For the second consecutive year, the Red Wings will miss the playoffs. Having grown accustomed to playoff streaks, rosters filled with Hall of Famers and Stanley Cups, this is a strange, surreal feeling for Hockeytown. For as long as I’ve been a hockey fan, heck as long as I’ve been alive almost, the Wings were the pinnacle of NHL success. So with this middling roster again failing to make the cut, what changes need to be made to elevate the Wings back to the level of success we’re accustomed to?
At the top of the list of questionable returnees are GM Ken Holland and coach Jeff Blashill. All indications are that both will return next season to much chagrin. Holland has done an admirable job in his 20 plus years running the team, with four Stanley Cups on his resume and thousands of regular season wins. When the Wings were expected to crash and burn following the labor strike of 2005, the team surprised many by continuing to contend, winning a Cup and making it to another final, based largely on the team’s ability to draft impact players in latter rounds (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom) and their strength in signing free agents to smart deals (Rafalski, Drake, Hossa), a testament to management. Since Lidstrom’s retirement though, the team has seemed lost and unable to break themselves free of also-ran status. Mike Babcock leaving as coach also seems to have left the team rudderless. And Holland’s string of free agent successes and drafting has been want in recent seasons (gone are Jiri Hudler, Valterri Filppula and Tomas Tatar, busts include Stephen Weiss, Tom McCollum and Brad Richards). With the recent trades of Tatar, Brendan Smith and Petr Mrazek, all indications are that the Wings are entering a new state of flux. Are Holland and Blashill the tandem to lead this team back out of the wilderness? My gut says no.
Holland has never overseen a rebuild and his questionable contract decisions (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm) have put the team in a salary cap dilemma. Again, this is not to say that he is a bad manager, just perhaps the wrong one for this team at this time. A new GM (perhaps assistant GM Ryan Martin or Kris Draper or someone outside the organization) might evaluate the team with a new perspective and make the necessary decisions to change the overall direction.
Blashill has had much success at the minor league level, but little to show at the national level. When the Wings have trailed entering the third period this season, they have won once and lost 24 times. That speaks to coaching more than anything else, an inability to properly motivate a team. Perhaps with a team with more talent, Blashill would be able to string together impressive numbers, but the best coaches in the league still ice competitive teams despite their struggles. The Wings just don’t seem to respond to Blashill in the way they did to Babcock and Bowman. Perhaps they need more of a taskmaster or just a different perspective behind the bench.
Regardless of management decisions, the Wings need improvement on the ice. Virtually every position needs to be upgraded.
Let’s start in net. Petr Mrazek was tagged as the goalie of the future, but his poor mindset and diminishing performance left him exposed in the latest entry draft and traded at this year’s deadline. What was once a solid position of strength is now an open question mark. Jimmy Howard has been pretty solid this season, as he has been in the past, but how much longer can he be the Wings number one option? He’s signed for one more season and could be brought back after that on a much cheaper deal for a couple of years. If he can play into his late thirties at the standard he has now, then great. That gives the Wings several years to draft and develop a whole slew of potential goaltenders in their farm system. If Howard’s injury issues reappear however, the Wings will find themselves desperately seeking short-term, veteran options to keep plugging holes in the ship. Sometimes you find a great goalie who goes undrafted and signs as a free agent who can carry your team, but more often than not, you need to draft and develop that starter and prepare him for the tough grind of the NHL. The good news is that the Wings needn’t be afraid to use their later round picks on goaltenders. Pekka Rinne (8th round), Ben Bishop (3rd round) and Frederik Andersen (7th round) were all drafted later in the draft. Unless you’re selecting a surefire star goaltender (Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price), it’s best to use your early picks on forwards and defensemen and gamble with your latter picks on goalies. With some prospects in the minors in this department, the Wings need to continue taking chances and seeing if they can develop their next goalie of the future. Perhaps last year’s third round pick Keith Petruzzilli, another huge goalie, can develop into that kind of performer.
The Wings greatest area of concern is their defense. Ever since Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired, Brad Stuart left and Niklas Kronwall injured his knee, the defense has lacked the all-world ability so long a staple of championship’s past. You can never just simply replace a defenseman of Lidstrom’s caliber overnight, but a defense by committee is necessary in today’s NHL and the Wings current crop (Mike Green, Danny DeKeyser, Nick Jensen, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley and Xavier Ouellet) are just not cutting it.
Mike Green should leave the team over the summer, freeing up some valuable cap space. He adds a nice degree of offense, but is too expensive to keep and his production will only decrease with age. Danny DeKeyser needs to be shifted down the lineup to a second-pairing role. He’s not suited for a job on the top line and should serve as a safe, shutdown player. Trevor Daley is an interesting piece that adds some mobility and is useful on the second pairing. Ouellet should be traded or let go after this season to make room on the roster. Jensen has regressed since his freshman season, but is a right-handed shot and might just need a boost of confidence. Then there’s Ericsson. After signing his huge deal, Ericsson doesn’t serve much use outside the penalty kill. He’s never been the most physical player and his skating seems to have slowed. He’s signed for two more seasons at $4.25 million, another albatross of a contract on the team. Trading him would be the best option, but no one will take that contract. Burying him in the minors is another path, but it seems the Wings are stuck with him for another couple of years.
