It's been a long, hot summer, and for Red Wings fans, the onset of fall means that some action will finally be witnessed.
J.J. kicked off the season previews by taking a look at the bottom six forwards, and today we shift our attention to a trio of players that are similar yet different yet comparable yet unique. I would call these players the bottom six centers, but one of them might not be a center for much longer, and the other two could and/or should face some competition for ice time.
#43 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jan 21, 1987
After missing nearly an entire season of hockey in 2012-13, Darren Helm returned to the Wings' lineup in November and promptly scored a goal on just his second shift of the game. Despite once again battling injuries, he managed to appear in 40 games last season and tie a career high with 12 goals, helped in large part by his 14.5 S%. As the Wings made a push to make the playoffs, Helm became the team's #1 center, and responded by registering 8 points in the Wings' final 10 games.
Strengths: Besides the fact that he's easily the fastest player on the team, Helm displayed an offensive side last year that has been lacking from his game in the past. He's a relentless forechecker, can kill penalties, can create offensive opportunities because of his speed, and is, according to Mike Babcock, the best third line center in the league.
Weaknesses: Every year we say is the year that Helm sets records for shorthanded goals, to the point that it's almost comical when he does get a breakaway while killing a penalty, because we're just waiting for the inevitable easy save by the goalie. Last year at this time we were talking about his biggest weakness being his health, and after watching him play at the end of last year, it's much more likely that he's finally healthy.
Expectations: Helm was lumped in with the next two guys because he's been a third line center for a while now. Yet, Babcock announced that he will be starting the season as a winger playing with Pavel Datsyuk, so the expectations shift along with his position. He can't just be a hard worker who pops in the occasional goal; as a first-line winger, his job will be to use the strengths listed above to create consistent offense and allow Datsyuk to do his thing. He won't shoot 14.5% again, but if Helm can stay healthy (and at this point, "healthy" for Helm is 70+ games) and remain on the top line, there's absolutely no reason that he can't set career highs in every offensive category and shirtless pictures.
#41 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Apr 28, 1989
In what can only be described as "the move that literally no one saw coming", Luke Glendening was called up by the Red Wings midway through the 2013-14 season and made such a strong impression on Mike Babcock that he remained on the team even when other players returned from injury. The Grand Rapids native cemented his role as the 4th line center by playing a hard-working, grinding style of hockey that Babcock clearly took to. After appearing in 56 regular season and all 5 playoff games, he was rewarded with a 3-year contract that saw his waiver-exempt status disappear.
Strengths: There's no question that Glendening will work his tail off every single second he is on the ice. He reminds me of Kirk Maltby, in that he's going to do whatever he can to help the team despite not having the most talent in the world. He kills penalties, was just under 50% in the faceoff circle as a rookie, and saw time against the opposition's better players on a regular basis, with mixed results.
Weaknesses: For the strengths listed above, he's a black hole offensively. He didn't score his first goal until April, although he was able to get one in the playoffs against Boston. His possession stats are tough to look at, he's not going to score more than 5 goals, and, if we're being honest here, he's probably pretty replaceable if he were to go down with an injury.
Expectations: Outside of Johan Franzen, I can't think of a player more polarizing than Glendening. Some folks love him because he works hard and is a Michigan kid and kept Sidney Crosby from scoring a million goals in one game. Others look at his statistics and think that he shouldn't be on the team. Since I'm a true Canadian, I'm going to land firmly in the middle and say that I think he's probably a great guy who isn't crucial to the team's success. The first 10 games will tell a lot about whether Glendening is going to remain in the lineup throughout the season. Offensively he'll struggle to hit double-digit in points and defensively his statistics likely won't be reflective of how strong his supporters think he's playing.
#15 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Dec 7, 1991
Until last season, Riley Sheahan was known more for an off-ice incident than his on-ice talents. After getting called up last year, he formed a kid line with Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco that became extremely effective for Detroit for the second half of the season. Long thought of as a bottom-six center who would be used in a more defensive role, Sheahan was able to put up 24 points in only 42 games, impressive even when considering he was used in a sheltered role. Sheahan entered this off-season as an RFA, and was given a 2-year contract with a $950K cap hit.
Strengths: Sheahan's defensive abilities are still being developed, but something about him reminds me of a bigger version of Valtteri Filppula. He's a good skater and appears to have a lot of hockey sense. He's a decent faceoff man (49% as a rookie) and showed that he can play on the power play. He's not a very physical player, but does use his size to his advantage in positioning.
Weaknesses: The offensive numbers from Sheahan last year were a pleasant surprise, but his goal total arose out of him shooting over 15%, which isn't a sustainable rate. The question that needs to be answered is whether Sheahan made Tatar and Jurco better or whether Tatar and Jurco made Sheahan better. My gut tells me that it's more of the latter than the former, given that all of the scouting of Sheahan had him in a bottom-six center role with more defensive responsibilities. He will also need to adjust to the grind of a full regular season, and could suffer a sophomore slump.
Expectations: With the return of Datsyuk and Stephen Weiss, Sheahan should be able to remain in the third line center role and continue to develop while avoiding the tougher assignments typically reserved for the top 2 lines. Tatar will be back and there's always the possibility that Jurco makes the team out of camp (especially if Daniel Alfredsson doesn't sign with the Wings), which could lead to the reunion of one of the Wings' most consistent lines from last season. Offensively, we could see a slight increase in his goal and point totals, but those expecting him to replicate his pace of a year ago will likely be disappointed. However, his possession stats should be impressive at the end of the year as he provides much-needed depth on the third line.