Steve Yzerman’s two most significant moves concerning the blue line (and, indeed, perhaps his most significant personnel moves so far) congest the defensive depth chart even further than what the organization was left with upon Ken Holland’s departure. First, the team signed Oliwer Kaski, a Finnish defenseman who had just finished a phenomenal year in Finland’s Liiga (to be fair, this signing was set in motion before Yzerman rejoined the organization.) Then, last Friday, the Red Wings took a defenseman, Moritz Seider, in the first round of the draft. This makes the competition for a roster spot all the more difficult for Joe Hicketts, a young defensemen already facing an uphill battle against a field crowded by Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Vili Saarijarvi, and Madison Bowey before Moritz Seider and Oliwer Kaski were added to the mix.
Joe Hicketts has gotten a small handful of NHL games under his belt, and a season ago seemed to be in line to be the first blue-line call-up for the 2018-19 season. Indeed, in the spring of 2018 it looked like Joe Hicketts would get his shot in Detroit as soon as Kronwall, Ericsson, Daley, or somebody else went down with a season-ending injury. Then Dennis Cholowski showed up and separated himself in the pre-season from the rest of the defensive crop. Hicketts, along with Filip Hronek, would eventually end up back in GR after the Red Wings’ rash of defensive injuries healed, and when Cholowski cooled down and seemed to need time in Grand Rapids, Hronek came up to Detroit instead of Hicketts.
Hicketts has gotten this far in his career being a positionally responsible defenseman, and while I hesitate to call him a stay-at-home defender when the Red Wings employ some older, less mobile defensemen, Hicketts certainly leans further that way than, say Cholowski or Hronek. However, the NHL game at times seemed just too fast for Hicketts and his strength, position and situational awareness didn’t hold up against the speed of the league. This has drawn questions to his size (5’8”, 181lbs), but Hicketts’ game has always relied on not letting his size be a factor. It is just that in his NHL sample last year, Hicketts couldn’t leverage his positioning as well as he can in the AHL.
This season, Hicketts must find a way to distinguish himself, as he surely understands. Hicketts was recently extended a qualifying offer, but what will be the term? The shortest possible contract to get him to UFA status might be advisable. It may be in the best interest of Hicketts to consider looking elsewhere in the NHL in the coming years. It is not hard to imagine futures for Hicketts as bottom-pair defenders on an NHL team, but Detroit may not be in the right place in its lifecycle for him. Perhaps a more established team with sounder defensemen might be better served by on-boarding a young defenseman on their bottom pair than Detroit.
And of course, the situation for Detroit’s defenders changes radically in a year. Ericsson, Daley, and Green are all on expiring contracts, with Kronwall likely retiring if he isn’t already going to retire this summer. This could indeed provide a chance for Hicketts to break into the NHL on a permanent basis. Yzerman and company still believe in him; the organization just let go of guys like Frk and Sulak. They wouldn’t keep Hicketts if they didn’t believe he had a chance. There are potential spots open for Joe Hicketts in 2020-21, but he must separate himself from most of Cholowski, Hronek, Bowey, Saarijarvi, Seider, Kaski, and perhaps even Jared McIssac to make it.