It all came crashing down for the Detroit Red Wings in 2016-17. The team missed the NHL’s postseason for the first time in 26 years, Pavel Datsyuk walked away from his contract to play out the remainder of his career in Russia, and Hockeytown mourned the loss of two of its most iconic figures, Gordie Howe and Mike Ilitch. As the Wings leave behind their storied residency at “The Joe,” and move into their new and impressive barn, Little Caesars Arena, the team’s future faces the most uncertainty it’s encountered in over two decades.
Gone are the days of reeling in the marquee free agents every summer while constantly being a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Most of the players from the Red Wings last run of success have gone their separate ways while the ones who remain are already planning retirement, skating on one good knee, or signed to less-than-desirable contracts. However, it’s not all doom and gloom in Detroit, the club currently possesses some talented young prospects to build their future around and it’s time to start giving them more consideration.
Rising stars like Evgeny Svechnikov and Tyler Bertuzzi saw ice time in the NHL last season and didn’t look out of place. Both Svechnikov and Bertuzzi are two of several players who will soon be competing for roster spots in Detroit in the years to come. Some would argue that they should already be on the roster. Either way, Detroit has a reputation for over-ripening their prospects but may soon not be in a position to do so. While not all skaters can immediately make the leap from junior hockey to the NHL, many of today’s young draftees are proving it can be done in a shorter period of time. Ultimately, the kids may be the only hope the Red Wings have left.
Prospects Provide Financial Flexibility
It’s no secret that the Wings are currently facing a salary cap issue heading into the 2017-18 NHL season and beyond. Ken Holland’s inability to properly manage a salary cap in the modern NHL is a hot topic of discussion amongst Detroit hockey fans. Instead of quickly signing promising youthful free-agents like Andreas Athanasiou, the front office instead chooses to first spend money on gritty depth players like Luke Witkowski.
If things do not go well for the team once again next season and the Wings miss the playoffs for a consecutive year, all the bells and whistles of Little Caesars Arena won’t be enough to appease the loyal fans in the Motor City. Another dismal and disappointing year in the standings should be enough evidence that the current system is no longer effective. Holland, who is in the final year of his contract with the club next season, may be replaced as general manager or be forced to admit defeat, and as a result, begin properly rebuilding the franchise.
Players will eventually have to be traded, placed on long-term injured reserve, contracts bought out or gambled on via the waiver wire. After everything is said and done, the ones who should be left standing are the core group of young players who have already proven to be the future of the team such as Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. No matter who the future GM in Hockeytown is, effectively managing the salary cap will be a crucial step in achieving any future success. Let’s say that in a couple of years from now that the Wings do have a competitive young squad with a little extra money to burn, then they could go out and land a free agent or two that could take them to the next level.
Shoot to Thrill
Detroit was not an offensive powerhouse by any means in 2016-17. The team finished the season 25th in goals for (198), 26th in goals for per game (2.41), and 25th in shots per game (28.5). Basically, the Red Wings didn’t score a lot of goals and weren’t that entertaining to watch. Most of the exciting moments last season came when the puck was on the stick of one the team’s younger players, like this beautiful game-winning OT goal by Mantha:
Riley Sheahan, averaged nearly 14 minutes (13:58) of ice time per game in 80 games played last year and he only scored two goals, both during the final game of the regular season. While Sheahan’s two-goal night was memorable, considering it was the final game played at Joe Louis Arena, it’s hard to support him having so much playing time throughout the year. Sure, he does some good things without the puck, but you can’t argue that some of his playing time would have been better distributed to a forward from Grand Rapids looking to make a name for himself.
The Red Wings’ defense could also gain a shot in the arm from some players who will soon be ready to play in the NHL. Filip Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi are two blueliners who could see some time in Detroit in 2017-18. Saarijarvi packs the offensive punch while Hronek will provide the stable stay at home defense. Neither player is quite the number one defender the Wings desperately need, but would certainly provide a viable option to be the next man up. Director of amateur scouting, Tyler Wright, had high praise for the two defensemen:
Those two guys (Hronek, Saarijarvi), I think the emphasis is on them because they bring a skill set that is really hard to teach. A lot of it you can’t teach. You can get better but they think the game and they have the skill set to be able to work on the power play, be those type of guys.
The 2017-18 NHL season will be a very telling year for the Red Wings as the team tries to forge a new legacy in their already legendary history. Will the organization continue to stick to its game plan or be forced to adapt and accept that both the league and the game is passing them by? For better or worse, Detroit has a few weapons waiting in the wings.