The Detroit Red Wings find themselves in the most unfamiliar of places right now; the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The franchise’s incredible streak of 25 straight seasons in the playoffs is all but dead. But instead of dwelling on how they got here, let’s look ahead to how Detroit can get back on top.
The only answer is a rebuild and it’s going to take a long time. It always does. But with Detroit’s current contract commitments, there is seriously no way to avoid this.
The most pertinent question revolves around Detroit lifer Henrik Zetterberg. The captain is 35 years old with four more seasons left on his deal after this year. His cap hit is north of $6 million. Now, it would be really cool if Zetterberg finished his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, but is that at the end of the contract, or before? He already has a Stanley Cup ring, but if he wants one more, it won’t be in Detroit. And while he leads the Wings in scoring this season, his offensive totals have been trending down for several years and there’s no reason to expect they’ll go up in the future.
Zetterberg can still be a great mentor for the next generation of Red Wings, but the salary cap side of things will only justify that for another season or two, tops.
Long-term deals for Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall and Frans Nielsen will also have to be dealt with and it won’t be easy, since many of them have no-trade clauses. On the bright side, most of those clauses have caveats. According to Capfriendly.com, Helm’s no-trade clause is nullified if the Wings don’t make the playoffs in 2019, for example. If GM Ken Holland can chip away at those contracts in the next couple seasons, it will help immensely.
But keep in mind; this is a long-term rebuild. By which I mean the Red Wings won’t emerge as a serious threat until 2020, at the earliest.
The most important building blocks have yet to be drafted by Detroit. Assuming the Red Wings land a top-five pick this summer (which is looking pretty good, even though Vegas can’t draft lower than sixth), I’d like to see them take someone with more long-term upside, rather than short-term pop: defenseman Timothy Liljegren comes to mind. Liljegren is already playing against men in Sweden, but as a defenseman and a player who has never skated in a North American league, you’d figure it’s three or four years before he makes a real impact over here, despite how promising he looks.
Detroit’s first round pick in 2016, Dennis Cholowski, is in a similar boat. The smooth-skating defenseman is in his first season at St. Cloud State and based on how raw he was coming in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him spend all four years (or at least three) with the Huskies. Similarly, Filip Hronek (53rd overall in 2016) is having an excellent season with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, averaging a point per game from the blueline. His biggest need is weight and strength, something that will again, come with time. If Hronek, who was drafted out of Europe, goes to the AHL as soon as next year, he can continue to bulk up while adjusting to heavier competition. If the young Czech struggles at first, it’s fine. Three years in the AHL isn’t a condemnation. And the same could be said about Vili Saarijarvi, currently with OHL Mississauga.
At this point, assuming the players develop as hoped (big ‘if,’ I know, but this is best-case scenario time), you’ve got a nice young ‘D’ corps that can be tutored by Danny DeKeyser and Xavier Ouellet, or whichever veteran equivalents the Wings have by that time.
But the most important selection Detroit will make probably comes in 2018. Going off the assumption that the Red Wings will be bad once again, 2018 appears to have more riches up top than 2017. A solid top-three has already emerged in center Joe Veleno, right winger Andrei Svechnikov and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
Veleno was the first player ever to get “Exceptional Status” for the Quebec League, joining Saint John as a 15-year-old. Though he has battled injury this year, he’s still nearly a point-per-gamer already. Dahlin is a super-smooth blueliner from Sweden who made a splash by snagging a spot on Sweden’s world junior team this year, ahead of Liljegren and Erik Brannstrom. And Svechnikov is the younger brother of Detroit pick Evgeni Svechnikov. Andrei is a beast of a winger who is one of the top scorers in the USHL with Muskegon and will likely go first overall in the CHL Import Draft this summer, with OHL Barrie his most obvious destination. Of the three, only Dahlin may need another year in Sweden (because of his position), but he’d still be a great pick if it came to that.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Veleno is the pick. Again, assuming he develops on his current trajectory, Veleno could be a No. 1 center, or at worst, 1B. Anthony Mantha seems to have found his NHL potential this season, while Andreas Athanasiou is progressing nicely. Evgeni Svechnikov can be a good middle-six winger, while Tyler Bertuzzi and Givani Smith look like the kinds of gritty and physical players who will still strive in the continually faster NHL.
Which brings us to Dylan Larkin. Currently ensconced in a sophomore slump, Larkin nonetheless will be very important to the Red Wings from here on out. There will be some tough years, where we all feel bad for his talents being wasted, but if he is the player we expect him to be, he will come out of it stronger. Larkin has been on the wing and in the dot this season, but for the Red Wings to maximize his skills in the future, he’ll need to be a pivot. If that means him taking his lumps against top competition for a year or two, so be it. The practice will make him better. And should he emerge stronger as a center, then Detroit has a speedster with 200-foot capabilities and a scoring touch. A 1-2 punch of Larkin-Veleno has real potential.
As for goaltending, I don’t mean to sound glib, but that’s the easy part. Minnesota got Devan Dubnyk from Arizona for a third-rounder and he might win the Vezina this year. Edmonton is going to waltz into the playoffs with Cam Talbot in charge of the crease, and he was snagged from the Rangers for a couple of picks. So what I’m saying is that when Detroit needs a No. 1 goaltender, a surplus draft pick or two (or even free agency) will do the trick – and no development time is necessarily needed.
That too, is a couple years off, however. Should Detroit decide to rebuild the way all recent champions have done it, it will take years and there will be more pain.
But things will look a lot better than they do now.