Ideally, the dream scenario would be the Wings landing the top pick in this year’s draft and drafting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. It’s far-fetched and unlikely to happen, but such a development would give the team the game-breaking rearguard they need. Otherwise, high-end defensemen don’t hit the free agent market. If Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Erik Karlsson became available via trade, that could be another option, but the price for those players would likely include Dylan Larkin or Anthony Mantha, a non-starter. The only choice therefore is to draft and develop one. There are several promising prospects in the minors such as Joe Hicketts, Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski. None are likely number one defensemen, but one or two might surprise as numbers 2 or 3. Teams such as Pittsburgh and Nashville have done well with a plethora of rearguards who can move the puck and who do not necessarily serve as all-world players in the way Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Pronger were. Such an approach could work well for the Wings. Currently on the roster, there are no players of that puckhandling caliber so drafting is the only other course. Even latter picks though can produce that defenseman that teams covet (Karlsson was picked 15th, Roman Josi 38th, Duncan Keith 58th) so it’s up to the Wings draft team to find that special player who slips through the cracks.
Finally, in terms of offense, the Wings find themselves in better, if not great, shape. Young players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Andreas Athanasiou (if he resigns this summer) give the Wings some valuable forwards with top-six potential. Larkin has developed into a responsible defensive center in the mold of Jonathan Toews, capable of using his blazing speed to create offensive chances. Bertuzzi is a gritty, Holmstrom-esque player who digs pucks out of the corner and goes to the front of the net. Mantha is a power forward-in-waiting, bigger than most everyone else on the ice, a decent skater and a great shooter. Athanasiou has blazing speed and some silky hands, but needs to work on his defensive game and his attitude. Together, they give the Wings one and potentially two strong scoring lines if they develop along the right path. It’s just ensuring their success that is important.
The problem is a lack of other high-end prospects and an abundance of serviceable, but expensive veterans. Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen and Luke Glendening all are too expensive for their team contributions. This is not to say that any of them are bad players, just overpaid and in a salary-cap world, being overpaid for too long means long-term headaches for the team. Ideally, the Wings would find a trading partner for at least one of these contracts to clear some valuable cap space, but it seems unlikely. Whether it’s injury history (Helm) or lack of production (Abdelkader), the contracts are most likely unmovable. That said, crazier things have happened and teams at the deadline may value someone with Abdelkader’s ability to cause havoc or Glendening’s penalty killing acumen. Buying one of them out seems drastic since they are not anchors of the kind that Stephen Weiss was, but it may ultimately be necessary, especially if young players demand larger contracts.
How much longer Zetterberg keeps playing is an open question. His cap hit is high, but his value to the team is much greater than just points. An invaluable leader, he has three years left on his deal, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he left at any point and retired or was placed on long-term injured reserve.
Martin Frk’s shot keeps him a viable option on the powerplay and he’s cheap enough to be worth the roster spot. Gustav Nyquist has seen his stock go up and down throughout the years, having good games and poor games. He’s never been able to replicate his breakout scoring in his sophomore season and will always be viewed as somewhat of a disappointment in comparison. Not great defensively nor offensively, he’s just kind of there and should be considered a trade chip, especially at next year’s deadline. The Luke Witkowski experiment has failed as he is more detrimental to the team than helpful.
With Tatar traded, that opens up a winger spot for next season. Prospects such as Evgeni Svechnikov and Michael Rasmussen will get a long look in camp barring free agent acquisitions. The Wings need to get younger, faster and more skilled to compete in the modern NHL, similar to teams like Nashville, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
Those teams are built in the following way: strong center depth (three deep), serviceable wingers who are fast, a mobile defense and a solid goaltender. For the Wings to succeed in that style, they need another high-quality center, two more scoring wingers and three to four puck-moving defensemen. That seems like a lot and it should be noted that not all teams need to organized this way (look at the success of teams who rely on offensive prowess like the Toronto Maple Leafs or defensive acumen like the LA Kings), but depth at all positions is imperative and the Wings simply do not have it.
The dream scenario would be the following: Star center John Tavares signs this summer with the team at a reasonable contract. The Wings are able to trade a combination of Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm for a set of low round draft picks or troublesome contracts they can bury in the minors. They get a solid first round draft choice (maybe even Rasmus Dahlin if luck is on their side). Or they put together a package for Erik Karlsson that includes both of this year’s first round draft picks, Michael Rasmussen and Gustav Nyquist or something to that effect. Ken Holland is promoted and Jeff Blashill canned in favor of new leadership. Mantha, Athanasiou, Larkin, Bertuzzi and newcomers Svechnikov and Hicketts show themselves as the next wave of Red Wing stars. And unicorns parade around the ice during intermission.
As much as Wings fans want to dream about the above scenario, it’s not going to happen. The best case is the following: Holland and Blashill do not return and are replaced with new voices unattached to any personnel. The draft is spent not only making good selections, but the new GM also sees if there are potential burdensome contracts he can unload. He also looks into the free agent market for a quality winger or depth defenseman. Youngsters are given every opportunity to make the team and transition to take lead roles, relying on veterans such as Howard and Zetterberg to guide them. Draft picks are continuously accumulated and the team gets faster, younger, cheaper and more skilled. It’s not much of a change from this past season, but other than shedding contracts to make room for the next wave of players, there’s just not a lot the team can do. It’s drafting, developing and coaching, potentially with a new vision at the top to succeed in today’s game. That’s the key to success in today’s NHL and pretty much the only one. Big free agents don’t hit the market that often and trades are dollar for dollar and talent for talent. You rarely get more than what you gave away. The Wings’ priority should be the draft table and accumulating as many picks as possible. The current version of the Wings is just not going to cut it.
Sometimes quick turnarounds happen. A year after winning the draft lottery, New Jersey looks like a good bet to make the playoffs this year. The Colorado Avalanche are fighting for a playoff spot after being the worst team in the league last season even after trading away their number one center. The Vegas Golden Knights, a team of literal castoffs, have won their division. Strange things happen and some of it is due to luck, but it’s better to put yourself in a position of depth to succeed. The Wings need to put together a plan to succeed that’s different than their current course.