With the start to the regular season tantalizingly close, Detroit fans will soon see how this year’s team will perform. This year’s Red Wings team will seemingly have a harder time than ever in keeping the now-25 year playoff streak alive. Here’s a look at three strengths and weaknesses going into the 2016-17 season.
1. Red Wings players’ strong play at the World Cup of Hockey
On July 1, the Red Wings gave New York Islanders free agent Frans Nielsen a six year contract. During the World Cup of Hockey, NHL fans outside the New York area got a chance to see why Nielsen should be a great addition for Detroit. I wrote an in-depth article about his playing style and strengths, but the short version is he’s an intelligent, two-way player who nearly almost makes the safe play, but has a knack for getting wide open in front of goal. He was widely considered one of the top players for Team Europe, who reached the finals of the tournament.
In addition to Nielsen, Tomas Tatar had a particularly strong tournament, in particular scoring the overtime goal to finish off a favored Swedish team in the semi-finals. It was his second goal of the game, and third of the tournament. Tatar and free agent signee Thomas Vanek were heavily involved in Team Europe’s offense.
Dylan Larkin scored a beautiful goal for Team North America before the coaching staff decided that they would only play half the team from then on. Larkin has also been impressive in the pre-season games he has played in. While Team USA crashed and burned, Justin Abdelkader played well for his country, and was acknowledged by many as one of a few bright sports for the under-performing team.
2. Team Depth
During a preseason game with the Bruins, the Wings broadcast team alluded to players competing for “one forward spot, and one defensive spot.” We’ve talked to death both on this site and on the podcast how annoying it is that players we feel are NHL ready are likely going to start this season in the AHL.
But as much as many fans wish that the team featured more youth in the lineup on opening night, it does give Detroit an advantage in a few ways.
First of all, If a player goes down with an injury, the team has NHL capable players who can fill the role. Many would be pretty comfortable with Anthony Mantha filling in for an injured Justin Abdelkader.
Additionally, those players who feel they are NHL-ready have motivation to perform well for the Griffins, since call-up spots will be very competitive. They’ll also be highly motivated to perform while they are in the NHL, since if they don’t, they’ll likely be passed over for the next call-up.
3. A solid goaltending duo
The Red Wings were looking to move Jimmy Howard’s contract this off-season, but were unable to find any takers, especially with a goalie like Ben Bishop as another option for teams in search of help in net. While the Wing’s cap situation isn’t in great shape with Howard and Mrazek taking up over $9m combined, having these two back should help to provide stability in the crease.
Mrazek is hoping to have a more consistent year than last year, in which he looked very good for large stretches of the season, but faltered at times, requiring Howard to step in. While fans hope Mrazek plays to the potential we’ve seen for a full season, having Howard on deck will be a bonus.
1. Suboptimal player usage
Part of a team’s success is not just having good players, but using them correctly. Many fans last year criticized first year coach Jeff Blashill for the amount of time various players received. Thanks to Dominik Luszczyszyn’s Detroit season preview article for The Hockey News, people who felt that way have support.
Here’s an eye-opening excerpt from Luszczyszyn’s article:
Here’s a simple experiment showcasing just how inefficient Detroit’s lineup structuring is. Let’s pretend every team gave their best players (according to this model) the most ice-time and their worst the least. Their best player would get an average No. 1 forward ice-time, their second best an average No. 2 and so on. This would create an “optimal” lineup according to Game Score, with the difference between their actual lineup showing how efficient it is.
Here are the results of that (which don’t factor if a 13th forward or 7th D-man are better than someone else in the lineup). Detroit is last. By a lot.
The rest of the article is well-worth reading.
If Blashill can use his players wisely, Detroit should do better this year. If not, this could be the first year the team misses the playoffs in a quarter century.
2. The Loss of Pavel Datsyuk
Anyone paying attention knows losing Datsyuk will hurt the Wings this season. But, there is a good chance this could hurt the team even more than people think. The combination of the loss of Datsyuk with the aging of Henrik Zetterberg leave Detroit with a huge unanswered question down the middle.
The acquisition of Frans Nielsen will help, although he can’t fully replace #13. Dylan Larkin seems poised to take over a top-six center position, and if he can avoid the sophomore slump, he and Nielsen could make losing Datsyuk more palatable.
Over the summer, the Red Wings extended Danny DeKeyser to a six year, $30 million contract. Dekeyser has shown himself capable of being a top-four defenseman, but he’s not really a top pair player, at least not yet. In fact, Detroit doesn’t have a real top pair defenseman. Brendan Smith has shown promise in a lesser role, and it looks likely that he may start on the top pair with DeKeyser. If one or both can’t handle the tough assignments, it could be a long year for the Detroit defense.
Niklas Kronwall may not start the season due to injury, and Jonathan Ericsson has not given fans reason to be confident in his ability to help the team defensively. With several young defenseman waiting for a spot on the NHL team now having to be exposed to waivers, it’s likely the team will lose players for nothing before getting to see them take a regular NHL shift. Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet are two young defenseman said to be competing for a spot, but neither has stood out in pre-season games thus far. If Kronwall and Ericsson are given reduced minutes, Mike Green, Smith, Dekeyser, and Alexey Marchenko could lead a revitalized defense corps. If not, watch out.