Detroit Red Wings believe they have the right mix of youth, experience to continue winning tradition

DETROIT -- When Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland sat down this past offseason to plan out his approach, he had one simple goal:

He wanted to win.

I know, weird.

His team has made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, a streak unheard of in hockey these days. In all of sports, really. Holland wants a 26th. He just wasn't willing to concede the Eastern Conference to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins -- or willing to make way for young teams making strides in the East like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.

So when Pavel Datsyuk left after 14 seasons as a Wing, Holland replaced him with Frans Nielsen. When he saw a weakness in his team's power play, Holland addressed it by adding Thomas Vanek. The GM thought his dressing room needed more personality and spark. Enter Steve Ott, who has both oozing from his pores. Constantly.

A rebuild? No thanks. That's not something Holland is interested in undertaking.

"There are no guarantees with rebuilds," Holland said after the Red Wings practiced on Wednesday. "There are no guarantees you're going to come out the other side and you're going to be elite."

Rarely do playoff teams initiate their own rebuild. Rebuilds are the result of a team petering out for some reason, a franchise that has reached the end of the line. Not a team with a rich history of success that is the result of decades instilling a culture of winning and playing the right way into every player who enters the organization.

In Detroit, it's a culture of winning that has been handed down from Steve Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom to Henrik Zetterberg and now to Dylan Larkin, Petr Mrazek and Andreas Athanasiou.

You can excuse Holland and the Red Wings if they're not overly eager to rip out that fabric of success in exchange for the opportunity to draft somewhere closer to the top.

But I'll admit that I've wondered if a few down years might do the Red Wings some good. I've suggested as much. I've wondered what this organization could do if it added a couple of top-10 picks to its talented young core. I certainly understood why some fans were puzzled the past couple of years that Detroit brought in guys such as Mike Green, Vanek and Ott instead of young players who might be able to do the same thing much more cheaply, gain experience, lose a few more games and help improve the draft odds.

Holland has done the analysis -- and decided that the cost and risk of going down that path far outweighed a possible reward.

"There's now a lottery. The first four picks are lottery picks. You can be the worst team in the league and get the fifth pick in the draft," Holland said. "Each year, we go forward, it becomes more and more a parity league. Why is that? Players come out of the entry level and they go from entry-level contracts to $5-$6 million."

This isn't the same system that that Penguins and Blackhawks had to navigate on the way to landing elite players -- and neither are the contract structures.

Chicago, for example, won a Stanley Cup with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews still playing on their entry-level deals. Then they got matching contracts for five years and $6.3 million. Then came the monster deals worth $10.5 million per season. To land those players, Chicago fans had to endure a decade in which the Blackhawks made the playoffs just once. Teams don't have to do that anymore.

Besides the changes to the draft lottery, young players are getting bigger contracts earlier, which lends itself to more parity. The Edmonton Oilers, you can be sure, are planning on Connor McDavid's next contract looking much more like Kane's and Toews' current ones than their second deals. And that's if you're lucky enough to land McDavid during your rebuild in the first place. Only one team every decade gets to do that.

The Red Wings have considered all that as they march forward. Their solution is to keep doing what they've always done: just keep winning. Draft well from the position in which you're placed and make the kids earn the playing time.

Detroit signed Green last year, and he has seven points in eight games this season. Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said Green's teammates are learning how to play to his strengths more, to take advantage of his skating.

Green said it took him half a season to get comfortable on a new team. Now, here he is.

"We've changed up a few things, but mostly it's a confidence thing," Green said. "We are detailed in our assignments, and it has shown this season."

Both Holland and Blashill phoned Vanek when he was a free agent and made their pitch to get him to Detroit. They wanted him playing in front of the net. They loved the idea of another right-handed shot. They realize he's not a guy who needs 18 minutes per game to put up points. Right now, he's averaging 13:11, the lowest of his career. He has eight points in seven games. It's been a great fit.

"Am I as fast as Larkin or McDavid? Not even close," Vanek said. "I never was and never will be. But I can read the game, I have hockey IQ -- which, to me, is something that is leaving the game a little."

The Red Wings have started 6-2-0, in large part because of veterans Vanek and Green. It's important to note that while their even-strength save percentage and shooting percentage are near the top of the league, that won't continue. Detroit controls only 45.6 percent of its even-strength shot attempts, a rate that has to improve for it to keep winning. So, despite the early success, there are red flags for the Red Wings.

But on Tuesday, Larkin joined the party with a two-goal game against the Carolina Hurricanes. They were his first goals of the season. Athanasiou scored for the second consecutive game, showing what it can look like when all generations are contributing for the Red Wings.

Detroit has opted not to go all-in on the youth movement, and if there's a franchise that has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's this one.

"The media wants a young game, they want the speed, they want the addiction," Ott said, before being interrupted momentarily.

Don't blame it all on us, Steve.

"No, I think it's true," he continued. "Who is the model that built completely young and won everything? It hasn't happened. Why has that not happened? You tell me."

Because successful teams need a mix of youth and experience. It's early, but the Red Wings believe they have the right mix. They're winning with veterans and young guns, they have a kid in forward Anthony Mantha, who is banging on the door with six goals in five AHL games. They don't think Tyler Bertuzzi is too far behind him. Eventually Evgeny Svechnikov will be there, too.

There's a plan in place to keep the success going. No, the Red Wings are not interested in tearing it down. Just winning, as they've done for two and a half decades. Perhaps, in Detroit, they've earned the right to keep trying.