DETROIT -- In some ways, there is more to feel positive about for the Detroit Red Wings than there was a year ago at this time.
Instead of bowing out to San Jose in five games in their Western Conference Semifinal series, as they did in 2010, the Red Wings fought back against the Sharks in 2011 -- coming all the way back from a 3-0 deficit only to fall short with Thursday's 3-2 loss in Game 7 at San Jose's HP Pavilion.
This team also showed more grit, more heart and more desire to make another Stanley Cup run together. Then there was the solid playoff performance by second-year goalie Jimmy Howard, who made the two-year contract extension he signed during the regular season look like a great decision by General Manager Ken Holland.
All in all, it was a good season. However, it still wasn't up to Detroit's standards -- which made losing the series to the Sharks so painful.
"San Jose beat a good team," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said on Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, when the Red Wings took their team picture before clearing out their lockers. "Last year, when they beat us I didn't think they beat a good team. I thought they had to beat a real good team to advance this year. We were right there with them."
The stats prove his point. It was the closest series in NHL playoff history -- the first to have six games decided by a single goal; the other, Game 6, was a one-goal game before the Wings hit the empty net in the final minute to seal a 3-1 win.
Still, getting close isn't what earned the Red Wings four Stanley Cups from 1997-2008. Detroit felt it had a legitimate shot to win a fifth Cup in 15 years and 12th for the organization overall if it could just get past the Sharks -- but now that's all water under the bridge.
"The bottom line is the Final Four's going on and this is our second year in a row we're not involved," Babcock said. "Last year, we weren't even close to being involved. This year, you had to like where our team was. Those things are going to happen some years or not, but the reality is we have to get better."
Just how hard are the Red Wings taking this season's playoff departure?
Hard enough that forward Henrik Zetterberg, who scored 3 goals and 8 points against the Sharks, was adamant he won't watch the rest of the playoffs.
"It's tough watching the playoffs when you're done," said Zetterberg, who missed Detroit's first-round sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes with an injured knee. "So, I won't watch a game. I won't."
What he will watch, closely, will be the changes that are made in the off-season.
A lot of what Holland can do, at least financially, depends on captain Nicklas Lidstrom -- who had another great season as Detroit's top defenseman. The 41-year old Lidstrom, a candidate to win his seventh Norris Trophy, reiterated that he will decide sometime before July 1 -- the first day of free agency -- whether he wants to sign another one-year contract.
If Lidstrom opts to retire, it would give Holland about $6 million under the League's salary cap to find a replacement or devote elsewhere. If he opts to return, there's still the matter of what to do about eight unrestricted free agents -- most of whom likely will not return.
Mike Modano, 40, almost surely won't be back after a frustrating one-year run with the team he grew up cheering for in the Detroit suburb of Westland, Mich. Modano, the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history, had tendons in his right wrist severed by a skate blade just 20 games into the season and was never able to get back to where he was before the injury. He played in just two playoff games and said Saturday that he's about 75 percent sure he will retire as opposed to signing another one-year contract elsewhere.
Veteran goalie Chris Osgood, 38, and forward Kris Draper, 39, both of whom have spent the bulk of their long careers in Detroit, are also UFAs. There's a chance neither will be back, based on what Holland decides. Prospects such as forwards Jan Mursak, Cory Emmerton and Tomas Tatar are waiting in the wings, as is top defense prospect Brendan Smith.
Joey MacDonald, 31, also played well as Howard's backup in goal while young Red Wings like defenseman Jakub Kindl and forwards Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm will be expected to play bigger roles. Unrestricted free agents Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Jonathan Ericsson are also young and could be factored into the mix -- but it remains to be seen whether any or all will be around next season.
Ericsson said there's no other team he wants to play for, and it's just a matter of finding a contract that suits both sides.
"First priority," he said of negotiating a new deal. "I really like it here. I like everything about this team, this organization. I would love to stay here. I'm not worried at all what's going to happen. I really like it here.''
Miller and Eaves echoed those comments, but the reality is they might not get the opportunity. That was one of the biggest motivating factors into why the Red Wings made that three-game deficit disappear -- they knew they'd have a different look next season.
"You'd rather not think about it," Zetterberg said. "Some guys will leave and you've just got to remember the good memories you had together. It will be tough."
Almost as tough losing Game 7 in San Jose.
"You want to play longer than we did and it was definitely fun the last three games that we tried to come back -- even in Game 7 all the way to the end, we had chances," Zetterberg lamented. "We didn't give up, kept going, kept battling, but still ... we're not playing. We're done. We wanted to play for another month."