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There’s something so exciting and so pure about the week of training camps across every sport. The promise of a new year and a clean slate is on everybody’s minds, from the fans to the players themselves. The newest faces are looking to make a name for themselves among their new teammates, the familiar faces are either looking to build on the success or right the wrongs of the previous season, and the youngest players aim to assert themselves as professionals. With each drill and scrimmage comes a little bit of hope that this season will be better than the last.
In the case of the Detroit Red Wings, expectations haven’t been sky high in quite some time. That being said, their ongoing rebuild is slowly beginning to bare fruit, and with that comes the expectation that this season’s team will be the best one yet under general manager Steve Yzerman. Training camp, scheduled to begin on Sept. 23, presents the first glimpse into whether or not those expectations will be met.
It’s not all sunshine and daisies, however. A team that managed just 19 wins in 56 games last season still has a lot of questions to answer, even if things seem to be heading in the right direction. In just a few weeks, head coach Jeff Blashill and the rest of Hockeytown will have their first opportunity to start finding the answers to the questions that are on everybody’s minds.
1. Who Plays with Who?
Like Abbott and Costello, fans are eager to find out who is playing where, and what the overall lineup will look like. As it stands, this is a team without a bona fide anything; their top center (Dylan Larkin) is at the top mostly because nobody else can fill that role, their top defenseman (Filip Hronek) is currently unsigned and is more than likely punching above his weight class, and their presumed top winger (Jakub Vrana) has only played 11 games with the team so far. This makes it incredibly hard to nail down how the opening night roster will shape up because you can make a valid argument that just about any player should play further up or down in the lineup.
Just a few weeks ago, THW’s Jeff Middleton wrote about how the Red Wings’ top line can be effective if they stay healthy. The top line of discussion consisted of Larkin, Vrana and Tyler Bertuzzi, a common linemate of Larkin’s who was limited to just nine games last season due to a back injury. The primary feedback from that article was that 21-year-old Filip Zadina should play on the top line instead of Bertuzzi – so much so, in fact, that Middleton wrote a follow-up article looking at why Zadina deserves a shot on the Red Wings’ top line.
All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned five-year veteran Robby Fabbri, top free agent signing Pius Suter, or prospects Jonatan Berggren and Lucas Raymond, who should both receive ample opportunity to make the Red Wings’ roster.
On defense, Blashill is on record saying that the left side of the blue line is going to mentor the right side. The left side of the blue line includes Danny DeKeyser (31 years old), Marc Staal (34), newly-acquired Nick Leddy (30) and newly-signed Jordan Oesterle (29), so it’s easy to see why they would be thrown into mentor roles. That is especially clear once you consider that Troy Stecher is the oldest player on the right side of the blue line at 27 years of age. Also on the right side is Hronek (23), Gustav Lindstrom (22) and top prospect Moritz Seider (20).
How exactly the defensive pairings will take form is anyone’s guess, though many pointed to Leddy’s potential as a partner for Seider at the moment the trade for the former New York Islander was announced. In Blashill’s words, the Red Wings project to have no less than eight NHL-caliber defensemen. With six or seven spots on defense available on a given night, training camp will offer us our first glimpse into what combinations the head coach is leaning towards to start the season.
2. Is Nedeljkovic the Answer in Goal?
With no disrespect intended towards Leddy, Suter, Mitchell Stephens and others, Alex Nedeljkovic may be the most exciting addition the Red Wings made this offseason. Coming off a season where he had a 15-5-3 record, a 1.90 goals-against average, and a .932 save percentage for the Carolina Hurricanes, champions of the Discover Central Division, many are looking at the finalist for the Calder Trophy (awarded to the Rookie of the Year) as the savior in net for the Red Wings.
Not since Petr Mrazek arrived in Detroit have Red Wings fans had a young goaltender to be excited about. At 25 years old, “Ned” should be entering his prime years as a goaltender, an inspiring thought considering he already backstopped the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League (AHL) to a Calder Cup win back in 2019. The native of Parma, Ohio signed a two-year deal with the Red Wings as soon as Detroit acquired him, and he should receive every opportunity to build off the success he had during the 2020-21 campaign.
Despite his accomplishments, Nedeljkovic has only played 29 games as the NHL level. While it’s understandable to be excited about his potential, he is far from a sure thing. After all, one of the biggest reasons the Hurricanes were willing to move him was that they weren’t convinced that he was their answer in net, so they opted to sign two veteran options instead. Make fun of their decision to move on from Ned all you want, but they didn’t become one of the league’s top teams by undervaluing their players.
The Red Wings still have veteran Thomas Greiss on the roster, and he should provide a bit of insolation in the event that Nedeljkovic comes out flat or hits a rut over the course of the season. The assumption is that the younger goaltender will be given the opportunity to become the team’s go-to starter, but if Greiss’s play down the stretch last season is any indication of how we will play this season, Blashill may be inclined to split the starts a bit more evenly from the get-go. Both goaltenders will see their fair share of the crease during training camp and preseason, and in that time we should be able to get an idea of whether or not the Red Wings’ new face in net will live up to the hype.
3. Youth Movement
The VAST majority of fans and pundits in and outside of Hockeytown expect that Seider will make the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp. Beyond that, though, things get a little murky. The aforementioned Berggren and Raymond, per Yzerman, will be given the opportunity to make the team. That also goes for 21-year-old center Joe Veleno, who impressed many by scoring his first career goal while also exhibiting strong two-way play in a five-game cameo appearance late last season.
And let’s not forget Taro Hirose, Chase Pearson, Jared McIsaac and others….
To piggyback off of the first question on this list, we should get a good idea of each of these players’ chances of making the Red Wings based off of who they play with the most. If, for example, Veleno finds himself skating alongside veteran guys such as Vladislav Namestnikov and Sam Gagner, that could be a sign that the young center has a real chance at making the roster. But just as much as it’s important to note who each player is skating with, it is even more important to watch how those players fare with the ice time that they are given. If any of these young players struggle to produce results based on where they’re slotted in the lineup, chances are that they will begin the season in the AHL rather than the NHL.
Even if some of these players show well during camp, they may very well still find their way to the AHL. As much as training camp is an audition for the opening night roster, it is also a chance for players to announce themselves as a name to remember when the team needs to call somebody up from the AHL. So even if your favorite prospect/young player looks to be on the outside looking in, fret not because a strong training camp will place that player firmly on Blashill and Yzerman’s radar.
It’s the Anticipation that Kills You…
Prior to training camp, the Red Wings’ prospects will participate in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament from Sept. 16 to Sept. 20. While this won’t provide insight into all of the questions surrounding this team, it should provide a glimpse into which prospects came ready to play and which ones look destined to play elsewhere this season. On top of that, the tournament should whet our appetites for what the full training camp has in store.
One thing is for certain: fans, journalists, and the players themselves are excited for the Red Wings to take the ice again. With just a few short weeks to go, all we can do is ponder the answers to these questions before training camp inevitably provides them.
What are some questions you’re hoping training camp can answer? Sound off in the comments section below!
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.