The rebuilding process did not last long for the Detroit Red Wings.
It didn't even take a lockout-shortened season for the Red Wings to make noise in the NHL playoffs a year after they lost Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement.
They surged at the right time of the year, winning their last four regular-season games. That allowed them to make the playoffs, where they defeated the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks and extended the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to overtime of the seventh game.
If the Red Wings are going to remain a key playoff team as they switch to the Eastern Conference, they are going to need new stars to step forward. They still have established stars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, along with hip-checking demon Niklas Kronwall, but they need their young players to step up.
The Red Wings have seven young players who will have a chance to make key contributions over the next two seasons.
General manager Ken Holland worked the majority of these players into the lineup last year—something he seemed uncomfortable doing when Lidstrom was still playing and the Red Wings were considered a legitimate threat for the Stanley Cup.
Jakub Kindl, 26, is the oldest of the young players, and he has worn the Red Wings uniform for all or parts of the last four seasons.
Kindl has ideal size at 6'3" and 215 pounds. He is an excellent skater and a good puck mover who can control the game and run the power play. He made significant progress last year, scoring four goals and nine assists in the lockout-shortened season and finishing the season with a plus-15 rating.
During the playoffs, Kindl had one goal and four assists and was plus-five. He clearly gained head coach Mike Babcock's trust as he averaged nearly 18 minutes of ice time per game in the postseason.
Babcock prodded Kindl earlier in the year, saying that the Czech defenseman had to get more aggressive.
Babcock said to Ansar Khan of MLive.com:
He’s a skilled guy on the back. He’s got to move the puck, he’s got to shoot the puck. The big thing is he’s got to grab a piece of the action. That’s up to him. That’s what these opportunities are for. You’ve got to reach out and grab hold of something and then make it your own. If you don’t, you’re not in the lineup.
Kindl could still be more aggressive, but he responded to his coach in a positive manner.
Danny DeKeyser has a chance to be a star for the Red Wings. He was coveted by several teams as he came out of Western Michigan, primarily because he skates brilliantly and understands how to carry the puck. He played 11 games for the Red Wings last year in the regular season and two more in the playoffs before he broke his thumb.
He will almost certainly be a top-four defenseman and one of the Red Wings' core players for the foreseeable future. He needs to add some muscle to his 6'3", 190-pound frame. Once he does that, his future appears to be quite strong.
Brendan Smith, 24, has been one of the Red Wings' top defense prospects since he was drafted in 2007. He got his chance to play last season, but he suffered a shoulder injury in early February and missed a month.
Smith played college hockey at the University of Wisconsin and was considered one of the top offensive defense prospects. The Red Wings need Smith to become more assertive when carrying the puck and playing in the offensive end. He did not score a goal last year.
Holland said he and Bobcock have confidence in Smith's ability to become a key player. "I thought it was a good rookie year for him," Holland told USA Today's George Sipple. "Unfortunately he got hurt early."
Brian Lashoff is the last of the young defensemen whom the Red Wings believe can step up and make key contributions. While he is not as talented as Kindl, DeKeyser and Smith, he has good skating ability and he shows off his all-around ability from time to time. Unfortunately, he can also get overwhelmed by the moment.
He appears to be a depth player at this point.
Offensively, the Red Wings are going to look to Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Cory Emmerton.
Nyquist, 24, has played with the Red Wings for parts of the last two seasons. He is a swift skater who has flashed his instincts and offensive skills but has yet to display consistency. He scored two big goals in the playoffs, including an overtime strike in the series against the Ducks and another brilliant individual effort in which he outwaited Cory Crawford and got the best of him.
It was the kind of veteran move that will earn Nyquist many more opportunities in the future.
Tatar, 22, is likely to be a key player for the Red Wings for years to come. He displayed dominant offensive skills playing with Grand Rapids in the AHL, and he registered four goals and three assists in 18 games with the Red Wings last year.
Hockey's Future lauded Tatar for his skating, puck possession and ability to put the puck in the back of the net.
Emmerton, 25, is a bit of a tweener. He has had several opportunities to show what he can do with the Red Wings, but he has not taken advantage to this point.
While it is clear that Emmerton is not a star, he has playmaking ability and good hockey sense. He has scored 12 goals and seven assists in 121 games and could turn out to be a decent fourth-line player.
The Red Wings don't need all of these players to become mainstays. However, if they can get solid-to-excellent production from three or four of them, the Red Wings will have an excellent chance to remain a contending team in their new conference.