The wait for NHL hockey has been long this summer, but not to fret Red Wings fans, it’s quickly coming to a close. If you’ve been itching for the puck to drop on the 2018-19 season like I have, then you’ve probably paid close attention to the NHL Prospect Tournament that just wrapped up in Traverse City. Speaking of which, there were plenty of standouts throughout the tournament — Dennis Cholowski, Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina shined — and it got me thinking about the next wave of talent coming through the ranks and whether or not some of these prospects should be in the Wings’ lineup sooner rather than later? Not much is expected of this lineup as the team enters another year of its rebuilding phase, but it could be worthwhile to let their youth take the reins and accelerate their development at the NHL level. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three things to keep an eye on for the Red Wings with the season right around the corner.
Filip Zadina's play is absolutely seamless.— Kyle M. (@KyleWIIM) September 9, 2018
Life After Henrik Zetterberg
For all intents and purposes it looks like Hank has played his last game in a Red Wings uniform as he continues to deal with chronic back issues. It’s a shame really, but Father Time is undefeated and it appears it has left its mark on another hockey career. That being said, the Wings are now left without an identity and a leader in that locker room — enter Dylan Larkin. This is Larkin’s biggest season coming up in the red and white as he signed a five-year deal with a $6.1M cap hit on the heels of his best offensive season (63 points in 82 games). He has big skates to fill centering the top line this year and is very much in line to be the next captain. The 22-year-old will be the face of this franchise moving forward after a long-term commitment by the front office and he will have to serve as a catalyst for the rest of the young talent making the jump to the NHL level. Zetterberg’s presence on special teams might be where the Wings feel his loss the most, but there are some dynamic pieces for Dan Bylsma to work with between Rasmussen and Zadina (if they make the opening night roster), plus Martin Frk and Thomas Vanek both possess heavy right-hand shots.
Out With the Old and in With the New
The Wings currently have the oldest roster in the NHL despite injecting some of its youth, but the trend needs to continue. Zetterberg looks to be hitting the showers on a tremendous career and will likely join fellow countryman Johan Franzen on the LTIR ahead of the regular season. This is great for salary cap compliance and even gives the front office some wiggle room until the trade deadline. However, Ken Holland has a tendency to lean on his veteran players and there are still many more to deal with on the roster. The poor salary situations don’t help, but it would be magical if Holland could muster up something to alleviate the team of Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm or Frans Nielsen — all three contracts are bad and in a perfect world they would all be shuffled off the roster. Rasmussen and Zadina look the part of being able to step in and help this team right away, especially on the powerplay, where the Wings struggled mightily to the tune 17.5% (24th in NHL). Unfortunately, the team looks content with letting the contracts of Jonathan Ericsson (two years remaining) and Niklas Kronwall (one year remaining) play out at this point. So, the odds of Dennis Cholowski or Filip Hronek really seeing the ice, let alone making the team out of training camp seem slim. Don’t forget, Holland brought Mike Green back on a two-year deal and still has two more years invested in Trevor Daley — the backend doesn’t have much wiggle room at this point. Frk and Luke Witkowski could be on the roster bubble leading up to the season and this is where I would like to see the front office keep Rasmussen and Zadina in the picture (at least to start the year). Both players are too good to return to their junior squads and I think sticking with the big club will only help their development and gain that chemistry with Andreas Athanasiou, Larkin and Anthony Mantha.
Is Jeff Blashill on the Hot Seat?
I’ll be blunt. This is now the fourth season under Blashill’s tenure and unless this team takes the Atlantic Division by storm, it’s going to be three consecutive years watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs from their couch. I think there is a lot riding on this season, as there should be, and let’s not be naive to think this Wings team is of playoff caliber because it isn’t. That being said, if they just go through the motions and don’t show the fan base and progress this year, why should Blashill get another pass? He’s been juggling more lines over the last couple years than a busker at a street festival and it’s been helping nobody build chemistry up and down the lineup. Bylsma has been brought in an attempt to bolster the powerplay this season and will have to get creative now that Zetterberg will be missing. But, there could be other factors at play here and one has to wonder if Bylsma, with his coaching pedigree in this league and a former Stanley Cup winner, is Holland’s contingency plan behind the bench? Time will tell, but it’s a big season for Blashill and the results should matter.