The Red Wings are saddled with so many pricey veteran contracts that it will be hard to wriggle out from under them and start building a long-term contender.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
Denial is a powerful thing. It kept the Detroit Red Wings in the playoff picture for an astonishing 25 consecutive seasons. Now it threatens to bind their feet in cement for years to come. The Wings’ post-season streak finally ended in 2016-17, but GM Ken Holland remains committed to keeping his team competitive in the present. One reason why: he signed so many mid-tier players to expensive long-term deals in recent seasons that he has no choice but to soldier on with the group he has. That could keep Detroit hanging on the playoff periphery without truly bottoming out, which they need to do if they want to secure some high-end draft choices. In nabbing Michael Rasmussen ninth overall this past spring, the Wings enjoyed their first top-10 draft pick since Martin Lapointe in 1991.
Because they’ve consistently picked in the lower half of the first round, if at all, the Wings lack true blue-chip young guns or prospects. There’s nothing wrong with speedy Dylan Larkin and budding sniper Anthony Mantha to build around up front, for instance, but those two will never be confused with Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel or Patrik Laine. As a result, the Wings have a fairly low-ceiling forward group, and it doesn’t look like that will change for the foreseeable future. Remember, even if you believe in Rasmussen’s potential, which not every scout does, it’s unlikely we see him in Detroit’s lineup by 2019-20. The Wings baby their prospects as much as any team in the sport. Only one player from their past three drafts has played a second of NHL hockey thus far: Evgeny Svechnikov, with two games. He showed a lot of offensive potential in his first pro season with AHL champion Grand Rapids and represents Detroit’s best chance at developing a high-end scorer in the years to come. If the Wings continue to struggle, they may contend for Evgeny’s brother, Andrei, who has an excellent chance to be 2018’s No. 1 overall draft pick.
The existing Detroit forward group consists of good-but-not-elite youngsters like Larkin, Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, mixed with stalwarts like Henrik Zetterberg, who is under contract through 2020-21, and overpriced, immovable contracts like those of Frans Nielsen and Justin Abdelkader. In the heydays of scout Hakan Andersson, the Wings regularly unearthed star-level talents in the late rounds of drafts, and it once appeared Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist would succeed Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in that regard, but Tatar and Nyquist haven’t progressed like it seemed they would a few years ago. Tatar just signed a four-year extension and remains part of the team’s long-term plans, but Nyquist, who carries a $4.75-million price tag, should be a goner by summer 2019 when his contract expires. After breaking out for 28 goals in 57 games in 2013-14, he’s scored 27, 17 and 12 goals, trending in the wrong direction.
Detroit’s blueline is weighed down by pricey veterans. Mike Green should walk as an unrestricted free agent by 2018-19 if he’s not traded this year, and Niklas Kronwall may retire by then. If Jonathan Ericsson is still around, he’ll be passed on the depth chart by mobile, youngish options Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul. The Wings have a decent stable of defensemen on the way, most notably Dennis Cholowski, who turned pro after one year at St. Cloud State and doesn’t face stiff competition to make the team in a couple years. Vili Saarijarvi, Filip Hronek and Joe Hicketts are names to watch, too.
Detroit’s net isn’t something to get excited about. Aging Jimmy Howard doesn’t seem likely to return when his contract expires in 2019. Not when he’ll be 35. The name to remember is Jared Coreau, who backstopped Grand Rapids to the 2017 Calder Cup and could usurp Petr Mrazek as early as this season.
GOT IT: While Detroit’s offense doesn’t leave teams trembling in their boots nowadays, this team is deep at wing and should get decent scoring from there in years to come. Mantha is just getting started, and Larkin is just 21, so he has time to recover from a down sophomore year. Maybe he gets a shot at center again, but Detroit has more lineup balance when he’s on the wing. I foresee the Wings buying out Darren Helm, who carries a $3.85-million AAV through 2020-21, to make room on the depth chart for youth. Detroit has no shortage of responsible two-way pivots, either. As long as Zetterberg stays healthy enough to play a couple more years, he’ll make a great mentor for the heady Holmstrom.
The Wings also have reasonable skating ability coming down the pipeline from their defense corps, especially from the fleet-footed Cholowski.
NEED IT: Detroit will never be confused with a big, physically imposing team. It lacks a mean shutdown blueliner and needs some bangers up front. Givani Smith and Tyler Bertuzzi should help with the latter but are not slam-dunk NHLers yet. Rasmussen could of course be the towering presence Detroit desperately lacks at center, but he was a fairly divisive pick in Round 1, projected as a first-liner by some and a third-liner by others. Coreau is the only goalie ranked among Detroit’s top 10 prospects in THN Future Watch, and he’s not even all that young anymore at 25. The Wings have selected a goalie in four straight drafts, but none is near NHL ready.
CAP WATCH: The Wings are loaded with albatross deals and squeezed up against the cap. They pay Nielsen, Abdelkader, Helm, Kronwall and Ericsson alone more than $20 million. Mantha and Larkin become restricted free agents and thus will command major raises over their entry-level deals in 2018, and Green’s contract is the only significant one expiring before then. Because Holland has signed so many of his vets to long-term deals as well, it’s not like the contracts will be easily movable should Detroit fall out of contention at the deadline. That means buyouts might be the team’s only escape hatch.
BOTTOM LINE: The Wings are years away from Stanley Cup contention. They have some decent prospects who could contribute soon – but Holland has to clear space on the depth chart for them by finding a way to trim some expensive dead weight. At the very least, he has to stop adding new veterans at exorbitant prices.
Up next: Edmonton Oilers