It’s a confusing time to be a Detroit Red Wings fan, as hope surrounds the franchise despite their league-worst 17-49-5 record in 2019-20.
Part of it is due to how the Red Wings are in line for another high, potentially franchise-altering pick, whenever the NHL Entry Draft will be, anyway. Part of it is due to the pieces the Red Wings already have in place.
Granted, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and, in that respect, general manager Steve Yzerman is perhaps the Red Wing who’s most critical to the rebuild effort. However, focusing solely on players already in the system, here are the top five who are most critical to turning this thing around as quickly as possible:
5. Moritz Seider
As far as Detroit Red Wings prospects go, right-handed defenseman Moritz Seider is in a position to make the biggest impact in the foreseeable future. Taken No. 6 overall at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, he’s tied with Filip Zadina (2018) as the highest Red Wing selected since Keith Primeau at No. 3 overall in 1990.
Of course, Zadina has effectively graduated to the NHL, making Seider arguably the top prospect in the Red Wings system. Nevertheless, the fact that the Red Wings have selected in the top 10 in three, soon to be four, straight years (Michael Rasmussen, No. 9 in 2017) goes to show how desperate the situation is getting.
The fact that the next-highest defenseman taken by the Red Wings, Dennis Cholowski at No. 20 in 2016), has taken a step back in his development reinforces how valuable Seider is. There’s still hope Cholowski, who is generally seen as having been developed improperly, can turn it around, but there’s no doubt Seider has overtaken him on the depth chart, even if they play different sides.
The good news is, that probably would have happened anyway considering Seider’s high-level skating ability and defensive awareness. Seen as one of the most NHL-ready defenseman of the 2019 crop of draftees, the 6-foot-4 Seider could theoretically make the Red Wings as soon as next season, as the rebuild continues.
4. Filip Zadina
The start of Filip Zadina’s career didn’t get off to the smoothest start. While the Red Wings did select him at No. 6 overall, he had a legitimate shot at being a top-three pick. So, the fact that he played only nine NHL games in 2018-19 (59 with the Grand Rapids Griffins, during which he far from dominated), was disappointing. The fact that he then got cut out of training camp in Year 2 was doubly so. Troubling even.
Nevertheless, a call-up in November set the stage for a respectable 15-point, 28-game 2019-20 rookie season. It’s up to Zadina to make the most of any opportunity in 2020-21, but, by all accounts, he will (and should) be at least given one to build upon his modestly successful first season.
While assessments of Zadina outside of the franchise have softened, he’s still a natural, albeit raw talent. He’s also just 20. There is undeniable room to grow, but that only means the winger has the ability to and help drive the Red Wings’ offense for many years to come, potentially sooner rather than later.
3. Dylan Larkin
People tend to forget Dylan Larkin is still just 23 (going on 24). Almost everyone’s choice to be the Red Wings’ next captain, Larkin also has point-per-game potential, having scored 73 (32 goals) in 76 games in 2018-19.
So, from both a production perspective and leadership standpoint, Larkin remains one of the team’s best chances in their efforts to regain their longtime status as contenders. Of course, Larkin admittedly took a giant step back production-wise this past season, but who on the Red Wings roster didn’t?
2. Anthony Mantha
Technically Anthony Mantha didn’t. In fact, with 38 points in 43 games in 2019-20, he scored at the highest clip of his career by far (.88 points per game), taking a step forward.
Of course, the issue is with the “43 games” part. For the second straight season, he failed to so as much as play 70, this latest time around getting sidelined with a punctured lung. However, if he can stay healthy, Mantha, who has 30-goal potential, can remain the focal point of the team’s offense moving forward as he enters the prime of his career as a 26-year-old.
1. Filip Hronek
The Red Wings as a whole can learn a lot from defenseman Filip Hronek. After all, it’s not about how you got there, but what you were able to accomplish once you arrived. A late-second-round draft pick in 2016, Hronek emerged as a legitimate threat from the back-end in 2018-19 with a 23-point season (46 games).
Now, as a 22-year-old, Hronek was effectively the only threat at all from the blue line. Danny DeKeyser, viewed as the Red Wings’ best all-around defenseman entering this season (for all intents and purposes), played just eight games because of a back injury, propelling Hronek to the forefront of the back-end.
Hronek led the team in ice time with 23:54 played per game, whereas he had played an average of 19:58 per game in 2018-19 (ranked fifth). Normally, that would be considered a huge jump, but it’s made all the more impressive by his 2:53 on average on each of the power play and penalty kill, meaning he’s trusted in all situations.
Consider how Hronek didn’t even break two minutes on either in 2018-19. In fact, he had been closer to one minute on the penalty kill (1:10). On the man advantage he had been playing less than Cholowski per game. Hronek had still been seen primarily as an offensive threat prior to this season, but not to this degree. He is found money for this franchise.
It’s not like Hronek came completely out of nowhere, but nothing was ever handed to him. He had to earn his spot at the top in the AHL to start his career, before he started turning heads. He’s continued to do so and has become the Red Wings’ best defenseman, bar none, in the process through hard work and of course results. On a team without a clear-cut option in net for the future (or present), defense is as critical as ever, making Hronek the most critical piece on Yzerman’s game board.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.