Upon entering training camp, there were plenty of questions about which of the many members of the influx of forwards would make the team. With the season opener tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 7), the Red Wings starting roster has been set and most of those questions have been answered. A few remain. Namely which of the 14 forwards the team is carrying on its 23 man active roster will crack the lineup on opening night. With room for only 12 forwards each game night (4 lines of 3 forwards), 2 players will be healthy scratches on a regular basis. This leaves one looming question each game night; “Who’s sitting out for this one?”
When the final roster of 24 players that the Red Wings would carry into the season opener was announced Tuesday, 15 forwards were present. They are: Justin Abdelkader, Todd Bertuzzi, Fabian Brunnstrom, Danny Cleary, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Eaves, Cory Emmerton, Valterri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Darren Helm, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler, Drew Miller, Jan Mursak (IR), and Henrik Zetterberg.
There are the obvious players that will always be on the ice given that they’re injury free. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen will never see time watching from the press box unless they’re unable to play, and it seems unlikely that players such as Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, Danny Cleary, and others will ever sit out unless they medically must. Jan Mursak, who would likely be in direct competition for these spots, is unable to play for at least a couple of months after breaking his ankle during the preseason. With the help of these sure-starters and the injured Mursak, it seems that a group of 4 forwards will be facing off for those last 2 positions to start the year. The 4 names in contention each night will consist of 2 newcomers, Cory Emmerton and Fabian Brunnstrom, and 2 players that have been around for a while, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller.
For Eaves and Miller, being in this position is nothing new. Both players have been with Detroit since 2009, Eaves signing as a free agent, and Miller being claimed off waivers from the Lightning. In the 2 seasons they’ve spent with the team, each has been put in the position of healthily sitting out several times. This, in addition to injury, has resulted in both forwards playing around 65 games in the last 2 seasons with the ‘Wings, each producing around 10 goals and 10 assists. You may be starting to notice a pattern here; Eaves and Miller have a lot in common. They’re even the same age (27). It doesn’t stop at numbers and statistics either, as both players perform in a similar defensive forward role when on the ice, logging a good chunk of their minutes on the PK. These similarities making choosing between the two incredibly difficult, and their fairly consistent play doesn’t help matters much either.
The next candidate, Fabian Brunnstrom, attended this year’s training camp on a try-out basis, and walked away with a 1 year contract and another chance at playing in the NHL. Never drafted, Brunnstrom signed with the Dallas Stars in 2008, and was effective immediately, scoring a hat trick in his first NHL game, and finishing his rookie season with 29 points in 55 games. Things never went quite as well for the Swedish forward after that though, and he found himself in the AHL for all of last season. Brunnstrom is looking to prove he belongs in the league, but he will indeed have to prove it. He’s impressed the team enough to land a deal, now he must impress them enough to keep giving him playing time.
Emmerton, a former member of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs and most recently the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins, is in a new situation just having the opportunity to play in the NHL. His only experience in the league came last season, spending 2 games with the team and logging a goal in his first (video). Emmerton has played consistently during his time with Grand Rapids, providing a regular 10 goals and 35 points in his 3 seasons there. Like Brunnstrom, he’s looking to prove himself, only this will be his first chance to do so.
These 4 provide an interesting and welcome dilemma for the Red Wings, and it’s not one that will be solved quickly. We’re likely to see them rotating in and out of the lineup on a game by game basis until one distinguishes himself from the group and makes it impossible to remove him. And if Eaves, Miller, Emmerton, and Brunnstrom aren’t enough of a difficult choice, there’s the very real potential of adding 2 more names to the mix. Jiri Hudler, who had an unimpressive 2011 season and sat out a few games because of it, and Jan Mursak, who spent 19 games with the ‘Wings for the first time last season, and will likely be given a chance once he’s recovered from his preseason injury .
All of this shapes up to be an interesting inter-club storyline, and one that we can only sit back and watch, waiting for it all to play out. Will Patrick Eaves or Drew Miller prove that experience is key? Will Brunnstrom redeem himself and fight back into the league? Can the 23-year-old Emmerton make the best of his first real chance at the NHL? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is for sure though, someone will elevate their game amongst the fierce competition and prove themselves invaluable to the team, and that they truly belong in the NHL.