As we inch closer and closer to the 2016-2017 season, we look to speculate on what this Red Wings team could look like. I think the general consensus amongst the fanbase is that it could be a long, long season. Losing a player like Pavel Datsyuk isn’t going to set in until we actually see the team play. Datsyuk was arguably one of the best possession players the analytics era has seen. He was the straw that stirred the drink in many cases. It is quite literally impossible to replace him. So what can we do to optimize what we have?
We’re going to do a five-part breakdown of the Red Wings potential lineup next season. We’re looking at top-six forwards, bottom-six forwards, defense, power play, and penalty kill units individually. We’re going to kick this off by looking at the top-six today, and what the lines should look like in my opinion.
Henrik Zetterberg - Dylan Larkin - Gustav Nyquist
The thing I would like to see the Red Wings do going forward is taking the training wheels off of Dylan Larkin. He played pretty much all of last season on the wing, while he’s been a center for most of his junior and college career. Perhaps he’s not a bonafide 1C, but Larkin has all the tools one would need to play that role - Speed, strength, two-way ability, vision, hockey sense, whatever the hell else you want to peg as necessary for a first-line center, he’s got it. If it doesn’t work, then you can swap Zetterberg to the middle, and you essentially have the same one-two punch that you did last year.
Gustav Nyquist needs to be playing primetime minutes, in my opinion. He had a slump season in 2015-2016, but he started to show that his two-way abilities are starting to develop. What this first line could give you is the ability to score, yet act as a shutdown line against other team’s top lines.
Justin Abdelkader - Frans Nielsen - Tomas Tatar
Nielsen was signed to be the team’s 2C. That’s why they paid him, that’s why they gave him term. The Red Wings don’t have another player who could be more viable for this position. You could say Riley Sheahan might be able to do it, but I think Sheahan is better-suited for a bottom-six role. Nielsen will see all situations, and act as the Red Wings’ “Swiss Army Knife.”
Justin Abdelkader is going to be in the top-six, so we might as well prepare for that. I’d really prefer him to not play on the top line, so I’m sticking him with Nielsen as his center. The idea of this line is to bring three different styles of play together — Abdelkader can bring the power forward-like gritty goal-scoring, or whatever you want to call it, Frans Nielsen will bring his crafty playmaking abilities, and Tomas Tatar will act as the flashy and highly-skilled offensive catalyst. This would be a line you could match up against another team’s bottom-six and create a mismatch in your advantage.
As I said before, it stings not to have The Magic Man anymore. I don’t think Henrik Zetterberg is a first-line center anymore, and pinning that responsibility on a 20-year-old who hasn’t seen consistent reps at center is a gigantic gamble. Here’s how I see it, if Larkin can’t quite cut it yet as your top center, you can fall back on Zetterberg. At least you know what you have there. I think the Red Wings are going to rely heavily on the second and third lines to act as the offensive maestros of this lineup, so optimizing a blend of skill, speed, size, and playmaking abilities is going to be of the highest importance.
As a final note, you’ve probably noticed the lack of Anthony Mantha. Why is that? Because I wholeheartedly believe that he will not make this team out of camp. They have far too many forwards after free agency. Barring a trade or two, I doubt any youngsters make it to start the season.
Bottom-six forwards are next... Stay tuned.