When the Ducks beat the Red Wings in Game 1, they did it against five players making their postseason debut: Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Damien Brunner, Joakim Andersson and Danny DeKeyser.

"We're obviously trying to transition or rebuild -- I don't know what word you want to use," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland on Wednesday afternoon. "We're trying to move some younger people onto our team and eventually hope they become more important. It's a process."

It's a different look for this rivalry. The Ducks are the veteran team with enough depth and talent to make a long run this spring. The Red Wings are the team that's still a little green, trying to learn on the fly this postseason.

"When they had [Nicklas] Lidstrom and [Brad] Stuart, you know their defense was more experienced," said Ducks forward Teemu Selanne. "You try to take advantage of things you can do. Not to have to play against Lidstrom every night -- it's obviously a totally different game. The playoffs -- the experience helps a lot, hopefully that will be the case."

Fifty percent of the Red Wings' defense made its postseason debut in Game 1, and those players are at various stages of their development. In what may be the most extreme example of the Red Wings' patient approach to player development, Kindl was a first-round pick in 2005 and is just now getting a chance to prove himself in the postseason. He's a restricted free agent after this season, and Holland said he's part of the team's long-range plans moving forward.

"We'll talk, and I'm hoping he wants to be here; we want him to be here," he said.

The other extreme is DeKeyser, who did his developing in college under Andy Murray at Western Michigan and has made an immediate impact with the Red Wings since picking Detroit as a free agent following his final season with the Broncos.

In the middle is Brendan Smith, who bode his time in Grand Rapids before playing regular minutes this season.

All talented players, all who probably aren't as good right now as they'll be in the future.

"Our defense is big and pretty mobile, but it's young and it's going to be a better defense three years from now than it is today," Holland said. "They need to play games. Saying all that, they helped us get into the playoffs. We were fifth in the league in goal-against -- pretty darned good in the best league in the world."

That group played well down the stretch, particularly DeKeyser, who exceeded every expectation in earning regular playing time after joining the team late in the season. And they didn't look out of place at all in Game 1.

Up front, the Red Wings' third line is making a postseason adjustment and has to produce for Detroit to have any chance of upsetting the No. 2-seeded Ducks. Gustav Nyquist is the playoff veteran of the trio, having played four games in the postseason last year against the Predators. Andersson and Brunner fill out that line, and both made their playoff debut Tuesday.

Game 1 was a draw at even strength, with that group matched up for most of the game against the Ducks' Teemu Selanne, Nick Bonino and Kyle Palmieri. Bonino and Selanne scored, but both goals came on the power play.

Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson are cleared to play, but it didn't sound like Detroit coach Mike Babcock was too eager to swap youth for experience in Game 2 considering the lack of playing time this season for the two veteran forwards.

On Wednesday afternoon, Babcock still hadn't made any final decisions regarding lineup changes, but...

"I think it's great to have veterans that are ready to go," Babcock said. "Now, if you haven't played the whole year, I got to hope that it's going. I haven't spent a lot of time feeding my family on hope."

What the Red Wings don't know is how quickly that young forward line will get comfortable in the postseason, a learning curve that may take more than one game.

"Everything goes a little faster, it's more physical, less time with the puck. You have to get used to playing that," said Zetterberg, the Red Wings' captain. "They're good players. They'll get used to it. My first playoff game, it wasn't that easy."

For a guy like Brunner, goals haven't come easy for some time. He had 10 goals in his first 21 NHL games, but has just two in his last 23.

Time and space are at a premium right now, which makes it more challenging for a guy like the 5-foot-10 Brunner.

"The one thing I've heard all year, 'Bruns can't do this, he can't do that.' I just look at the score sheet, and he's on it," Babcock said. "I look at a whole bunch of guys and they're never on the score sheet. What I've learned over time is you can be big, you can be strong and you can check like crazy and have no points game after game after game. Or you can be small, and you can be not that great defensively and you might even turn some pucks over but you get stats all the time. You've got to decide what you like. I like guys who can score."

If that group can start scoring, it could be a series-changer. Either way, this is experience that could end up being crucial to a future Red Wings playoff run.

Selanne talks Olympics

Teemu Selanne has played in five Olympic tournaments over the course of his distinguished career, and based on his performance right now, it's starting to look like a sixth one could be a possibility in Sochi.

"I said after Salt Lake City, 'That's it,'" Selanne said. "I don't believe myself anymore."

Of course, for it to happen, the NHL has to allow its players to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics, but Selanne doesn't see that being a hurdle. He sees NHL players getting the green light.

"Oh yeah," Selanne said. "I think it's still so big for the game and for hockey around the world. I think we have opportunity to go there. I've been five times; it's worth it, for sure."