Another early exit from the NHL playoffs has many Red Wings fans justifiably upset. The Wings have not been perceived as contenders for a few years now and unless drastic changes are made, it doesn’t appear next season will be that different. Without accounting for a dynamite draft pick breaking into the lineup or a game-breaking free agent coming, the current Wings roster is just not good enough to make a deep run in the postseason.
Looking at the current roster, several things are clear:
The Wings scoring prowess seems to diminish with each passing year. Zetterberg and Datsyuk, if he stays, are too old in their careers to reliably be the team’s go-to players. Nyquist and Tatar were supposed to be the next crop of Wings scorers, but their play dipped this season and now both could be viewed as trade bait. Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou are the next wave of stars for the team hopefully, but they are all still very young and need a bit more seasoning before taking that next step.
So the problem is you have no prime-age scorers, just past age scorers and up-and-coming scorers. Zetterberg should now be a second or third-line center, playing lesser minutes against lesser competition. With his smarts and two-way ability, he would thrive in that role. Sheahan could grow into an effective second-line center and Larkin is primed to take the first-line spot some day. He should start to transition to that role now.
Abdelkader provides some good size on the wings, but the team has never recovered from Franzen’s career-ending head injury. They lack that Shanahan/power forward type player who gives players like Nyquist and Tatar some room. Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi may fill that role one day, but that element is missing and hurts the makeup of the team. Free agents this summer like Milan Lucic and David Backes may help in that regard if they were to sign.
With their disappointing seasons, Tatar and Nyquist may be traded also for that kind of player or some help on defense. Both provide a very similar element so losing one in exchange for some sandpaper may work.
Luke Glendening anchors the fourth line and serves well as an agitator and shut down center. Drew Miller barely played the season due to injury, but if brought back, also works well as a penalty killer and grinder. Darren Helm may be back depending on his salary wants, but if not, Athanasiou appears ready to take his place.
Tomas Jurco has never really established himself and may best be suited towards a trade. Pulkinnen similarly has never been able to grab a permanent lineup spot, but his upside is still high and coach Jeff Blashill should give him every chance to earn that spot.
Brad Richards fit into the locker room, but not so much on the ice and won’t be back.
Datsyuk appears to have made up his mind that he will return to Russia. His absence will be substantial, but there is little the Wings can do to replace him. Many will want to sign free agent Steven Stamkos to alleviate the loss, but the cost will be high and will probably hurt the team in the long run as players such as Larkin seek pay raises. The best answer is probably to add from within; draft, develop and give young players a chance to succeed.
The team has never been able to fully replace Nick Lidstrom. No one could, but there are no number one defensemen in the pipeline to lead the team.
Niklas Kronwall was a suitable stopgap for a few years, but he is better suited as a number 2 or 3 and with his past injury history, maybe not that anymore.
Danny DeKeyser is an excellent shutdown player with untapped offensive potential. He is a building block moving forward.
Jonathan Ericsson has suffered a horrible year and seems to be trending downwards. He is turnover prone, slower and has never used his size effectively. With his contract, he is not going anywhere, but unless something changes, he appears to be an albatross in the top six.
Mike Green performed okay in his first year, but more offense was needed from him. Part of that may be acclimating to a new system, part may be poor coaching. His second year with the team should be better.
Kyle Quincey was an effective shut down defenseman, but may leave in free agency. Alexey Marchenko, who suited himself well this season, seems like an adequate replacement.
There are not a lot of free agent options this summer to dramatically upgrade the defense. Youngster Xavier Oullet should be with the team full-time, but he is hardly a game-changer. Perhaps some form of trade (Tomas Tatar and a 1st round pick) can land a top four option to help Kronwall, DeKeyser, Marchenko and Green out.
Jimmy Howard is officially on the trading block. With Petr Mrazek showing he is the Wings’ goaltender of the future, there is no room for a $5 million backup, especially with Datsyuk’s dead salary on the books. A team like Calgary may utilize his services.
Mrazek has now been through two full-season campaigns and though he slowed down during the second half of the season, looks like a money goalie in the playoffs where he has excelled despite not getting to the second round. A veteran backup would help ease some of his burden during the season, but when Mrazek is on his game, he can single-handedly win contests.
Jeff Blashill and company started the season well, but ended very poorly. His personnel decisions (scratching Brendan Smith and Kyle Quincey instead of Jonathan Ericsson, keeping Nyquist on the right side during the powerplay, Athanasiou’s low ice time) were baffling. His constant switching of the lineup made him seem constantly unsure of himself. And his changes to the powerplay doomed the Wings to mediocrity.
Perhaps with one season behind him as the man, Blashill will be more prepared to handle the rigors of being an NHL coach.
Many suggest that the Wings need to tank for a bit and build up high draft picks. They claim that this is the way the NHL works nowadays and point to teams such as Chicago and Pittsburgh, teams that stockloaded high draft picks for years by being terrible, as examples. But for every Chicago and Pittsburgh that spent a decade being terrible, there’s also an Edmonton and Columbus who have spent years gathering high draft picks and remaining terrible.
Blowing off the playoff streak will garner zero positive results unless the Wings unexpectedly win the draft lottery (and they are not Toronto-level terrible enough to do so). The best thing that can happen is for Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Petr Mrazek and Xavier Oullet to get as much experience playing as the team is transitioned to them, including time in the playoffs. Nobody should tank a season to achieve positive results. It rarely works.
The Red Wings simply need to continue on their current course. What the past season has taught us is that Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall can not carry the team anymore as they have in year’s past. The next generation needs to lead, perhaps earlier than expected. They will make mistakes, and there will be growing pains, but that is part of the maturation process. Blashill’s job is to help them get through those tough times.
The team will not be a Stanley Cup contender next season and many will pick against them making the playoffs, but depending on free agency, the draft and trades, that may change.