After discussing players that are off to disappointing starts last week, it’s only fair that now we look at the other side of the coin, right?
Considering where the Detroit Red Wings are in the NHL standings, it’s safe to say that they are a team that has its share of players that are performing above expectations to this point. It’s one thing when a team’s best players are performing well, but the best teams in the league have key contributors up and down their lineup, cementing the kind of depth that lesser teams simply can’t compete with. To this point in the season, the Red Wings have some players that have surprised everyone and allowed Detroit to ice that level of depth.
Here are just three of them:
Of all the players on the Red Wings’ roster that are off to surprisingly strong starts, Filip Hronek is probably the biggest one that comes to mind. The 25-year-old defenseman, now in his fifth season with the Red Wings, has always been a capable offensive defenseman, recording a career points per-game rate of about .50 through his previous four seasons. Through 28 games this season, his points per-game rate of .86 is easily a career best, and if his plus/minus rating stays positive through the end of the season, it would be the first time in his career that he finishes with a positive number in that statistic. Simply put: good things seem to happen when he is on the ice.
His offense is what stands out, especially after he broke a record previously held by Red Wings legend Sergei Fedorov, but what is perhaps most remarkable is how he seems to have earned the trust of first-year head coach Derek Lalonde. Brought on to fix the Red Wings’ defensive structure, you wouldn’t have been crazy if you thought that Lalonde might put Hronek in the doghouse at some point this season considering the Czech defender developed a bit of a reputation for being porous in his own zone over the last few seasons. Instead, there have been games where Hronek has led Detroit in ice-time, playing more than top-line defender Moritz Seider. You don’t get the opportunity to play those kinds of minutes unless you’re having a positive impact all over the ice, not just in the offensive zone.
Related: Red Wings’ Top Defenceman Is Undeniably Hronek, Not Seider
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A second-round pick in 2016, Hronek has quieted chatter that he may not be a part of the Red Wings’ future. Every Stanley Cup-contending team has at least one defenseman that excels as producing points from the blue line. If he can keep up his play from the first third of this season, he may very well be that guy for the Red Wings for years to come.
Make no mistake: Hronek has been excellent this season, but a ton of credit falls at the feet of his defensive partner, Olli Määttä.
Määttä signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings during the offseason, and the expectation among fans and the media was that the 28-year-old Finnish defenseman would slot in next to Hronek on the team’s second pairing. While Hronek has always been a bit of a gunslinger on the blue line, Määttä excels at playing a simple game that allows his partner to be active all over the ice. It was a classic yin and yang situation; their games seemed to balance each other out, at least on paper.
On the ice, it has worked better than anyone could have hoped for. Not only has Määttä’s solid defensive game allowed Hronek to breakout this season, but the veteran of 10 NHL seasons (including this season) is producing better numbers than was expected of him. His 10 points in 25 games this season almost matches the 12 points he put up over two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings from 2020-22, and his average time on ice (ATOI) of 19:55 is the most since he averaged 19:58 during the 2015-16 season, his third in the NHL. After kind of falling off the map since the turn of the decade, he has reemerged in a big way with the Red Wings.
Määttä’s impact on Hronek and the Red Wings has been so profound that it’s fair to wonder whether the team might consider retaining his services rather than move on from him at the trade deadline or after this season. With a cap-hit of just $2.25 million, he isn’t going to cost Detroit too much to retain, and there may not be a prospect in their system that can mesh with Hronek as well as he has. Prior to the season, it was easy to assume that this season would be a one-and-done for Määttä and the Red Wings. Instead, his surprisingly strong start seems to have made him one of the most important defenders on the team.
When Dominik Kubalik was signed to a two-year deal in the offseason, there was hope that he would become a key contributor for the Red Wings. After all, he was a Calder Trophy finalist just three seasons ago when he put up 30 goals with the Chicago Blackhawks. But after recording just 32 goals over his next two seasons, it seemed more likely that he was destined to be a depth producer that bounced around the Red Wings’ middle six.
Well, through the first third of the season, Kubalik has changed his destiny in Detroit.
The 27-year-old is averaging the highest ATOI of his career (16:27) because he has earned his way into the Red Wings’ top six. Kubalik has kept pace with his frequent linemate, Dylan Larkin, as the team’s leader in points, and he is currently tied with Larkin for the team lead in goals (10) as well. After signing with the Red Wings because the Blackhawks did not retain his rights by tendering him a qualifying offer, he is currently on pace for a 29-goal season.
In a season where the Red Wings have had to maneuver their way through injuries to key offensive players such as Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana and Robby Fabbri, Kubalik is one of the biggest reasons why their offense hasn’t dried up. His shot is always a threat on the power play, and he seems to have established some serious chemistry with Larkin on the team’s top line.
Hope doesn’t always lead to results, but in the case of Kubalik, it sure has early on.
Red Wings’ Success a Product of Overachievers
As was said at the top, the Red Wings would not be where they are right now without stellar starts from more than just these three players. There are a few other players that could have been highlighted in this piece, including the team’s top goaltender Ville Husso. That he was left off this list just goes to show how the team from Hockeytown has exceeded expectations to this point of the season.
If the Red Wings are going to get where they want to be by season’s end, they’ll have to keep smashing those expectations.