Entering the 2019-20 season, the Detroit Red Wings’ biggest reason for optimism was their forward group. Led by center Dylan Larkin, the team had some young talent upfront, as well as some veterans who seemed capable of filling certain roles. There were also prospects with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins knocking on the door, ready for their chance to impress new general manager Steve Yzerman.
Unfortunately, at the season’s pause due to COVID-19, the Red Wings had just 142 goals through 71 games, a lowly average of two per game. The next lowest total is the Los Angeles Kings’ 177 through 70 games. In other words, the Red Wings’ offense was anemic this season.
When I graded the Red Wings’ defense, we set a benchmark of games played (GP) to qualify. That number is 30, or 42% of the team’s 71 games. I’m also excluding Andreas Athanasiou following his trade to the Edmonton Oilers. Though the 30-game threshold was reached by all the usual suspects, this list does exclude some young players who earned extended looks following call-ups from the AHL.
Appearing in 21 games this season, winger Givani Smith finally made his NHL debut after being selected in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft. With just three points, Smith was far from an offensive dynamo, but he displayed those intangibles that bode well for his future. He looks like he could challenge for a spot on the team’s fourth line next season.
Though he played in just 28 games, Filip Zadina finds himself ninth in team-scoring this season with 15 points. Though he hasn’t found the sort of dominant success in the AHL the organization would have liked from the sixth-overall selection in 2018, his play in the NHL this season suggests that he is ready for a full-time spot.
Zadina steadily climbed up the lineup after his call-up in late November. His ice time peaked on Jan. 22 with 20:51 over 25 shifts. In the absence of the Red Wings’ top guns due to injury, Zadina seemed to get more and more comfortable against NHL competition. Next season will be the first when he is expected to make the team out of camp.
Justin Abdelkader managed just three points through 49 GP, producing less than defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who endured a season-ending injury in the first month of 2019-20. Abdelkader could find himself on waivers and in the AHL next season. Grade: F
Brendan Perlini came over from the Chicago Blackhawks in late October at the cost of defensive prospect Alec Regula. The idea was that the former first-round selection by the Arizona Coyotes needed a bigger opportunity to become the high-end power forward he was projected to be. With just four points through 39 games, Perlini looks like he could be a bust. Grade: F
Frans Nielsen has two more years on his contract at a cap hit of $5.25 million. This season was perhaps the first that highlighted just how brutal that deal is going to look going forward. With just nine points through 60 GP, Nielsen is now nothing more than a fourth-liner with veteran savvy. Grade: F
We Need More
At 24 years old, the Red Wings could do worse than Christoffer Ehn. He doesn’t cost the team much in terms of cap hit, and he’s young enough to get better. However, with 114 games of NHL experience, Ehn has just 13 points, including four from this season. He is playing himself into the “extra forward” role very quickly. Grade: D
Winger Adam Erne was brought in from the Tampa Bay Lightning before the beginning of the season at the cost of a fourth-round pick. The 25-year-old winger had 20 points last season with the Lightning but managed just five points this season with the Red Wings. His low production is likely a byproduct of both his lack of high-end skill and the supporting cast around him. Grade: D
Signed to a two-year deal last summer, Valtteri Filppula became the Red Wings’ second-line center this season. This exposes the team’s lack of depth; Filppula hasn’t been a second-liner in almost five years. His 21 points this season were fine, but not for the role he was given. Grade: D+
It’s been a long time since Darren Helm was considered an elite third-line center. The bottom-six forward has one more year left on his deal at a cap hit of $3.85 million. He led the team in plus/minus at minus-six. Grade: C-
Head coach Jeff Blashill likes to use Luke Glendening as a utility player throughout the lineup. With nine points through 60 games, you’d like to see a “utility player” generate more offense, but he’s used more as a defensive anchor on whatever line he plays. He’s a reliable defender, but not much else. Grade: C
Arguably Yzerman’s best move of the season was acquiring winger Robby Fabbri from the St. Louis Blues. With 31 points through 52 GP with the Red Wings, he produced at a 48-point pace through 82 games. He’s a second-line forward on this team, but you wonder if there’s another level he can reach…. Grade: B-
The Big Three
Anthony Mantha could be the team’s most lethal weapon in terms of pure offense, but you wouldn’t know it because he’s frequently injured. Through 43 games, he had 38 points – a 72-point pace through 82 games. He’s a top-line forward for the Red Wings and should be a household name by now. Grade: B
Top center Dylan Larkin took a step back this year – perhaps the biggest contributor to the team’s struggles this season. Though he led the team with 53 points in 71 games, that’s a scoring rate far lower than last season when he posted 73 points in 76 games. Getting his game back up to those heights is crucial to the Red Wings’ hope for success next season. Grade: B+
As the team’s representative at the All-Star Game this season, Tyler Bertuzzi reaped the rewards of what has been a successful stay in the NHL through 199 career games. He won’t be the team’s biggest performer going forward, but with 48 points through 71 games, Bertuzzi gives the Red Wings everything they expect from him and sometimes more. Grade: A
This season showed that the Red Wings’ problems aren’t limited to the blue line. They need help throughout, considering they only iced four top-six forwards this season. Sure, help is coming in the form of Zadina, but he’s one player, and far from guaranteed to succeed.
These individual grades also illustrate the fact that so many members of the Red Wings under-performed this season. This is perhaps the biggest reason why fans should expect a little more success in 2020-2021. Turning a few of those “D’s” into “C’s” would do wonders for the team’s fortunes.
Whenever Yzerman conducts his end-of-season interviews, he will surely have notes on each player. Next season presents an opportunity for some big roster turnover, and every player mentioned in this article needs to put in some work over the summer to ensure that next season’s grades aren’t as grim.
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.