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. This week, Devin Little, Tony Wolak and Patrick Brown are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.
For the first time since Henrik Zetterberg vacated the captain’s “C” due to an abrupt end to his playing career, it seems like the Detroit Red Wings are poised for a true shift in the team’s leadership group. Longtime members including Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Ericsson are no longer with the team. Justin Abdelkader, who was the longest-tenured alternate captain on the team, was bought-out by general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman, further cementing the fact that a new age of Red Wings hockey is now firmly underway.
Last season, the Red Wings used four alternate captains: Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen, Dylan Larkin and Luke Glendening. With the ongoing shift in leadership across the roster, who will fill the void left by Abdelkader, and will this be the year the Red Wings finally name their next captain? Our muckers weigh in:
Patrick Brown: A Captain Is Crowned
This is the year the Red Wings finally acknowledge the future of their franchise and name Dylan Larkin as the team’s next captain. Some think he had his leadership abilities challenged by GM Steve Yzerman heading into last season, and although the team struggled, the young forward led by example. Yzerman recently told 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, “I’m very impressed with him…. He’s a great leader. He’s dedicated and mentally strong and committed. I’ve been very impressed getting to know him over the course of the year.”
Larkin has proven his ability to lead both on and off the ice, and at 24 is the same age Steven Stamkos was when Yzerman awarded him the “C” in the 2013-14 season.
Anthony Mantha should be named an alternate captain this season after his recent contract highlighted his value to the team. His four-year deal was the first long-term contract Yzerman has awarded, and it signaled a commitment to the young forward that he truly is part of the rebuild. There’s no doubt he should be — Mantha was on the cusp of 50-point seasons in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, and will be expected to produce even more, assuming he stays healthy.
As for Abdelkader’s “A”, it should go to a long-tenured Red Wing who has that coveted locker room persona — Darren Helm. Helm broke into the league with Detroit in 2008, and has long been recognized as one of the hardest working players on the team. His tenacity has always set an example for his teammates that you don’t have to be a top-six forward in order to have a big impact on the team. (Remember his penalty kill in Game 5 of the 2009 Western Conference Final?)
Regardless of how overvalued the contract he signed years ago with then-GM Ken Holland was, Helm’s deal expires after this season, and his 697 career games in Detroit should be rewarded in what will likely be his swan song wearing the winged wheel.
Devin Little: Seniority Reigns Supreme
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Dylan Larkin is finally going to sport the captain’s “C” on his chest this season. That part is easy; the Red Wings face a much more interesting debate when it comes to determining who wears the “A’s” on the team.
Glendening should retain the “A” he received last season, and rightfully so considering the role he plays on the ice and in the locker room. Nielsen was the final alternate captain, and I foresee him remaining in that role whenever he is a part of the lineup. However, seeing as he could be a healthy scratch more than a few times during the 2020-21 season, the Red Wings are going to want to name at least one more alternate captain. With that in mind, I think tenure is going to be key.
Ideally, teams like to have leaders emerge from both the offensive and defensive groups. Since Kronwall retired prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, a de facto leader on the blue line has yet to be named… until now. With the departure of Ericsson, Danny DeKeyser is now the longest-tenured member of the Red Wings’ defense, going back to the spring of 2013 when he joined the team as a college free agent. He missed all but eight games last season due to injury, and his absence was certainly felt throughout the lineup.
Given that DeKeyser still has two years left on his deal, the move to stitch an “A” on his sweater not only recognizes the steady force he has become for the Red Wings, but it also offers the team some short-term stability as the team’s prospects and future leaders continue to develop. Plus, the Macomb Township-native would join Larkin and Glendening as another team captain that was born and raised right here in the mitten state.
Tony Wolak: Leadership Overhaul
As Devin and Patrick mentioned already, Larkin is the clear choice to be Detroit’s next captain. We could see this coming over two years ago.
As for the alternates, I believe the Red Wings will change things up a bit now that Abdelkader is gone and Nielsen’s role is diminishing. In their place, my guess is that the Red Wings select Mantha and DeKeyser to sport an “A” on their sweaters. Glendening will retain his alternate status, with the three rotating through.
As the rebuild progresses, the Red Wings are going to rely more and more on their younger players. It makes sense for Larkin and Mantha to sport these letters given their overall contributions to the team. Tyler Bertuzzi should also be considered for an “A” if someone gets injured. The guard is changing in Detroit and the leadership roles should reflect that — regardless of how much stock you put in letters.
A New Era
The direction that Yzerman and head coach Jeff Blashill go with this decision could reveal a lot about their intentions with this roster going forward. It’s not often that a team will name a player as one of their captains if that player is only going to be around for a little bit. Abdelkader wore an “A” on his sweater for four seasons; look for the player that assumes that role to stay there for an equal amount of time — if not longer.
No matter who ultimately wears the letters for the Red Wings this season, it is clear that the team now belongs to players that haven’t even sniffed the kind of success that the old guard had. It is imperative that the new guard builds toward success in a meaningful way, so that they can not only grow as players, but as leaders. Plus, for what it’s worth, it would be nice to watch Larkin give a few more happy post-game interviews than he did last season.
That, as well as a fresh face on the leadership team, would be wins all on their own.