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.