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Detroit Red Wings Season Preview: The Offense

What can we expect from the Wings’ forwards this year?

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Wings have their opening night roster ready to go, so what should we expect from our forwards this year? Jeff Blashill’s first crack at putting together this roster seems to be one of the better possible combinations. That’s both good, perhaps we’ll see some smarter personnel decisions this year, and bad, the team still doesn’t strike me as a playoff team up front. At any rate, let’s take a look at the forwards for the 2017-18 season.

The First Line - “Two Swedes and a Slovak Walk into a Bar...”

As he has for the past few years, I fully expect Henrik Zetterberg to log significant time as the team’s 1C this upcoming season. What he’s able to contribute is likely going to be a function of two variables: His health, and how much (or how little) time he has to drag a winger like Justin Abdelkader or Luke Glendening around.

We’ve seen Hank put up respectable numbers with Abdelkader on his wing before, but I liked the chemistry Zetterberg had with more skilled players like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist quite a bit more. As it happens, Jeff Blashill does too. Tatar and Nyquist were up on the first line at the Wings’ last practice before this writing. That trio represents a halfway decent first line, and don’t forget about the possibility of moving Anthony Mantha into the mix if the need arises.

And even though Zetterberg hasn’t had any major health concerns over the past few seasons, he’s played in all but 5 games the past three years, his health will be something to watch as Hank’s games played total continues to climb.

Regardless, the Wings will be fielding a somewhat decent first line. A 37-year-old center and two 50 point wingers might not sound like a lot, but among forwards with 300+ mins at 5v5 last season, Tatar and Nyquist ranked 85th and 79th in Primary Points/60 mins, respectively. Neither is a slouch. They’re relatively young and among the more productive players in the league. Hopefully they’ll both have good starts to the year playing with Zetterberg. Nyquist especially, as he was noticeably better while flanking Hank late last season than he was earlier in the year.

(For the record, Zetterberg finished 15th and Mantha 132nd in the same metric discussed above).

The Second Line - “Contract Year Kids”

It seems like Dylan Larkin has taken the reins from Frans Nielsen as the team’s 2C to start this season. This is going to be a crucial step in Larkin’s development, as he got a little bit of time at center early last season and was quickly moved back to the wing. But later in the year Jeff Blashill kept him at center and he was much more effective there. It’ll be important for him to pick up where he left off.

Visualization from HockeyViz.com

In interviews during training camp, Larkin talked about how he’s more confident this year and how he thinks he’s ready for an increased role with the team. I think I speak for everyone reading this when I say that I hope he’s right. The Wings need some stability and goal-scoring beyond their top line and it all starts with the center position. Nielsen getting most of the reps at 2C does provide a bit of stability, but doesn’t give the team the potential on offense they need.

Mantha looks poised to play on a youthful second line with Larkin, although he did play a good portion of last season on the team’s top line. 36 points in 60 games doesn’t seem like a lot, but Mantha looks bigger and stronger this year, something I didn’t think was necessarily possible. Look for him to build on his solid introduction to the league and possibly move past one of Tatar or Nyquist on the depth chart at wing, although I wouldn’t mind if he spent the entire season creating space for Larkin instead of Hank.

To round out the second line, it seems like Jeff Blashill is going to give Martin Frk a chance to show what he can do in the NHL. I don’t mind this decision here at all. Give these guys some favorable deployment and a bit of powerplay time so we can see what they can do. Even though I’m not sure Frk sticks with the team, especially if/when Andreas Athanasiou gets re-signed, I’m excited to see where this little experiment goes.

All three are RFAs after this season, so look for them to impress the Wings’ management as they look for new contracts.

The Third Line - “They’re Making How Much This Season?”

Justin Abdelkader should hold down a spot on the third line, although it remains to be seen whether or not Jeff Blashill will keep him in the bottom six. Last year, Abdelkader found himself on the top line early but finished the season in the middle six. With Mantha back this year, Frk on the team and Tyler Bertuzzi and/or Evgeny Svechnikov possibly in the mix for a roster spot as the season drags on, it seems like Abdelkader won’t see much time anywhere besides this spot, but it’ll be something to watch for sure.

Darren Helm and Frans Nielsen round out this unit, which I’m not sure will be great but should probably be able to play some defensive hockey, at least. It’s a very expensive third line to ice though, this trio has a combined cap hit of $13.35M (!), each has a NTC or NMC (!!!) and they’re all in their early 30’s (!!!!!). Nielsen, 33, is signed through 2022; Helm, 30, is signed through 2021; and Abdelkader, 30, is signed through 2023.

Screenshot from CapFriendly.com

If the Wings are serious about the rebuild, I think they’re going to have to find a way to jettison at least one of these deals. Nielsen remains a strong defensive presence despite his declining production, Helm is a nice utility player and Abdelkader has some use as a depth forward. But that’s a ton of cap to have on your third line for three “nice to have (at the right price), but not guys you build a team around”-type players.

I doubt the Wings are able to get out from underneath any of these three deals, so expect to see all three in Detroit for a while. Just don’t look at that CapFriendly screenshot and this skater aging curve visualization side-by-side for too long. Your head might implode.

The Fourth Line - “Pure Michigan... and Riley Sheahan

Luke Glendening seems to be the guy who’ll line up on the right side on the fourth line and David Booth seems to have made the team, he’ll likely skate as this unit’s left winger. By all accounts, it seems like Riley Sheahan will remain as the team’s fourth line center for the time being. Luke Witkowski will probably get his fair share of minutes on this unit too. So I guess the common denominator is that if you’re from Michigan, this is the place for you. And also Riley Sheahan.

Out of each line, this one is probably the most fluid and I’m sure we’ll get to see quite a few players get minutes here. With Steve Ott and Drew Miller no longer on the team, there’ll be some mixing and matching to be done. Jeff Blashill has plenty of options for this unit, so hopefully it won’t be the possession black hole that the “OMG” line was last season. Or maybe it’ll just be a smaller black hole. That seems more likely.

Next time we’ll take a look at the Wings’ defense!