Red Wings Need a Better First-Line Center Than Larkin

Entering the Detroit Red Wings beat, I didn’t think that Dylan Larkin was such a touchy subject. “Go in with an open mind,” they said. I listened, but it was still a shock to see some of the responses to one of my articles about the team’s top line. Many fans seem to be downtrodden on the young Michigan-born center. I do understand it slightly, considering the pretty bad season he had in 2020-21. He also hasn’t scored at the pace he did in 2018-19, where he hit almost a point per game with 73 in 76 games. If his average production is going to be around 50 points, there will need to be some changes on the top line, especially if the front office is 100 percent focused on winning a Stanley Cup sooner rather than later.

Elias Pettersson

I’m a big Elias Pettersson fan. Let’s get that out of the way. I love the way he plays, and the fact that he does well by the numbers is a bonus. One of the biggest narratives of the 2020-21 offseason for almost any team with enough cap space is offer sheeting him and forcing the Vancouver Canucks into even more of a bind. It would be intriguing to see if general manager Steve Yzerman decided to pursue this course of action.

Elias Pettersson Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver Canucks Elias Pettersson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Pettersson is not your typical first-line center. He isn’t going to kill you on the scoresheet, and some would argue that that isn’t the kind of player the Red Wings need. However, what he brings to the game in both ends and through his high hockey IQ is enough to argue that the low point totals aren’t necessarily a concern. He has proven to be a fairly consistent scorer, so the one good thing is that you know what you’re going to get unless something flukey happens. He ranks atop the goals and expected goals above replacement (GAR and xGAR) metrics by Evolving-Hockey over the last three seasons despite playing considerably less due to injuries. His regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) numbers are just as excellent.

The one question would be: how much is the team willing to offer sheet him for, and what are they willing to give up? Any offer from $7-9 million per year for around four to five, maybe even six years, is completely fair and something that Yzerman could look at as an option. Of course, he may not do it for a multitude of reasons, but seeing how he and the front office have handled themselves over the last few offseasons, they aren’t afraid to make bets. I think Pettersson, if the organization were to offer sheet him, is a relatively safe bet.

Aleksander Barkov

Aleksander Barkov was one of the most electrifying players in the NHL in 2020-21. The dynamic duo of Carter Verhaeghe and him was almost unbeatable. He’s the captain of a young and impressive Florida Panthers team, and even though they lost to the eventual repeat Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, there’s a lot to be excited about.

Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The key with Barkov is that he hits unrestricted free agency after the upcoming season, and it would be interesting to see if Yzerman and company decide that he can fill a void on the top line. He would instantly become the Red Wings’ best player, and they can offer him an obscene amount of money if necessary. Of course, it will be tough because he’s the captain of the Panthers, and they’re slowly approaching “contender” status now that head coach Joel Quenneville‘s system is being fully implemented and players are buying in. However, we have seen captains of teams leave in free agency before, so it’s not entirely unprecedented.

Barkov, like Pettersson, is one of the league’s best centers. Before 2020-21 he struggled in his own zone, but he came around last season to limit high-danger chances and transition the puck up the ice after recovering it. He was 24th in GAR and ninth in xGAR among all players. Adding someone like him to a young team slowly exiting a rebuild would do wonders. They not only add a leader but also add one of the best players in the NHL. The one thing that does concern me is the contract. Barkov will get paid, and it’s quite possible that he hits $10 million or at least close to it on his next deal. Whether Yzerman wants to hand that out is not clear, but if he did, I think it’s well worth it.

Mika Zibanejad

This would be an interesting pickup for the team, considering that Mika Zibanejad isn’t in the true upper echelon of top-line centers. He’s behind a fair amount of his peers that are considered first-line centers even with two ridiculous goal-scoring seasons. He’s also a free agent after the 2021-22 season, and with some of the younger players coming into the fold for the New York Rangers, it’s more likely that he leaves than Barkov from the Panthers.

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As I mentioned, Zibanejad has gone on a tear these last two seasons scoring a combined total of 65 goals in 113 games. He struggled a bit early on in 2021-22, and in 2020-21 was hindered by an injury, but the numbers are still awe-inspiring. As we all know, the Red Wings lack a truly talented scorer. They added Jakub Vrana to the fold, but he was a replacement for Anthony Mantha. Their scoring numbers were about the same, so the net gain is good, but not at the level of Zibanejad. He’s proven multiple times that he can be upwards of a 70-80 point scorer, and at worst, you’re going to be getting someone who can put up 50. He’s also in his prime at the ripe age of 28, so the time is now to try and snag him.

Zibanejad might not be the team’s first option, but I’d argue he’s an underrated option. Being in the spotlight of New York has its benefits for obvious reasons. It also can inflate his value. I don’t think it’s done that in this case, but he will definitely be asking for a raise. What that number might be is up in the air, but a long-term deal for around $8 million per year seems most likely. His current average annual value (AAV) is $5.35 million, so adding another $3 million to the equation doesn’t seem that far-fetched given his offensive prowess.

Shane Wright

The final player that I will be discussing isn’t actually in the NHL and won’t be an unrestricted or restricted free agent any time soon. Shane Wright is one of the best talents to come into the draft in recent history. He’s put up some ridiculous numbers in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Kingston Frotenacs, scoring 66 points in 58 games, including 39 goals. However, he truly put himself on the map when he put up 150 points in 72 games with the U16 AAA Don Mills Flyers program. It’s unreal how good he is with and without the puck. It’s not like he’s a small player either. He stands at 6-foot-1, but the way he’s built himself up is really impressive. Not only is he tall, but he’s muscular.

Shane Wright Kingston Frontenacs
Shane Wright of the Kingston Frontenacs. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Wright can really push himself around the ice. He won’t ever be the fastest player, but his skating is still a positive asset to his overall game. He does all the little things right when it comes to winning puck battles in the corner, and he scans the ice extremely well. The one thing that separates him from everyone else is his shot. He’s an excellent goal scorer from everywhere on the ice. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a bad angle or right in front of the net; it wouldn’t be unreasonable to bet that the puck is going in the net.

The one concern that arises here is, what is it going to take? Unlike the other three players, it’s going to take another year of tanking and better fortune to get Wright. I doubt they out-lose the Buffalo Sabres or teams like the Arizona Coyotes and maybe the Ottawa Senators. But hopefully, that first-round pick of theirs can be the lucky one.

Although some of these players might be long shots to get, it’s important to understand that they are the standard for first-line centers. Some are better than others, but these guys are what you’re looking for to complete the rebuild truly. Once a center of this caliber comes into the fold, it’s game on.