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SportsPulse: NHL insider Kevin Allen looks at who is improving over last season and who is disappointing so far.
USA TODAY Sports

Even if the Detroit Red Wings’ rebuild on the fly starts with several young forwards, the most critical athlete will be a player to be named later.

The organization needs to add a top-pairing defenseman, someone capable of quarterbacking a power play and logging heavy minutes against top-line players. But who and how he will be acquired are the variables in the Red Wings’ equation.

The most desirable path would be to find luck in the draft lottery, like the Dallas Stars did last season in moving from eighth to third and selecting skilled Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

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Next June’s draft will boast a few potential difference-makers, led by Swedish sensation Rasmus Dahlin, 17, an advanced athlete who looks ready for the NHL today.

But even if the 9-8-2 Red Wings, one point out of the last playoff spot, owned one of the league’s worst records, odds are against landing Dahlin or a premium defensive prospect in the draft. The Edmonton Oilers can testify to how difficult it is to secure an elite defenseman in the draft.

The trade market and free agency are normally not rich in desirable defensemen  — and if there are any available, it requires a steep price.

Although we’ve seen the likes of Adam Larsson, Seth Jones, Shea Weber and P.K. Subban get traded over the past 22 months, trades involving blue-chip blueliners are not the norm.

The free agent marketplace is always short on stars, particularly on defense. Kevin Shattenkirk was a prize last summer, and he was probably the most desired free agent defenseman since Ryan Suter in 2012.

But the salary cap-challenged Red Wings have to be thinking about the summer of 2019. More than $14 million will be coming off their books (Gustav Nyquist, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard), and there several intriguing defensemen whose contracts are expiring, including Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ryan McDonagh. Even the second-tier — Tyler Myers, Anton Stralman and Ryan Ellis, who has yet to play this season because of knee surgery — is strong.