Recent seasons have not been kind to the Detroit Red Wings. Despite reaching the playoffs each year for 25 straight, their success has dwindled down tremendously. Throughout the past years, first round playoff exits were the norm. It is a sad truth, that was not accepted for a long time by Hockeytown’s fans and greats. For Detroit, it is an insult to not compete for the Stanley Cup year in, year out. How do they get back into a position to have a shot at the ultimate prize?
Every successful championship team is built around one of the best defenses, unless the offense is off the charts. Since Nicklas Lidström’s retirement years ago, this defense was almost logically rattled big time. There is no option to replace hockey’s greatest defenseman in history, not now, not ever. While Niklas Kronwall and his friends tried their best for some years, supported by more or less sub-par efforts, it became quite obvious that this Red Wings team would not go anywhere without a bonafide top 2 defenseman.
The biggest problem: Defense
This offseason, they did not address their biggest need yet – again. However, some say that the large quantity of forwards will almost certainly result in a trade for a defenseman. I am not so sure about that. Teams do not give away their quality players cheaply and will likely be careful with Wings GM Ken Holland, after he fleeced the Arizona Coyotes at the Draft with Pavel Datsyuk’s contract.
While Anaheim Ducks talented defenseman Cam Fowler is available to acquire via trade, many teams are interested in his services, along with the Buffalo Sabres, which are seemingly very determined to make more splashes. They just missed out on Steven Stamkos and signed UFA forward Kyle Okposo to a big deal on July 1.
Holland has mentioned many times before that he will not trade his future away for a single player. What does the future hold for the Red Wings as it stands? After losing Datsyuk back to his home country Russia and hoping that UFA Frans Nielsen can fill the void, the aforementioned defense remained the same and only lost Kyle Quincey. Despite his quite solid performances, he can be replaced, especially for his price tag. The Red Wings have a lot of young defensemen in their system, reaching from Xavier Ouellet to Ryan Sproul to Joe Hicketts. All of them did extremely well in the CHL, but have not received a real chance on the big club yet, aside from Ouellet for a while.
Quite obviously, you cannot build your team’s defense around some kids just trying to make the cut into the NHL. If you had the opportunity to trade some of your prospects away for a really good defenseman with term, why would you not do it? While it does not have to be Dylan Larkin, players such as Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan or Teemu Pulkkinen should be far from untouchable, if you were interested in improving your lineup.
If it should really end up being last year’s defense minus Quincey, I am not looking forward to 2016-17.
A big plus point, and the main reason that the playoffs were even a possibility last season, was the goaltending. Czech Petr Mrazek was outstanding for a long period of time, ranking at the top of the NHL for GAA and SV%. When he came back down to earth, Jimmy Howard started playing well and carried the team into the postseason. Howard was supposed to be traded this summer, but in a rough market for goaltenders, it is impossible to find a suitor for his needs. His cap hit of over $5.2 mil will continue to count against the Wings. In fairness, it is hard to imagine a better backup for a young goalie like Mrazek. I expect him to develop further into the elite category in his position. It will not be done in one season, but he is a player that Detroit will not have to worry about longterm.
And up front?
Up front, a real #1 center is not available either. Captain Henrik Zetterberg tries his best, but is past his prime despite good stretches every now and then. He would be more suited for a #2 or #3 center role, but is needed on the top line. Dylan Larkin is supposed to be that star center for his hometown team one day. Frans Nielsen should fill the middle on the second line quickly with his style to play the game. The bottom six could use a little more goalscoring threat, especially Darren Helm is a tireless worker, but often unable to finish his chances. Drew Miller returning from injury should help the fourth line greatly.
Another weakness addressed in Free Agency was the slumping goalscoring. Particularly the team’s powerplay had a lot of trouble during the past year and is supposed to be helped by Austrian export Thomas Vanek. He seems past his prime, but a relatively cheap one-year deal for a “motivated athlete” (Holland) should pay off. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are required to take the next step as well after having experienced a setback year.
As you can tell from all the points I am making, a lot about next season remains unclear and depends on player development. If all the younger players that took a step back in 2015-16 can step it up again in a few months, along with solid performances from Zetterberg, Kronwall and Co., the playoffs are surely going to be reached again. Success in them however remains up in the air against teams such as the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the same division. Both are currently way ahead and can only be stopped by a surprise run and Petr Mrazek standing on his head.
At least until the Red Wings have developed Larkin into their #1 center and have acquired a defenseman that can log a serious amount of minutes in the playoffs.
Why the Red Wings will have a better season than expected
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.
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