The Detroit Red Wings are sitting in second to last place in the NHL and with the trade Deadline come and gone, there may be more to play for than you think.
The Detroit Red Wings are playing for pride. They are trying to play spoiler. Some would say they are playing for nothing at all.
However, in a season that’s been filled with repeated losing, questionable coaching decisions and trading away a member of the former “future” in Gustav Nyquist, there has been a lot to embrace. Dylan Larkin has become not only the leader that he was expected to become but he’s established himself as a first like center likely becoming their first 30 goal scorer since the 2008-09 season. Filip Zadina has played at a high level on the AHL for a teenage player and has looked good in his brief call up so far. Players like Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou have all taken steps and looked like solid top 6 forwards, even if there has been some developmental stagnation. Dennis Chowlowski and Filip Hronek have both looked good as NHL defencemen at times and have often looked like the most capable defencemen on the roster for the modern NHL. Now what? With some good and some bad throughout the season, where do we go from here?
The Development of the Young Players
The development has been going on for some time now with Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou all having spent a few season in the NHL by this point but it’s about the new crop. Cholowski and Hronek on defence, Zadina and Michael Rasmussen up front. Cholowski start the year strong while cracking the big club out of camp. He was the best defencemen for stretches of the first half of the season. Showing some wear as the year went along, the Wings have been able to send him down to the AHL so he can refine his game and help aid the Grand Rapids Griffins in a Calder Cup run. Hronek will also be available for that run, but he is finally securing a place in the lineup toward the end of the season has also shown to be a solid puck moving defencemen with mobility fitting the playing style of the modern-day NHL game.
Up front, Rasmussen cracked the roster out of training camp and has done a decent job in limited minutes. He’s shown ability to produce in the net front role on the power play working mostly with the second unit, he has 4 power play goals on the season. He only has 15 points in 53 games but he’s done it with just 12:23 in ice time.
Filip Zadina has done a fantastic job in the AHL this season. His production (31 points in 45 games) is at an elite level for a teenage player. He is currently on a call up to the Red Wings, looking quite comfortable in the NHL atmosphere even though he’s played oftentimes with sub par line mates. The call up is definitely a temporary situation, as the Wings will not play him more than 9 games because playing 10+ will burn off a year of his entry-level contract in a lost year. Scoring his first goal against the Colorado Avalanche on the power play. His reaction was pure joy. He’s improved each game and the Colorado game was no different. Zadina ended up leading the team in both shots and attempts and he showed decent awareness defensively which will bode well for his future on the Red Wings roster next season.
The Growth of the Next Captain
Dylan Larkin has become what the fan base and management team wanted when they took him 15th overall in the 2014 NHL draft. Having established himself as a solid second line center but this season Larkin has taken the step that many had hoped he would take. Establishing himself as a true number one center, producing at almost a point per game on a struggling team, Larkin has grown into a true leader on and off of the ice.
While Larkin has always been a good goal scorer, he has been able to develop into an above average playmaker as well as a good 200 foot player. His ability to transition the puck this season may be the biggest reason for the 22-year-old centre’s accession to top line center status. With the almost unmatched speed, Larkin has improved his east-west play while not relying on his pure speed to move the puck. He has used his high hockey IQ to become on of the better passers in the league. His shooting ability has only been enhanced this year with his additional focus on distributing the puck.
visual created by Sean Tierney, using Corey Sznajder’s statistics
Some of the reason that he has rounded out his offensive game is that the Red Wings roster is lacking top end play makers. Larkin’s ability to adapt and grow his game has been one of the best signs for the Red Wings going forward.
With the Red Wings likely to be picking in the top 5 of the draft, the team will be focusing on scouting the players in the draft. The 2019 NHL draft is set to have a lot of center depth. The top end of the draft is reminiscent of the Matthews-Laine draft in 2016. The top two picks will be a star American Center in Jack Hughes and a high skilled Finnish forward Kappo Kakko. There is a drop off after these two players but there will be a highly skilled player that falls to Detroit should they not win the draft lottery. Some of the players available to the Red Wings will be as follows.
Jack Hughes, C, USNDTP
Kappo Kakko, RW, Liiga
Dylan Cozens, C, Lethbridge (WHL)
Alex Turcotte, C, USNDTP
Vasili Podkolzin, RW, VHL
Kirby Dach, C , Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
While the draft order can change in stretch run of the season, the Red Wings are currently on pace to add a top of the line prospect to their system and that can’t be viewed as anything but progress. For a full draft rankings and player evaluations you can go here.
