After a quarter of a century of consecutive postseason play, the Detroit Red Wings enter their fifth season without a playoff appearance. While no one truly believed the Wings had a chance to make the playoffs in a stacked Discover Central Division this shortened season, there are three players that — thanks to deadline trades by Steve Yzerman to bolster their draft picks in the upcoming years — have a chance to raise the Stanley Cup after starting the season in Detroit.
With the Hockeytown faithful looking to find new teams to put their support behind to make this postseason more interesting, consider rooting for an individual instead of a team. Anthony Mantha, Jon Merrill, and Patrik Nemeth began the 2020-21 season playing for the Red Wings and could end the year with their names on the Cup.
Anthony Mantha — Washington Capitals
If you are looking to support a player with high offensive capabilities, look no further than Mantha. Considered one of the blockbuster trades to take place at the deadline, Yzerman shipped Mantha to the Capitals for Richard Panik, Jakub Vrana, and a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick. While fans inside the Beltway initially questioned Brian MacLellan’s decision to give up so much, their concerns were quickly subdued.
As if a change in scenery was all that was needed to spark new life, Mantha came storming out of the gate to become the first player in Capitals’ history to score in his first four games with the team. However, he has unfortunately since cooled down, finishing out his season in the MassMutual East Division with four goals and four assists for eight points in 14 games.
The second-place Capitals face the third-place Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Mantha faced the Bruins twice in the regular season, notching his only powerplay goal as a member of the Caps in their first meeting. His numbers do not get any better from there, as he was a minus-1 with two penalty minutes (PIMs) and five shots in 37:17 of time on ice (TOI) in those two games. Although he went goalless in his final 10 games of the season and struggled against the Bruins during the regular season, Mantha is primed to break out at any time.
Jon Merrill — Montreal Canadiens
Maybe high risk, high reward offensive mentality is not your style. Maybe you prefer defensive defenseman, shutdown defender type. In that case, Merrill is your man to root for. Since joining the Canadiens, Merrill has added much-needed stability and accountability to the Habs blueline.
While not one to historically put up a lot of points, Merrill has done just that since joining Montreal. In 13 games since the trade, he has recorded zero points after only registering five assists with Detroit in 36 games. However, it was not his points that attracted Marc Bergevin to making the deal. Merrill was brought in to help shore up the defense in what has been considered the most talented division this season.
In the four meetings against the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Canadiens first-round opponent — since Merrill joined the team, the Habs were 1-3 and got outscored 14-8. Twice he had games in which he finished minus-2 against the Leafs, but he also had two games where he effectively shut down their high-powered offense. If the Canadiens want to be the first time to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada since they won it in 1992-93, they will need shutdown defenders like Merrill at their best.
Patrik Nemeth — Colorado Avalanche
The player with the best chance to get his name on the Cup after starting this season with the Wings is Nemeth. After his Avalanche went on to secure the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team during the NHL regular season, they enter the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to raise the next banner.
Since joining the Avs, Nemeth has only posted one goal and one assist — both coming against the San Jose Sharks — but has managed an impressive plus-6 in 13 games played in the Honda West Division. Another defenseman not known for his scoring prowess, Nemeth adds a veteran presence to a thinning Colorado blueline. Like Merrill, Nemeth will also bring an accountability and stability factor to the Avalanche’s defensive unit known for its speed and skill.
While Mantha and Merrill will likely play in every game for their respective teams, Nemeth could see his playing time cease once Bowen Byram comes back from injury. However, Nemeth still brings a lot of experience to Colorado’s locker room and will play an integral part in their run for a Cup.
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Although we may be years away from seeing players in the Winged Wheel holding the Cup above their head at the end of a playoff run, there is still hope that one Red Wing from this season will have that opportunity. Even if you are prone to hate the team they play for, having a player to root for during the grind of the postseason makes the Champaign taste that much sweeter in the end.
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Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.