Red Wings Have Farm System Decisions to Make in 2021

As the hockey world collectively awaits further details about the 2020-21 NHL season, I cannot help but think of those individuals that have a vested interest. Specifically, signed, non-roster players that have contracts expiring in 2021. In those cases, their opportunity to make one last impression is dwindling by the day. The Red Wings have six players, categorized as non-roster, that will become UFAs in 2021. What will those players’ future in the organization look like after next season?

The Red Wings have 45 of a possible 50 standard player contracts signed heading into the 2020-21 season. That includes all organizational players under contract, except those signed players that may still be in junior at ages 18 or 19 (none at the moment). The league average is approximately 43.5 contracts, with the lowest number being 39 (Tampa Bay Lightning), and three teams have 47 players under contract (Anaheim Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, and San Jose Sharks).

45 contracted players give Red Wings’ GM Steve Yzerman enough flexibility to keep assets that he wants and allow others to walk. That appears to be Yzerman’s objective and design for the rebuild — build a core and then make shorter-term deals so he has full control to proceed as he sees fit. As such, the future of two goalies, two defensemen, and two forwards in Grand Rapids has become more uncertain with each passing day. Here is a brief look at each of those players and what their future as a Red Wing might entail or not.

Calvin Pickard – Goaltender

Last season was Calvin Pickard’s first as a member of the Red Wings’ organization. The former Seattle Thunderbird was sturdy in Grand Rapids, posting a 2.86 goals against average (GAA), with a .903 save percentage (SV%), and 17 wins over 33 AHL games. He did get three opportunities in Detroit with the big club but struggled in those appearances.

Calvin Pickard Grand Rapids Griffins
Calvin Pickard, Grand Rapids Griffins (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Pickard enjoyed his best professional season in 2016-17 when he posted 31 wins, 2.98 GAA and .904 (SV%) in 50 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche — the team that drafted him (2nd round, 2010). He has bounced around since but has failed to regain the level of play that made him a starting goaltender at the NHL level.

Pickard is currently on loan with Vienna of the Austrian professional league. Once North American professional leagues start back up again, he’ll need to put together a great season in Grand Rapids to negotiate another NHL contract. At 28 years old, the trip to Vienna might be a good chance for him to experience what playing in Europe is like: an earlier start/finish to the season, fewer games/easier schedule, tax-free earnings, starting position, etc. It is not the worst life for players who are on the periphery of an NHL career.

Kevin Boyle – Goaltender

Given Pickard’s struggles in the third spot last season, the team signed free agent Kevin Boyle this past October. An undrafted player, he has spent the last three seasons within the Anaheim Ducks’ organization. A product of UMASS-Lowell, he has shown signs of being a late-blooming but legitimate goaltender. In fact, his story is eerily similar to Pittsburgh Penguins’ backup Casey DeSmith.

The native of Manalapan, New Jersey, spent his last two seasons with the San Diego Gulls — Anaheim’s AHL squad. However, the 28-year-old did get his first taste of NHL action last season in Anaheim, and despite only getting one win in five games, he posted a stalwart 2.17 GAA and .928 (SV%). That sample size may have been enough for Detroit to sign the undrafted player to a short-term deal.

At this time, there is certainly an opportunity to grab the third spot, or higher, on the Red Wings’ goaltending depth chart. Either way, it should create quite the crease battle in Grand Rapids in 2020-21. You’d have to think Boyle is itching to get back to making a late bid on his professional career.

Dylan McIlrath – Right Defense

The former 10th overall selection by the New York Rangers (2010) is still trying to earn a full-time job in the NHL. In fact, after his entry-level contract with the Rangers, his longest two contracts have been two 2-year deals with the Red Wings — both two-way contracts.

A big, rugged defender at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, McIlrath could be categorized as a serviceable NHL player. To date, he has played in a total of 66 NHL games — with 23 of them coming with Detroit over the past two seasons. The Red Wings don’t expect him to be an offensive player, but the Manitoban is still looking for his first point with the team.

