What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. Rachel Anderson and Tony Wolak are the muckers who makeup THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.
A couple weeks ago, the Red Wings held their annual organizational meetings in Florida to plan for the future. They’re also about to kick off their bye week, which will likely include additional conversations on the upcoming trade deadline and pending free agents.
Simply put, GM Ken Holland and his management team have been busy lately. And rightly so – there’s a lot at stake for the once-proud and now rebuilding franchise. Trades, free agents, prospects and player development will be met with microscopic scrutiny to ensure that the Red Wings once again become a consistently competitive team.
In this week’s edition of The Grind Line, The Hockey Writers’ Red Wings coverage team puts on their strategic thinking hats and shares their organizational priorities. Either on a micro or macro level, these goals offer the Red Wings an opportunity to move forward in their rebuild.
THW’s Brandon Share-Cohen joins Rachel and Tony this week to discuss his take on Detroit’s outlook.
Red Wings Priority 1: Commit to Being Sellers at the Trade Deadline
Unlike previous trade deadlines, the “available” assets are key cogs within the organization. Gustav Nyquist is the second-leading scorer and has gelled with Dylan Larkin on the top line. Jimmy Howard and Nick Jensen have been valuable at their respective positions as well. But Holland needs to work the phones and maximize the return for Detroit’s rentals and other players garnering interest.
While the Red Wings already have an intriguing stable of prospects, there’s still more work to be done. More high-end depth is needed – both in the 18-20 and 21-24 age brackets that will contribute to future Red Wings teams.
Red Wings Priority 2: Give Joe Hicketts a Long Look
Stop me if you’ve heard of a Red Wings’ blue line logjam before. It’s been an issue, is currently an issue and will be one next season when Joe Hicketts joins the foray – he will require waivers to be sent down to the Grand Rapids Griffins during the 2019-20 season.
Detroit’s 19 post-deadline games should serve as another audition for Hicketts. He’ll need to prove that he can survive and continually produce at the NHL level so the Red Wings can plan their 2019-20 blue line accordingly. There is a slight problem though: the logjam.
Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek and Hicketts need to play – that’s three out of the six rearguard spots. That leaves Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Danny DeKeyser, Trevor Daley and possibly Jensen for the other half of Detroit’s defense. Something needs to give for the sake of prospect development.
Red Wings Priority 3: Improve Special Teams
At the beginning of the season, I shared five goals for the Red Wings. One of them was improved special teams play. To date, there really hasn’t been any growth on the man advantage (25th-ranked) or while shorthanded (23rd-ranked), but there’s time to change that.
In the post-All-Star break segment of games, the Red Wings should aim to be in the top half of the league for both power play and penalty kill percentages. For extra credit, they should also aspire to draw more penalties as well – they’re presently tied for 27th in the NHL in that regard.
The Red Wings have pieces in place to be effective in both aspects of special teams, but have their struggles, too: zone entries on the power play and consistently clearing the puck while shorthanded. Remedying these issues will go a long way in the quest to be competitive next season.
Red Wings Priority 1: Full-Fledge Youth Movement
Far too long, the Red Wings have been bogged down by aging and expensive veterans. Veterans are important, but the Red Wings should push the youth agenda a bit more. As the development process continues to grind away, the youth are earning ice time, but not nearly as much as they could. Michael Rasmussen (currently on IR) and Cholowski have been earning valuable NHL experience, but the youngsters waiting in Grand Rapids should conversely get a chance.
The benefit for this would come as a relief of overall cap space and investing in younger athletes who are less likely to have injuries resulting from many seasons of bangs and bruises. There are a host of two-way skaters in Grand Rapids who would fit into the NHL at any moment like Wade Megan, Axel Holmstrom, Dylan McIlrath and so many more.
If this “youth movement” is going to make more of an impact, they need to have more young talent mixed with a few veterans – not the other way around. Detroit’s eye should shift to Grand Rapids and using the talent they have ready.
Red Wings Priority 2: Bring in the D
As Tony mentioned, the Red Wings would benefit from giving Hicketts a more serious look. I agree 100 percent. They should be assessing the overall defensive situation and not only limiting that to Hicketts. Hronek obviously has proven himself during his tenure with Detroit this season, Libor Sulak impressed during the preseason and McIlrath has long been working towards returning to the NHL.
Along with familiar names, there are defensemen who would benefit from having more ice time and could later become phenomenal skaters. Going hand-in-hand with fully embracing a youth movement, the defense needs a serious overhaul in Detroit – and I believe that starts with introducing a younger, creative style.
Red Wings Priority 1: Find Their Identity
This first task may not seem very measurable on paper but it’s also arguably the most important step the team can take this season to put themselves in a better position in the future.
The Red Wings are a franchise built on a specific culture and system that’s worked for them for the better part of a quarter-century. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out quite as well in recent years and it has led them to where they are now.
To begin making progress, the team needs to commit to an identity on and off of the ice. This won’t be a step that can be accomplished overnight, but the sooner the team gets on the same page in all phases of their game plan and preparation, the sooner they can return to postseason contention.
Red Wings Priority 2: Commit to Selling at the Deadline
Another important step will be the team making the conscious decision to sell off pieces now and collect assets for the future. With a solid core in place, the team doesn’t need to trade off all of their young players to make a splash. Instead, trading away veteran pieces who can help a contender and recouping draft picks and prospects should add up over time.
Related: Should the Red Wings Trade Howard?
With players like Nyquist, Kronwall, Howard, Jensen, Thomas Vanek and Luke Witkowski all set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, the team can certainly recoup a varying amount of value from teams looking to add depth to their lineup.
Couple this with some very good draft picks in Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno, Jonatan Berggren and Jared McIsaac (all first-round graded players at some point last season) from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft alone, along with Rasmussen from the 2017 Draft, the Red Wings’ future plans are already falling into place.
Red Wings Priority 3: Play Athanasiou on the Top Power-Play Unit
This one should seem simple enough; Andreas Athanasiou is a good player. Playing him more often and letting him gain confidence is a good step in the right direction both for the present and for the future.
There’s an argument to be made for playing Nyquist and Vanek as much as possible prior to the trade deadline to properly showcase them and get the most return for them at the deadline.
At the same time, Athanasiou is the type of player who can be used in a variety of situations and can benefit from playing on the top power-play unit. Though he is averaging over 16 minutes of ice time a game, the team needs to instill confidence in him as a core player by giving him even more time alongside top players.
Despite being the team’s second-leading goal scorer with more than twice as many goals as Frans Nielsen, Athanasiou has gotten only the ninth-most power-play time of any player on the team. It may be time to consider flipping he and Nielsen on the power play units.
What priorities should the Detroit Red Wings focus on? Share your thoughts below.
Tony Wolak is based in the Washington D.C. area and covers the Detroit Red Wings for THW. As a former junior and college hockey player, Tony has a unique perspective on Red Wings topics.