It starts with Dylan Larkin at number one. Without question, the 23-year-old is the top guy on the Detroit Red Wings roster. After him, the discussion gets murky really fast.
Some people might value pure production as a means to determine the team’s best players. Others may value a blend of character and honoring the team’s culture. There’s no right way to determine a player’s value, but there are plenty of wrong ways.
As far as this article is concerned, a player’s value is determined by their impact on the ice. These are the players that make a rebuilding team like Detroit look dangerous. These are the cornerstones of hope that fans hitch their wagon to. But whose impact trumps all others?
What the Advanced Stats Say
Stats can help us quantify a player’s impact on the ice. This isn’t just raw point totals, though those do help. Instead, like Larkin, a good player draws out the best in the players they play with; good things happen when this player is on the ice.
Using Corsica Hockey and Natural Stat Trick as references, we can easily find who influences play for the better. During just last season, winger Anthony Mantha had the team’s highest relative-Corsi mark (Rel CF%) with an astonishing 16.07%. This means that when he was on the ice, Detroit’s shot-share increased by just over 16%.
From the 2016-17 season to last season, Mantha has far and away the best Corsi for percentage (CF%) on the team with a strong 53%. Over that period of time, the winger has 132 points in 207 games. Emphasizing these stats, his presence on Larkin’s wing increased Larkin’s shot share by 11%. Simply put: Mantha brought out the best in the team’s best player.
Other notable play drivers last season are winger Tyler Bertuzzi and blueliner Dennis Cholowski. Cholowski finished the season in Grand Rapids, so he’s likely not Detroit’s second-best player. Bertuzzi was the third player on a dominant line featuring Mantha and Larkin. His Rel CF% is about half of Mantha’s at 8.58%, a strong number, but still not quite as good.
While Mantha’s stats jump out at you, Andreas Athanasiou’s play grabs your attention like any superstar in the league. He’s fast, skilled, and unpredictable night in and night out. Also, he plays center from time to time.
This isn’t some small detail; in fact, it could be the key to Detroit contending sooner rather than later. Following the trade deadline, head coach Jeff Blashill used Athanasiou at center on a semi-regular basis. The results? A 42.9% success-rate at face-offs, 15 points in 19 games, and strong chemistry with Taro Hirose — one of the team’s exciting new faces. Room for improvement? Sure. Good results nonetheless? Absolutely.
In terms of raw point totals, Athanasiou’s 53 last season was the best finish in his career. If this is his new normal, a 50-60 point forward that can move around the lineup is a strong piece for Detroit’s future.
What about the goalie? Despite his climbing age and decreasing effectiveness, Jimmy Howard still shows the ability to win a game on his own. Given that the roster is currently overrun by players that don’t possess this ability, he earns a spot in this conversation — but for how much longer?
Filip Hronek finished last season as the team’s top defender. Still just 21 years old, if the former second-round draft pick can continue to build on his progress, he could quickly vault into the discussion as Detroit’s most important player. He’s a full-blown breakout candidate for this season.
As it stands, this topic begins and ends with Mantha or Athanasiou. Both enter the 2019-20 season with just one year left on their deals. They play vastly different styles, but they both have a huge impact on the Red Wings.
The one thing holding back Mantha after three full seasons of action is his health. He has yet to play a full 82-game season, though he came close during 2017-18. If he had played the full 2018-19 season, he likely would have at least tied Athanasiou’s point total.
The thing holding Athanasiou back is that his ceiling may be in view already. As the Red Wings continue to accumulate talent, “Double A” likely fits as a middle-six forward. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that Mantha’s high-end could be higher.
With that being said, Detroit’s second-best player is Mantha. His potential still intrigues Red Wings fans and hockey fans alike. He’s a statistical darling. A break-out campaign seems just on the horizon for the top-six winger — the rest of the league better watch out.