Graham started off our season previews on Monday with the Detroit Red Wings' expected middle-six wingers. As nice as these guys are to have on the team, the players we're talking about are the kind you need to have to be a contender. As much as people say that teams need a top defenseman or an elite goaltender to be a contender, I think the main ingredient for a Stanley Cup winner is an elite center and depth down the middle.
The Red Wings have been trying to stock the cupboards with centers, especially in last season's NHL Entry Draft where they took pretty much all centers. Now that some of Detroit's best forwards are getting up there in years, the NHL roster depth is taking a hit down the middle.
#13 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jul 20, 1978
Known to Siri as "The Magic Man," Pavel Datsyuk is slated to be Detroit's top center for as long as he's in the lineup. We know that he definitely won't be suiting up for a significant chunk of the season as well, unfortunately. He had an incredible bounce-back season, being the only player on the team to average at least a point per game while getting into 63 games.
Strengths: He earned his nickname for a reason: Datsyuk can make plays happen out of thin air. When he's on the ice, the puck is going in the direction that favors the Red Wings the most. His hockey sense enhances his two-way abilities, especially in how he can take pucks away with simple positioning and stick lifts. Datsyuk's puckhandling is legendary, and in games, being able to pull pucks off the walls as easily as he does gives the Red Wings a chance to go up ice or feed the middle for scoring chances.
Weaknesses: There's no escaping it: Datsyuk is getting older. If last season is any indication, he's staving off a twilight decline in terms of his production, but he's also not been able to stay consistently healthy. In the last five seasons, Datsyuk's played 63, 45, 47 (of 48), 70, and 56 games. Not every season is going to be shortened by a lockout, so the chances of Datsyuk playing 90 percent of the games for the rest of his contract is not very high.
Expectations: Depending on who you believe and how long Datsyuk's recovery takes, he could be out until November. That'll already cut about 20 games off his stat line before the season even starts. But once he takes the ice, there's so far nothing to indicate that Datsyuk can't handle the top center duties for the Red Wings. He may not be point per game like he was last season, but he should definitely be among Detroit's most potent offensive weapons still being capable of playing in all situations.
#17 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
May 2, 1980
Here's a player who's had a roller coaster last few seasons. After "underperforming" relative to what he was making against the cap, the New York Rangers used a compliance buyout on Brad Richards. Richards parlayed his skill set and his history into a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, and he hit the jackpot, winning the Stanley Cup. Will he make it 2-for-2 in Detroit?
Strengths: He's a veteran who's been around the block a few times. On a team that's losing its vestiges of players who have won Stanley Cups (that's a depressing sentence to write), Richards brings championship experience to a team that's had trouble getting out of the first round. As a player, he can produce offense through his playmaking, and even at 35 years old, he is still very much capable of playing with elite players.
Weaknesses: At 35 years old, his veteran savvy could turn into age-old decline at any moment. For a guy who wasn't already known much for being a two-way player, his defensive game is almost certainly declining. Part of the motivation for his buyout in New York is that he doesn't bring as much to the table if he isn't scoring as much as he "should be."
Expectations: While Datsyuk is out, Richards will probably be the first or second option (the other being Henrik Zetterberg, to be discussed in a different post) for first-line center duties. Richards definitely has the experience of playing that role for teams in the past, especially in Dallas, but his age may be catching up to his ability to fulfill the role even in spot duty. Once he finds his proper role either as a second- or third-line center, he should be able to provide solid depth scoring. I'd expect around 35-40 points in around 80 games.
#15 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Dec 7, 1991
Enter the man who will likely determine Richards' role when Datsyuk returns to the lineup. Riley Sheahan managed to avoid the sophomore slump after being a surprisingly productive player when he was called up in 2013-14. Now that he'll turn 24 during the season, will Sheahan become the long-term answer at the second-line center position?
Strengths: Coming from a system like the NCAA where scoring sometimes feels nonexistent, Sheahan is a pretty solid defensive center. He's got a solid build in his 6-foot-3 frame. Perhaps his most underrated skill — and a tool that he should be using more often — is his shot, which is lethal in both its accuracy and its power.
Weaknesses: The biggest question mark at this point of Sheahan's career is whether he can produce and compete against higher level competition. He can stand to use his big frame more effectively — no, that's not code for "he needs to hit more." As already mentioned, he does possess a great shot, but he doesn't use it as often as he should.
Expectations: Sheahan probably has the biggest range of landing spots out of everyone on the roster, and so many things can happen with this season being his contract year. Regardless of what happens to Dylan Larkin (will be previewed in another post), I do think Sheahan stays at center the entire season. He's proven himself to be pretty durable, but his role may ultimately decide how much he produces no matter how many games he gets into. I think Sheahan does end up having a career year but still leaves us hoping for a "breakout" season: 15 goals, 30 assists.