Dylan McIlrath Griffins
Dylan McIlrath, Grand Rapids Griffins, Oct. 2018 (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The question for McIlrath is, “where does he fit into this organization?” The team recently refurbished the back end and has plenty of young talent at the position. Further, if he couldn’t stick with this club during the past two seasons, is there a suitable roster spot anywhere else in the league? Those are questions McIlrath will have to answer after the 2021 season. The 28-year-old’s window for proving he can still be more than a serviceable player dwindles with each passing day.

Brian Lashoff – Left Defense

It is rare that an undrafted player spends his entire career with one organization. However, Brian Lashoff has been a staple within this organization since he began his professional career with Grand Rapids in 2010. Since that time, the Albany native has only spent one full season with the Red Wings in 2013-14 when he appeared in 75 games.

However, Lashoff has spent much more time with Grand Rapids than he has with Detroit in the six seasons since. Another big rig of a man at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he is another capable swingman that can provide six-hole minutes at the NHL level.

Brian Lashoff Grand Rapids Griffins
Brian Lashoff, Grand Rapids Griffins, Oct. 2018 (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

That said, Detroit is obviously very familiar with this player and know what they can expect from him. At age 30, it will be up to Lashoff whether he wants to continue in a two-way role in North America or explore Europe, where he could possibly play more meaningful minutes in the latter half of his career.

Turner Elson – Left Wing   

Another undrafted player out of junior, Turner Elson, recently signed another one-year deal with the Red Wings in September. This is his third contract with Detroit, but he is still awaiting his first game with the big club. Over his seven professional seasons, the St. Albert native has only managed one NHL game with the Calgary Flames in 2015-16. And he even managed an assist in that game!

I have only met Turner once, but I know he has a solid reputation built on high character. As such, his recent one-year contract makes sense for Detroit, as he’s a great player to have around young, high caliber prospects. At 28, his time for reaching his NHL dream is slipping, and the delayed start does not help his cause in that regard.

Turner Elson Grand Rapids Griffins
Turner Elson, Grand Rapids Griffins (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

My guess is Detroit will keep Elson around as long as he is willing to be a part of the organization. That basically means it will be up to him as to how he wants to spend the remaining years of his professional career. On the bus in the AHL, or exploring the world in Europe?

Kyle Criscuolo – Centre

Yet another undrafted player, Kyle Criscuolo, is a crafty and offensive pivot. This will be the Harvard graduate’s second go-around with Grand Rapids/Detroit, as he originally signed with the Griffins after finishing his NCAA career in 2016. Since then, he has spent most of his time within the AHL but did feature in nine NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres in 2017-18.

He’s split his time in the AHL between the Griffins, the Rochester Americans (Sabres), Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers), and San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks). In 221 career AHL games, the South Hampton, New Jersey native has scored 46 goals and added 73 assists. Productive AHL numbers but another player that is on the cusp of ‘what’s next’? At 5-foot-8, he might be a perfect candidate for an excellent career in Europe.

Decisions

The ‘explore’ Europe part sounds like a broken record, I know. The fact is these are all players still chasing the NHL dream, and each of them has taken different paths to get to this point. At the same time, they are all players between ages 28-30 that have spent most of their careers at the AHL level.

Many of us will never know how agonizing that decision would be — to give up on your dreams and pursue a career across the Atlantic, especially when the NHL dream is already so close. However, as players start approaching 30, they tend to make much broader life decisions when it comes to their careers. Do I continue riding the bus for six months of the year? What kind of injuries may cause long-term grief? What does a reduced schedule look like in Europe?

At the end of the day, most of these players are reaching a point where they need to decide what is right for them. So while Detroit has decisions to make, these players will also have a large impact on what eventually transpires. Believe me, these are the players I root for, but with each passing year spent in the AHL, it becomes more difficult to fulfill that NHL dream.

A half-season is definitely not going to make it any easier.


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