The big news from the Detroit Red Wings this week was the retirement of longtime defender Niklas Kronwall. The announcement was a bittersweet one for fans as it signaled the end of an era for the Red Wings. However, it also cleared a spot on the 2019-20 roster.
Since the retirement of Nick Lidstrom, Detroit’s defense has quickly become their Achilles heel. Despite the lack of quality defenders over the years, Detroit has accumulated a large sum of defensive bodies. Whether from the draft or from free agency, management added an array of players, ranging everywhere from European free agents to top draft picks.
Of course, not all of them have written success stories. Joe Hicketts is in a make-or-break season. Libor Sulak looked great in preseason, only to fizzle out in the AHL. Trevor Daley had a decent first season in Detroit but enters the final year of his contract as more of an albatross than a blessing.
What effect does this have on the team this season? After making positive strides last season, the Red Wings need more growth from players on the roster and outside of it. But what if the roster is too boxed-in to capitalize on that growth?
The Kids Are Coming
After a strong finish to the 2018-19 season, Filip Hronek seemingly solidified a spot on the roster for himself. It also helps when the new general manager singles you out as one of the team’s “core pieces” going forward. But he wasn’t the only young defender to make waves last season.
Dennis Cholowski surprised many by not only sticking with the team through 52 games but looking generally good during that time. Despite this, the 21-year-old finished last season with the Grand Rapids Griffins. With too many guys on big-time contracts ahead of him, will it matter if Cholowski had a good summer of growth?
Joe Hicketts has been on the cusp of the NHL for almost two years now. While his upside isn’t as high as other prospects in the system, he does offer decent value as a sixth or seventh defenseman. He’s cheap, he’s easy to cheer for, but it likely doesn’t matter because he’s trapped in a logjam.
Perhaps the most low-key addition by Detroit was 24-year-old defender Oliwer Kaski from Finland. Despite winning the Lasse Oksanen Award as the regular season MVP, Kaski will face a battle to crack the NHL lineup. Some time in Grand Rapids to acclimate himself to North American hockey is fine, but does he truly have a chance of climbing the depth chart?
Poor contracts breed poor results. You don’t blame the players for signing the deals, you blame the managers that handed them out and the coaches who roll out handcuffed lineups. Handing out big money to veterans is a move for contenders, not teams in the early stage of a rebuild.
These contracts not only bog down the roster in terms of roster spots, but it also weighs down the team’s financial flexibility. Granted the player has to be interested, but the Red Wings were unable to pursue free agents like Jake Gardiner because they have big bucks already tied up in two or three roster spots. This limits how good the current team can be, which is good for rebuilding but bad for ticket sales.
Relief in Sight?
Two of the biggest offenders here, Daley and Jonathan Ericsson, are in the final year of their respective contracts. Together, they represent two roster spots and over $7.4 million in cap space. Pending something crazy happening, it’s unlikely that either will wear the winged wheel beyond this season.
For better or for worse, the Red Wings defense is also made up of many players with extensive injury histories. Players like Daley, Ericsson, Mike Green, and Danny Dekeyser regularly find themselves on injured reserve. This presents an opportunity for players like Hronek and Cholowski. If a player proves he belongs during another player’s injury, eventually a move is made to make room for the new guy.
For players like Hicketts and Kaski, once the opportunity to play arrives, they need to seize it. Whether it means a spot with the Red Wings or another team, their futures in the NHL depend on it. If they don’t seize the opportunity, there are guys like Madison Bowey, Moritz Seider, Gustav Lindstrom, and Vili Saarijarvi knocking on the door as well.
Woof…that’s a lot of guys.