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Red Wings preseason observations: roster decisions in the age of rebuild

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Yes some guys who are ready won’t be on the roster on day one

NHL: SEP 22 Preseason - Penguins at Red Wings Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thanks to the addition of the Kraft Hockeyville exhibition, the Red Wings are four games into their preseason slate and less than halfway done. Still, I think we’re far enough along to start making the kind of guesses that should only change with big surprises or disappointing injuries.

The Wings beat a Penguins preseason road squad in OT on Sunday to improve to 2-2 in early rehearsal time. With the comportment of the club, I wouldn’t expect a full dress-rehearsal just yet as there are plenty of guys looking for opportunities to prove themselves and a number of guys playing just to get warmed up for spots they already know they own (like Larkin).

With that in mind, let’s take a look at where the roster battles stand. Here are my best guesses on the look of the team as of right now (and yes, it does like like Helene St. James’ lineup posted early Sunday morning).

The Forwards

Option 1 - The Safer Play

Tyler Bertuzzi - Dylan Larkin - Anthony Mantha
Andreas Athanasiou - Frans Nielsen - Taro Hirose
Adam Erne - Valtteri Filppula - Christoffer Ehn
Darren Helm - Luke Glendening - Justin Abdelkader
(Jacob de la Rose)

The top line is the only guarantee I’d give you at this point. Even going with 13 forwards instead of 14 is a big question for me. With doubts looming on the health of Justin Abdelkader and Frans Nielsen, Jeff Blashill may want to have two reserves up front. As-constructed here, the lineup flexes to put de la Rose in on the fourth line and re-shuffling things upwards to replace an injury. Abdelkader would be a simple one-for-one switch whereas Nielsen missing time leaves different options. Does Blashill shift AA to center and bump either Helm or Abby up or does he stack Filppula with AA and Hirose and try to go with two scoring and two grinding lines?

With just the one reserve, the Red Wings would be sending first round picks Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Evgeny Svechnikov to Grand Rapids to start the season. The only other forward hopeful with a realistic shot would be college free agent Ryan Kuffner. I’d comfortably put him behind all of the draftees on that depth chart. I like Kuffner’s hustle but his game so far has hinted more at a path to the kind of guy who consistently plays well enough in the AHL to make fans wonder when he’s going to get a real shot at the big show.

Option 2 - The Prove-It-Early Gambit

Tyler Bertuzzi - Dylan Larkin - Anthony Mantha
Andreas Athanasiou - Frans Nielsen - Taro Hirose
Adam Erne - Valtteri Filppula - Filip Zadina
Darren Helm - Luke Glendening - Justin Abdelkader
(Christoffer Ehn)

In this scenario, Yzerman risks losing Ken Holland’s waiver wire pickup Jacob de la Rose to waivers himself in order to keep Ehn as the Ready-Five forward and to give Filip Zadina a shot at the beginning of the season to get off to a hot start and potentially stay that way.

Personally, I like Option 2 more. While I understand GMs not liking the risk of losing guys to waivers when you’ve got essentially the same player eligible to be sent down, Ehn’s future projects just a little brighter than JDLR’s, and the potential depth loss could be made up for with future call-ups for guys like Matt Puempel, Ryan Kuffner, Dominic Turgeon, or Givani Smith.

The big thing about Ehn is that I can’t shake this overwhelming Joakim Andersson-iness of his game. That’s not a bad thing for me, but it keeps him with the big club just because where Andersson at a similar career point was better suited to be the defensively-responsible center in Grand Rapids for Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, the Wings don’t have that right now. They have both Joe Veleno and Michael Rasmussen who should be getting big reps at center with the Griffins and Evgeny Svechnikov as the only scoring winger in this scenario who is knocking at the door.

Svechnikov should be with the big club before the end of the season, but after missing an entire year, it makes sense to get him reacclimated to the AHL at the offset. He should help out a Rasmussen or a Veleno as much as they should help him.

