A little over 20 games remain for both the Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins. As the Red Wings screech toward the finish line as one of the worst teams — if not the worst team — in the salary cap era, one of the only arguments for actually watching them at this point is to get a glimpse at the future.
We’ve gotten some pleasant surprises, like a run of four points in four games from 2018 first-round pick Filip Zadina before he went down with an upper-body injury on Feb. 1. The obvious top name on everyone’s mind is Steve Yzerman’s first draft selection as Red Wings’ general manager, 2019 first-rounder Moritz Seider. But one of the more intriguing names that’s expected to get one last extended look this season is Evgeny Svechnikov.
The 2015 first-round pick by the Red Wings is in the final year of an entry-level deal that makes him a restricted free agent at the start of this summer without arbitration rights. He doesn’t exactly have a prominent role, or really any role at all right now, in the team’s rebuild. Should Yzerman let the former 19th-overall pick walk after July 1, most fans likely won’t bat an eye. They haven’t seen much of him anyway.
But is that the right decision? He’s provided enough contradicting samples to make the answer a little complicated.
Svechnikov, 23, played one final year with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) after being selected by Ken Holland and the Wings in 2015. At 20 years old, he joined the Griffins for 2016-17 and proved he was every bit of what Detroit thought he was, scoring 20 goals and adding 31 assists in 74 games during his first season in pro hockey.
His arrival to the scene is the biggest reason why sending Svechnikov packing after this season is a tough decision to make, despite the fact that he hasn’t made much noise since. He underwhelmed the following season in the AHL, totalling 23 points over 57 games, and in 14 games with the Wings that 2017-18 season, had two goals and two assists.
Hampered by Injury
Svechnikov missed the entire 2018-19 season after successfully undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, and got off to a sluggish start this season in his return. Which, to be fair, provides the Russian forward with a little bit of leeway when trying to explain why he put up just 15 points in the AHL through the first 36 games of a contract year.
He’s turned it on as of late, putting up five goals and seven points in his last five games entering Tuesday, as the surging Griffins momentarily snagged sole possession of third place in the Central Division with a 5-2 win over the Chicago Wolves this past weekend. Grand Rapids — engrossed in a playoff race where the third through eighth-place teams in the division are separated by just nine points — has picked up points in 13 of its last 16 games.
Svechnikov has been a key contributor during this stretch, and there’s value to be had in getting younger players to experience a playoff push, no matter what level it’s at. But while the Griffins will certainly be relying on him down the stretch, the NHL club needs one last extended look before deciding his future. He got four games with the Wings this season, his only contribution on the stat sheet being two penalty minutes and a minus-1.
But again, that could be attributed to the trials that come alongside rehabilitating an ACL injury. The timing of Svechnikov’s injury muddies the clarity of what the Red Wings can expect from from him in the future. With the exception of these last five games in the AHL, he hasn’t done anything to outright impress; at the same time, there’s only a handful of games on his resume where he’s underwhelmed without a legitimate excuse.
Logjam on the Wings
It’s hard to imagine that any team pegged to be one of the worst ever simply doesn’t have room for a former first-round pick on its roster, but that might be a reason for letting him walk in free agency. It’s often said that sports are a “What have you done for me lately?” business and moving on would likely be a result of too little, too late. The flip-side of that is, because of his shaky performance throughout his young career, the Wings could bring him back on a team-friendly deal while he continues to prove his worth in the league.
Detroit has an intriguing mix of young, talented wingers on its roster, plus a handful of veteran contracts that are tough to move. Under the assumption that Zadina, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha, Robby Fabbri, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader all return to the opening-night lineup next season, that leaves just two spots for Svechnikov or any other wingers. That includes Andreas Athanasiou, whom the Wings haven’t made blatantly clear their intentions regarding his impending contract expiration.
Survey Says: Yes
Svechnikov will have a small window of opportunity to prove he can play in the NHL, but even if he doesn’t necessarily wow in that time, a strong finish in the AHL playoffs might hedge the doubts about his game and earn him another shot to wear the Winged Wheel next season.
For what it’s worth, it’s likely that Yzerman sought after Svechnikov in the 2015 draft; he showed an affinity for Russians and scouting that region during his tenure in Tampa Bay. As the Lightning make another push for the Stanley Cup, their success will be heavily dependent on the play of two crowned-jewel draft picks, Vezina-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky and last year’s winner of the Hart Memorial and Art Ross trophies, Nikita Kucherov. If Yzerman liked what he saw in Svechnikov then, and you can bet he did his homework, he’ll lean toward keeping him around now.
“Kenny and I were kind of sitting back-to-back to him and they were doing their picks and I think that year — and they were the right picks — he picked a bunch of Russians,” (Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill) said. “We kinda looked at him and said, ‘Stevie’s picking all these Russians.’ And that wasn’t his style all the time and here he was.”Steve Yzerman
Mantha, Bertuzzi and Fabbri are also all set to become RFAs at the end of this season and are almost guaranteed mid- to long-term contracts. Between their prospects, young NHL talent and what they’ll get drafting first through fourth in the upcoming draft, the Wings’ outlook at forward is actually pretty solid. They’ll want to get a firm read on Svechnikov’s long-term outlook without taking any chances. Since he’s no longer waiver-exempt after next season, it’d be a bit surprising for Detroit commit to anything outside of a one-year qualifying offer, especially if he struggles during his upcoming stint with the Wings.
There is a scenario where the conservative approach backfires. If Svechnikov makes the full-time roster next season and has a breakout campaign, he can then enter the following offseason, years before his prime, as an unrestricted free agent and available to the highest bidder. Still, Yzerman won’t be taking a gamble on investing in Svechnikov’s surgically repaired knee until a much higher level of play surfaces.
So if we’re dealing in reality, the upside in Svechnikov’s game, plus the lack of financial implications on a short-term extension, bodes well for the most likely result being a return to Detroit through 2020-21. A one-year deal around the ballpark of $1 million is a harmless risk for the organization and allows Svechnikov to come back fully from his injury, up his value and seek a longterm deal for more cash.
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Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit sportswriter covering every major local professional sports team for The Detroit News and host of the Locked On Red Wings podcast.