Veterans Improving their Value
This team has a few good young players but is still made of up mostly veteran players and guys that have proven to be complimentary pieces or replacement level players in many cases. Towards the end of the season, especially once Zadina is sent back to the Grand Rapids Griffins after his 9 game stint is over, head coach Jeff Blashill and general manager Ken Holland will be tasked with trying to figure out which veteran players are worth keeping around and which players should be moved open up roster spots for the young plays coming in. Not only will this benefit the youth movement that is sure to fully take over in Detroit in the coming years, but it also help alleviate some of the burden that the aging veterans are putting on the teams salary cap.
Whether or not the Wings can move some of the veterans will be tricky. Buying out a player like Justin Abdelkader makes some sense in that you will have savings over the next 4 years, the cap penalties that they will incur the following four years might deter the team from doing so.
screenshot of CapFriendly.com
Finding a trade partner for players like Luke Glendenning ($1.8m for two more seasons), Darren Helm ($3.85m for two more seasons) and Danny DeKeyser ($5m for three more seasons) are all more likely due to the fact that many people around the league view them as contributing players. A trade involving any of these players could involve a combination of salary retention or packaging them with a pick or prospect. The value of the return may not be substantial but the real return will be in the cap space that is saved for when young players such as Mantha, Athanasiou or Bertuzzi are due for contract extensions, and raises, after next season.
The Future of Blashill
While there have been many reports that the Red Wings GM Ken Holland intends to sign Blashill to a contract extension, the actual deal hasn’t been signed. This has led to rampant speculation that the coach is on the hot seat. Many people feel that he hasn’t done a good job in developing young players and that the successes of those players is more in spite of Blashill than contributed to him.
A prime example of this is Anthony Mantha. A player that we bounced around by management and mishandled by the coach when he was on the team. The development of players like Mantha can’t be attributed to just one person. At the age of 24, Mantha is just about over his development stage in his career. Although many feel that he should be starting to become a perennial 30 goal scorer, he is closer to a consist 25 goal player over a full 80 game season. The problem is that Blashill doesn’t have the ability to prevent injuries. Mantha has been injured numerous times throughout his career and blaming Blashill solely for his development issues is a misguided opinion, although he clearly has played a role in where in the lineup he is playing, which has ranged from fourth line to first line and everything in between.
Blashill has also been criticized for his deployment of players that he uses as a crutch. Players such as Abdelkader, Glendenning and Jonathon Ericsson have been often over relied on in-game. The results of these players has been generally poor in recent years and they continue to be relied on for important minutes. The criticism of Blashill for this isn’t necessarily warranted for multiple reasons. The first being that the ice time of those players, among others that are criticized, are on average lower than most of the younger more skilled players.
screenshots of NaturalStatTrick.com
The second reason being that this issue isn’t a Blashill only problem. It’s a head coach problem. Often times, head coaches refuse to put young players on the ice during key moments such as a defensive zone face-off with a minute to go or protecting a one goal lead. Examples of this include some of the coaches who are widely viewed as top head coaches. Mike Babcock in Toronto often times plays Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev over players such as Travis Dermott even though Dermott has had in arguably better results than the aforementioned veterans. Ken Hitchcock, when with the Dallas Stars, outright refused to play defencemen such as Julius Honka over players like Greg Pateyrn. As frustrating as this situation is, this isn’t a Blashill issue, it’s an NHL issue.
Not a “Lost Season”
Although the Red Wings are not going to be participating in the playoffs as Red Wings fans became used to until the streak ended two seasons ago, this is a season of progress. This year went about as well as the management team could have realistically hoped for. It’s a “tank year” as much as management and some fans would argue. This year has been about growth for the young players and acquiring assets, which they did at the trade deadline. The last 16 games of the season will continue to be focused on growth. It will be used to display veteran players who could help other teams in the off-season and it will be used to continue evaluating head coach Jeff Blashill. Th me management team will be focused on the upcoming draft while also evaluating the players on the roster and whether or not they are valuable enough to either keep around or move in a trade. This Red Wings team is finally taking the necessary steps in a true rebuild. Adding draft picks, prospects and young skill talent can only be a positive. The next step is development, which includes deciding if Jeff Blashill is the coach to help them move forward in that endeavour.
For more on the Detroit Red Wings and the rest of the NHL, follow me on Twitter @theTonyFerrari
Featured Image Photo Credit – Nikos Michals