In times of doubt, the Detroit Red Wings have prevailed more than once. Never in the last few seasons, more precisely ever since the retirement of Nicklas Lidström, did the self-proclaimed experts expect the Winged Wheel in the playoffs. It did not change ahead of 2016-17, the doubts actually grew. In some way, it is justified. Detroit lost Pavel Datsyuk back to his home country Russia and signed free agents, whose names do not possess the same reputation as the Magic Man.
When going down the roster however, I believe that it is not far-fetched to believe that the Red Wings will improve this season. This will not be by a large margin, but well enough to make it into the playoffs for a 26th consecutive year. In those same playoffs, they will be able to make more noise than last time around. This is due to different reasons.
Petr Mrazek will be a star in this league and undoubtedly has #1 status to start this year. His stretch around February last year was magnificent and I expect more of the same. In preseason, he was decent already and stunned the Toronto Maple Leafs kids on multiple point-blank opportunities last Saturday. Mrazek will start against Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
Jimmy Howard remains on the team as well and will back up the Czech. Throughout his career, he has been reliable and will continue to be just that. Detroit hope to lose his cap hit by the time of the expansion draft next year, but the amount of free agent goalies around the league make this scenario unlikely as well. A buyout could be the only option. It would hurt player and management on a personal level, because Howard in theory does not deserve this, but the development of Petr Mrazek and emerging Grand Rapids Griffins goalie Jared Coreau leave them no other option business-wise.
Probably the biggest issue of the Red Wings since years now, the defense did not see many changes. Since GM Ken Holland’s plans to trade for a top pairing defensemen were as successful as the Leafs in the last 40 seasons, a lot of pressure remains on the aging core that is led by the likes of Niklas Kronwall or Mike Green.
While Green has proved himself as a solid addition at the back, Kronwall has not been good of late. Slowed down by nagging injuries, the Swede was not able to perform night-in, night-out for his hockey club. This summer, he once again suffered from an injury and was unable to play the World Cup of Hockey or any game of preseason. The fact that he will still have to play premium minutes, despite not being able to produce premium performances at the same time hurts Jeff Blashill’s team.
The ones that have to make up for this problem are others: Brendan Smith, who has developed slowly but surely and avoids the same amount of costly mistakes in his own zone that stopped him in the past. Danny DeKeyser, the local player, had a bit of a down-year himself in 15-16. He was not seen on the similar level he was able to show previously. Russian Alexey Marchenko has been the most recent guy to come up from Grand Rapids and provides solid defensive depth. He is expected to make a step forward on the other end of the ice. Finally, Jonathan Ericsson. The error machine from Sweden can only improve and will hopefully do so for the sake of sanity of his own teammates.
With Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, Detroit has two capable alternatives that are ready to step up in case of an injury. Likely this will already be the case at the beginning of the year, since Kronwall will not be ready to start. Especially right-handed Sproul has a cannon of a shot and could be used as an offensive weapon. Both will get a serious chance this year and can solidify their position on the squad with according performances.
The main reason for success – aside from Petr Mrazek – will be the forward core. This might sound weird to many considering the absence of Pavel Datsyuk, but let me explain. The first (or second, depending on Dylan Larkin’s development speed) is going to be filled by Frans Nielsen. The former Islander has turned into an extremely reliable center in the NHL, whom you can trust to get around 50 points. In addition, and maybe more importantly, Nielsen was never a man of many injury trouble. The same could not be said anymore about Datsyuk in the last years.
The Dane is going to be accompanied by captain Henrik Zetterberg and Slovak Tomas Tatar. While Z is certainly in the mid to late stages in his own career, Tatar was supposed to be counted upon as a future cornerstone of the franchise. Following a great 56 points in 14-15, his performances trailed off the past season (45). With consistent first-line ice time, the 25-year old is poised to improve again, even more so after a strong World Cup tournament.
Larkin himself, one of the few bright spots last season, hopes to avoid a sophomore slump. In reality, his production already trailed off towards the end of 15-16, leading to the player having to find new solutions. If he continues do so now, there is no doubt that a talented player like him continues his rise in the NHL.
The third player that I am expecting progress out of is Gustav Nyquist. Especially his previously existent power play production was lacking, leaving him with just 17 goals and 43 points. As a goalscorer, he needs to improve and his numbers suggest a quite decent likelihood of that. Throughout his career, the Swede possesses a shooting percentage of 13.2. Last year, this has gone down to 10.6. If Detroit’s PP can improve overall, combined with good line chemistry with Thomas Vanek, it is not unlikely that Nyquist can up his production again.
Lastly, the fourth line has been a thorn in the eye of many fans. Steve Ott is hated throughout the league, most of all because he is a pain in the ass to play against. Pairing him with Luke Glendening and Drew Miller gives the Wings a gritty, defensive fourth line. In previous years, adding scoring elements like Teemu Pulkkinen or Tomas Jurco went horribly wrong with their playing style. Overall, I expected a more balanced fourth line, even if they should play less than they recently did.
I think there is reason for optimism going into the season for the Detroit Red Wings. Even if many people will not agree with it right now, the players will be eager to show that they are better than their usual underestimation. Along with Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha receiving their chances throughout the year, the Wings could actually improve from last year.