Have you seen Shawshank Redemption? Presumably yes, because it seems like everybody has seen it once or 12 times. Do you remember the last line of the movie, when Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Red’ is finally out of prison and leaving on a bus bound for Mexico to meet up with Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne?
It goes like this:
“I find I'm so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
It’s a great last line in a movie full of great lines. And, after writing about the not-so-great Detroit Red Wings earlier this week, this line came to mind as a beacon of hope for Hockeytown. Yes, things are bad for the Wings right now, but they’re at the start of a long journey back to NHL respectability. Sure, the conclusion is uncertain – they may succeed or fail in spectacular fashion, or fall somewhere in between – but that’s the beauty of sports. (And of life too, I suppose, but don’t worry, we’re not going down that rabbit hole.) The important thing is, they hope they can make it. Their friends, their fans hope they can make it. They hope the Stanley Cup is as silver as it was the last time they won it. They hope.
This season has been a dark one for Detroit, the darkest since the days of the ‘Dead Things.’ But don’t despair, Hockeytown, there’s at least 10 reasons to be hopeful for the future:
1. Steve Yzerman. The biggest reason for optimism is the return of the franchise legend, this time as GM. Yzerman, in his first year back in Detroit after nearly a decade as Tampa Bay’s GM, built a powerhouse with the Lightning and now he’s charged with resurrecting the Red Wings. He’s been loath to make any significant moves this season, choosing instead to accept the team’s last-place fate and evaluate the on-ice personnel is the process. Yzerman’s only notable acquisition was Robby Fabbri from St. Louis in November, with Jacob de la Rose going to the Blues. Fabbri has 11 goals and 27 points since the trade, de la Rose has one goal and five points. A few more moves like that, please.
2. Alexis Lafreniere. OK, they don’t currently own his rights and there’s a less than 20-percent chance they win the NHL draft lottery. But, assuming they finish last overall, they’ve got the best shot at the No. 1 overall pick, and even if they lose the lottery, there’s still Quinton Byfield, Alexander Holtz and Tim Stutzle, among others, in what’s looking like a deep and talented draft class. Speaking of the 2020 NHL draft, the Wings have one first-round pick, two second-rounders and two thirds -- that could translate to the first overall pick plus four more selections in the top 65 -- and they have three more picks in the later rounds. And that’s before whatever Yzerman does at the trade deadline, where you have to figure he’ll be moving out roster players for more picks and prospects.
3. Filip Zadina. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 draft gained instant notoriety for his brash prediction that he’d punish the teams that had passed on him by “filling their nets with pucks.” Then he had a decent-but-not-great 2018-19 season in the AHL, causing some to wonder if he might be more talk than action. But he got off to a better start with Grand Rapids this year and was called up to Detroit in late November, and he was a regular in the lineup until being felled by a week-to-week injury in early February. He was showing off his net-filling potential, too, with eight goals (and 15 points) in 28 NHL games. Zadina has a big shot, big skill and big confidence. And at 20 years old, the Wings are betting big that he’ll be a goal-scoring pillar for a future contender.
4. Moritz Seider. The large and mobile German defenseman was Yzerman’s first draft pick, at sixth overall in 2019, and the Wings GM wasn’t afraid to go off the board to get the player he wanted. A smooth skater who can pass the puck and plays a smart and reliable game, Seider is spending his North American rookie season in the AHL, with a mid-season timeout for the World Junior Championship. He needs development time and probably won’t be an NHL regular next season. But the Red Wings have high hopes for him when he does arrive, with a spot on the team’s top defense pairing if all goes to plan.
5. There’s help on the way. Zadina and Seider stand out as Detroit’s most promising young players, but they’re not the only high-end prospects in the Wings’ system. Up front, Joe Veleno, Jonatan Berggren and Michael Rasmussen offer top-six potential. On the blueline, Jared McIsaac and Gustav Lindstrom join Seider as blue-chippers. In net, the team’s goalie of the future looks like Filip Larsson, although his transition to the AHL has been bumpy.
6. There’s help already here. It has also been a rough NHL introduction for young forwards such as Tara Hirose, Givani Smith, Adam Erne and Christoffer Ehn, but it’s reasonable to project that at least a couple of them become core fixtures, even if it’s in a bottom-six role. The Wings’ future look brighter on the back end, with offensive specialist Filip Hronek and all-around Dennis Cholowski both on track for top-four status.
7. Young guns up front. Right here, right now, the best part of the Red Wings’ roster is their fleet of proven young forwards. The speedy Dylan Larkin (24) won’t match his career-high 73-point output of last season, but that’s the range he should be aiming for next year and beyond. Anthony Mantha (26) is an impactful, goal-scoring power forward. After a personal-best 21 goals last season, Tyler Bertuzzi (25) is on pace for 25-plus. Fabbri (24), the 2014 first-rounder who has endured injury after injury, is making good use of his good health and the ice time he’s receiving. And even Andreas Athanasiou (26), although he’s not having much fun this season, should be closer to a 30-goal guy than the measly five he’s managed so far this year. Larkin and Mantha might be the only legitimate top-liners in the bunch, but Bertuzzi, Fabbri and Athanasiou have the capability to play on the second or third lines and be effective. They just need more help around them, and to be slotted into a more appropriate spot on the depth chart.
8. Contracts coming off the books. Former GM Ken Holland left a Stanley Cup championship legacy in Detroit, but he also left some cumbersome contracts. The good news is, the deals for Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley and Jimmy Howard are done at the end of the season. Darren Helm and (Yzerman signing) Valtteri Filppula have one more year left. Justin Abdelkader? Well, he’s the exception that proves the rule – he’s signed for three more seasons after this one. Buyout? Maybe, maybe not, but either way the Wings will have plenty of financial flexibility moving forward, giving Yzerman options as he plots the future course of the franchise.
9. NHL trade deadline. Granted, the Wings don’t have a lot in the way of trade bait -- it’s highly unlikely they’ll go the blockbuster route and move Larkin or Mantha, for example -- but they’ve got a few players that might be of interest to Cup contenders. Yzerman, obviously, will be looking to flip whomever he deems expendable in order to stockpile draft picks and prospects. Might Jonathan Bernier attract some bids among teams seeking a reliable backup?
10. Big Pizza. When you’re basically sponsored by Little Caesars, money shouldn’t be an issue. Yzerman proved to be a fine steward in Tampa Bay, whether it was on the trade front, at the draft, or bringing in free agents. He did a good job at getting bang for the buck, and he should have plenty of bucks to work with going forward. But it’s not a 30-minutes-or-free situation – delivering a winner in Detroit is going to take time, so Wings fans need a little patience with their large pepperoni.