Red Wings’ Defense Best & Worst-Case Scenarios for 2020-21 Season

The Detroit Red Wings have an intriguing season ahead of themselves, like every NHL team. Detroit comes in with few expectations, making for an interesting season to evaluate players. With one of the most unique seasons about the start on Wednesday, including the Red Wings hosting the Carolina Hurricanes at Little Caesars Arena Thursday, let’s look over the best and worst-case scenarios for Detroit’s defense and goaltenders this upcoming season. The primary focus will be on starters but I’ll mention some fringe starters/likely taxi squad members near the end.

Jonathan Bernier (Goalie, Age: 32)

Best Case: Bernier has been a statistically decent goalie as he still managed a 2.95 goals-against average (GAA) and .907 save percentage (SV%) in 46 games last season. That was on a team that gave up 3.73 goals against per game and with the Red Wings coming in with an improved defensive core, you’d hope those stats are better this upcoming season. I’d like to see Bernier post a 2.75 GAA with a .910-.915 SV% in at least 20 starts.

Jonathan Bernier Detroit Red Wings
Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: The worst case for Bernier in 2020-21 is less than 20 starts, a GAA above 3.00, and a SV% below .900. Essentially, he becomes a fringe NHL goalie and gets sent down or traded before the end of the season. That would be a shame considering he’s still a quality goaltender and this would be the worse season to fall off.

Danny DeKeyser (Defense, Age: 30)

Best Case: The best case for DeKeyser is that he’s healthy for the whole season, playing in all 56 games, and he puts up numbers as he did in 2014 and 2015. He has a spot in the starting lineup so long that he’s healthy. There’s a long-leash when it comes to giving DeKeyser an opportunity to succeed this season.

Worst Case: DeKeyser struggles with injuries again, jumping in and out of the lineup all season. Even in the lineup, DeKeyser is a bit of a concern for giving up goals and getting beat regularly. You can read my full preview on DeKeyser.

Thomas Greiss (Goalie, Age: 34)

Best Case: If Greiss can post numbers similar numbers to what he had with the defensive-minded New York Islanders (2.70 GAA, .915 SV% in 193 games on Long Island), I’d be happy. He should start in at least half the games and will likely be the full-time starter if he performs well enough. Greiss played in four playoff games for the Islanders in the return to play over the summer so maybe he can help get the Red Wings into the playoffs?!?!?!?

Worst Case: Detroit’s defense is just as bad as last season, forcing Greiss to work more than ever and he falters under pressure, leaving the Red Wings back at square one. I think any Red Wings fan will tell you that things can’t be as bad as last season and part of that stems from the addition of Greiss.

Filip Hronek (Defense, Age 23)

Best Case: Hronek has a breakout season, playing top D-pair minutes and scores at least 31 points this season. That was the same figure he posted last season and he can overtake that total if he scores more goals in 2020-21 (I’m expecting at least 10 after he scored nine in 2019-20). He’s someone I see who actually has a legitimate chance of hitting his best-case scenario.

Filip Hronek Detroit Red Wings
Filip Hronek, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: Assuming injuries don’t get in the way, Hronek’s worst-case scenario would be having a massive regression and falling out of the top four on defense. He had almost 24 minutes of ice time a night last season and should he flop, he might play closer to 17 or 18 minutes. I can’t see this happening but should this happen, it means that the Red Wings are destined for another terrible season.

Jon Merrill (Defense, Age 28)

Best Case: He starts the season as a bottom pair defenseman who works his way up to the top D-pair by the end of the season. I also see Merill getting time on the second powerplay unit and will possibly get looks on the top PP unit if they struggle. Points wise, his best case is scoring between 15 to 20 points. I’m excited to see what his energy level will be playing for his hometown team.

Worst Case: Merrill struggles with his bottom-pairing role and gets waived in order to put him on the taxi squad. The Red Wings don’t have much to lose if Merill is potentially traded or claimed on waivers since he’s only signed a one-year contract and they can replace him with someone else within the organization.

Patrik Nemeth (Defense, Age 28)

Best Case: Nemeth not only improves on his solid defensive play (3.3 defensive points shares last season) but also has more luck on offense. He’s had just two goals in his previous 138 games and that includes taking a career-high 89 shots last season. If Nemeth scores 10 points this season, I’d consider it a successful season.

Patrik Nemeth Detroit Red Wings
Patrik Nemeth, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: The offensive struggles continue while his defense gets even worse. He’s making $3 million this season so he’s tougher to move compared to someone like Merrill but it’s an unlikely situation considering Nemeth has historically contributed more defensively than on offense. Putting Nemeth on the taxi squad is the absolute worst-case scenario.

Marc Staal (Defense, Age: 33)

Best Case: Staal plays on the top D-pair, matching up with the opponent’s best forwards every night, and consistently shuts them down. It’s an unlikely situation since Staal has been on the decline for the past several seasons and Yzerman primarily brought him in so they could pick up an extra second-round pick from the New York Rangers. But who knows, maybe a change of scenery helps the 33-year old from Thunder Bay?

Worst Case: He struggles with pace and routinely gets beat on plays, giving up goals on the regular. The Red Wings don’t have huge expectations for Staal anyway considering his contract ends after this season and they’ll be happy to have $5.7 million in cap space next summer. I don’t see Staal playing any special teams this season.

Troy Stecher (Defense, Age 26)

Best Case: Stecher solidifies himself as a second-pairing defenseman, slotting behind Hronek, and contributes 20 points this season. He should be rather motivated since his hometown Vancouver Canucks didn’t bring him back in the offseason. He should get some looks on the PK as well and if he can perform well there, that would make him a major asset for the Red Wings. He didn’t drive 35 hours from Vancouver to Detroit for nothing.