Speaking of Veleno and Rasmussen, I’m currently higher on the former than the latter, but when it comes to callup priority, Rasmussen should be ahead. It will be an ongoing argument all season as we continually monitor whether this should be going ahead as another rebuild year where we want to see the team play well but get lottery-level results or whether they’re ahead of schedule and ready to make one of those potential playoff runs that would be worth the loss in draft position. Until I’m convinced that a postseason run would be the worthwhile play, I’m going to argue in favor of limiting Joe Veleno to fewer than nine NHL games in order to guarantee his ELC slides.

The Defense

Patrik Nemeth - Mike Green
Danny DeKeyser - Filip Hronek
Trevor Daley - Madison Bowey
(Jonathan Ericsson - Oliwer Kaski)

Here’s the really fun one. I’m not breaking this into an either/or scenario because everything is so wide open. I have no doubts about Nemeth, Green, DeKeyser, Daley, and Ericsson being on the roster and very few doubts about Hronek at this point. I have Ericsson as a reserve because he’s injured again right now. I gave the nod to Kaski off the bat based on the Sulak-Until-Proven-Otherwise theory (with Kaski being the closest to actually being Libor Sulak). He’s looked pretty mature as he’s adjusted to North America, but I honestly don’t expect him to be on the roster for very long even if he does make the 8th D-man on the team.

My personal preference for the lineup would be to place Dennis Cholowski over Madison Bowey. I feel that both players are very similar in terms of the kind of benefits they bring and the kind of downsides their risk-taking can create. The difference is that the three years’ worth of development Bowey has over Cholowski leaves me believing that the younger guy is more likely to learn from and improve upon those mistakes.

The problem with this is that Bowey is waiver-eligible and the risk of losing the Nick Jensen trade by giving away a pretty decent NHL defenseman (by a Red Wings’ squad who for the last few years has been in desperate need of more pretty decent NHL defensemen) would be pretty embarrassing to lose. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how badly-timed these last two paragraphs are after his performance against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

I also can’t help but think that the preseason pairing of Cholowski and obviously AHL-bound Dylan McIlrath is a portent of things to come for the young Dennis the Menace. I think Brian Lashoff would be a better mentor in Grand Rapids as a solid guy, but McIlrath does have that necessary AHL snarl that could very much help the still-lanky non-Chychrun.

Moritz Seider looks to remain the most-discussed German import to Detroit since the Daimler-Chrysler merger, and for good reason. The 18-year old in his brief time has looked nothing less than absolutely comfortable with this level of play. He hasn’t played flawlessly but watching a kid with the kind of calmness he has is very promising.

All that said, Seider is in the same boat for me as Joe Veleno. While I think his development would benefit from exposure to the full NHL grind, I think the simulation of that grind in the AHL is not as detrimental as the risk of both burning a year on his entry-level deal and the risk of him being good enough to accidentally help win too many games for the Red Wings right now. I’m open to being convinced that a run to the playoffs is good for the Wings and having Mo Seider along for/helping that run would be good too, but I’m not there yet.

Rounding out the look at the defense, the harsh truth for both Joe Hicketts and Vili Saarijarvi is that they’re probably both depth fill-in afterthoughts at this point. They’ll be able to contribute and both will probably get time in the NHL this season but in terms of their development and the Red Wings’ timeline, I’m mentally putting them into a category of assets with value to-be-determined. I expect they’ll either hold temporary spaces, fill replacement depth needs, or be moved for future value when the time is right.

Goaltending

Jimmy Howard
Jonathan Bernier
Calvin Pickard
Filip Larsson

This is the easiest of the positions to guess at. If Calvin Pickard is on the roster for even ten games this season, it’ll be injury-related. The goaltending position is currently in a holding pattern for the Wings’ rebuild timeline. All they need out of the netminders this year is for the kids developing to not get crushed by consistent let-downs. Howard and Bernier are going to have to face other teams taking advantage of youthful mistakes. The hopes is that the amount of those that end up in the back of the net is enough for the kids to learn from but not so many that the kids get too gunshy.

In the meantime, the team will be looking to see whether Larsson can be the goalie who can steal more games in a few years.