Worst Case: He falls apart defensively, fails to create any chemistry with another defenseman, and leaves the Red Wings floundering for support on the back end once again. I don’t see him getting moved but if Stecher is having an awful season and the right deal comes along (ie; prospects or draft picks), Yzerman might pull the trigger on something. Personally, I think he’s too good for this to happen but we won’t know we step on the ice.

Alex Biega (Defense, Age: 32)

Best Case: I wrote about Biega recently so if you’re looking for a full deep dive on him, I’d suggest you read that. In short, his best-case is carving out a starting role for himself and becomes a regular in the lineup.

Worst Case: Biega’s worst-case is that he’s a taxi squad member who fills when needed with there’s an injury or potential COVID-19 outbreak. He could get sent down to Grand Rapids or traded but that’s unlikely.

Kevin Boyle (Goalie, Age: 28)

Best Case: Boyle beats out Calvin Pickard for the third goalie position for the Red Wings and doesn’t play awfully when asked upon. Anything more than that and he’ll have outplayed his $775,000 cap figure this season.

Worst Case: Boyle is stuck with Grand Rapids for the entire season and plays below average. He’s a free agent after season so maybe you can try and trade him for something but it’s doubtful.

Dennis Cholowski (Defense, Age: 22)

Best Case: Cholowski is similar to Biega but with more expectations. Biega’s best case is to just make the starting lineup but Cholowski’s best-case is to earn a top-four spot. He played 36 games last season (approximately 50% of the games) so maybe one can hope that he plays 28 games in the 56-game season? That seems right.

Dennis Cholowski Detroit Red Wings
Dennis Cholowski, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: The worst case for Cholowski is he plays in Grand Rapids or is a member of the taxi squad. He’s an RFA after this season so maybe being in a contract season will help push him?

Christian Djoos (Defense, Age: 26)

Best Case: He makes the starting lineup and holds his own as a bottom-pairing defenseman for the entire season. Fellow THW Red Wings writer Devin Little views Djoos as someone who can make the starting lineup but he’s a bit more optimistic than I am. I’d be happy to have him fill a depth role and be an injury replacement when needed.

Worst Case: He’s put on the taxi squad, sent to Grand Rapids, or is moved in a trade. There’s no risk to adding Djoos off waivers and if he gets traded for a draft pick between now and the trade deadline, I’d be happy with that. Detroit just acquired him so there isn’t as much of a connection with him compared to others on the roster.

Kaden Fulcher (Goalie, Age: 22)

Best Case: He becomes the starting goalie for Grand Rapids or is the third goalie for the Red Wings this season. Fulcher played in just two games for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL last season as he dealt with injuries but it would be nice to see him have a bounce-back year, regardless of whatever league he’s playing in.

Worst Case: With Toledo suspending operations for the upcoming season, I suspect he’ll get some time with Grand Rapids wherever he can. The worst-case for Fulcher might be he gets little to no ice time and doesn’t really improve his game. That’s a bit of concern considering Fulcher is still a developmental prospect and needs all the starts he can. He’s a bit of an unknown heading into this season.

Joe Hicketts (Defense, Age: 24)

Best Case: This is the year that Hicketts finally puts it together and earns his roster spot with the Red Wings. He mostly played with Grand Rapids last season but I’d love to see him finally get a starting position. It’s unlikely but there’s a world in which this possible.

Joe Hicketts
Joe Hicketts, Detroit Red Wings (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: Hicketts stays with Grand Rapids and doesn’t see the NHL ice this season. It would be a shame because I’d like to see Hicketts get an opportunity at some point in 2020-21 but if it doesn’t happen, he’ll be in the AHL.

Brian Lashoff (Defense, Age: 30)

Best Case: Lashoff plays in multiple games this season and continues his split between Detroit and Grand Rapids. I don’t see how he gets a full-time roster spot but if he can come in when needed and be marginally productive, I’d consider that a win.

Worst Case: He plays in Grand Rapids for the whole season or gets moved at some point. No one is expecting anything from Lashoff this season and if he somehow outperforms the young guns on the team, that will be a massive red flag for the Red Wings.

Gustav Lindstrom (Defense, Age: 22)

Best Case: He plays like Nicklas Lidstrom. Imagine if the Red Wings got another Hall of Fame defenseman with an eerily similar last name to Lidstrom. People would say that the league’s rigged for the Red Wings and we wouldn’t be allowed to draft in the first round ever again. There’s hope that Gustav Lindstrom can provide that for us.

Worst Case: He doesn’t play for the Red Wings and waits to earn a roster spot in the next training camp when there is a full season. Just keep an eye out for Lindstrom when he does play because he hasn’t scored an NHL goal yet. Just something to keep in mind.

Dylan McIlrath (Defense, Age: 28)

Best Case: He continues splitting his time between Grand Rapids and Detroit, filling in whenever needed. He’s more of an option to be a taxi squad member compared to some others on this list in my mind but we’ll see.

Dylan McIlrath Detroit Red Wings
Dylan McIlrath, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Worst Case: He stays with Grand Rapids for the entire season and doesn’t see any action with the Red Wings. He had no points in 16 games with the Red Wings last season so it wouldn’t consider it urgent to get McIlrath in the lineup.

Final Thoughts

For the most part, the Red Wings defense and goalies are set this season. There are going to be injuries and possible outbreaks that require guys to fill spots who wouldn’t usually get an opportunity. But in the end, most people who cover the Wings know what the team will look like and hopefully, that leads to a more successful season compared to last year.


Sign up for our regular 'Red Wings Newsletter' for all the latest.