Septeber 23, 2016
Red Wings head to camp with
far more questions than answers
By KEITH GAVE
TRAVERSE CITY – Jeff Blashill survived a pressure-filled rookie year behind the Detroit Red Wings’ bench when his team managed to squeak into the playoffs on the final weekend last season despite not playing very well. The Wings advanced only because Boston played worse.
So Detroit begins training camp Friday at Centre I.C.E. Arena with a streak of 25 straight seasons in which the Wings have advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs. In his second, season, however, Blashill may be under even greater pressure. This is the final season at Joe Louis Arena. Next fall, the Wings move into a brand the new Little Caesars Arena.
The last thing the Red Wings need is for that wonderful streak to end precisely at the time when the marketing campaign is rolling into high gear to create some excitement and sell out that new building.
But putting another link in their remarkable chain of success may be too big a challenge with these Wings. I’m doubtful they’ll be able to do it, simply because they’re starting the season with their worst roster since the late 1980s – before they added players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft.
Not just because their best player for the last decade or so, Pavel Datsyuk, returned to Russia to close his professional career. Not even because their two other best and most important players – captain Henrik Zetterberg and defenseman Niklas Kronwall – come to camp banged up and at an age where they cannot be expected to play heavy minutes in 82 games. Those days are over.
I am highly skeptical because the Wings have serious issues in every area. Consider:
This team has an abundance of forwards to sort out after General Manager Ken Holland added three free agents in July: center Franz Nielsen, left wing Thomas Vanek and right wing Steve Ott. But it’s not exactly an embarrassment of riches. Add veterans like Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader, Gus Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Darren Helm and sophomore Dylan Larkin and I defy you to find a combination of any three to form a top line that makes opponents even the slightest bit nervous.
Nielsen will log most of the minutes that went to Datsyuk. In fact, he’ll arguably be the Wings’ most important forward, playing in all situations – including and especially the shootout, where he’s deadly. He’s been by far the best player for Team Europe in the ongoing World Cup of Hockey.
There’s a lot of talk about moving Larkin to center, his natural position. Nothing wrong with that, but to expect him to anchor the team’s top line is ridiculously unfair. Keep in mind that for as good as we think Larkin is and can be, he’s not exactly tearing it up for Team North America in the World Cup. He’s been a healthy scratch more than he’s played.
With Andreas Athanasiou, Luke Glendening, Drew Miller, Teemu Pulkkinen and Tomas Jurco, that’s 15 forwards for a team that needs 12. Even with Zetterberg, Pulkkinen and Jurco limited in camp with injuries, it’s going to be awfully tough for a top prospect like Anthony Mantha, the 6-foot-5 right wing and former first-round draft pick, to make the club out of camp.
The defensive corps is even shakier. Quick, who’s your top pair to play against the other team’s top line? Keep in mind that both Kronwall (knee) and Jonathan Ericsson (hip) are nursing injuries that probably won’t allow them to play at 100 percent until they undergo surgery, which isn’t likely for either until they retire.
After that, we’re looking at, in order of the minutes they’re like to play: Danny DeKeyser, Alexey Marchenko, Mike Green and Brendan Smith. All the talk is about who’s going to win a spot as the No. 7 defenseman the team will carry, between favorite minor-leaguers Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Robbie Russo and Nick Jensen. (Frankly, I’d feel better if they re-signed Kyle Quincey, who still hasn’t got a deal after the Wings released him after last season.)
Better we should be talking about who’s going to eat up all the minutes that go to a No. 1 defenseman, as Kronwall has been since the retirement of Nick Lidstrom. It might be tempting to throw DeKeyser into that roll, but it would also be unwise. As effective as he can be in all facets of the game, he’s just not built to log heavy ice time every other night for six months.
All that depth among the forwards was thought to give Holland more chips to play in his effort to land a top-two defenseman, someone like Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, a Detroit-area native. The smart money says Holland is still trying, though a deal is unlikely until the start of the season, when Fowler’s contract status with the Ducks is resolved, or not.
IN THE NET
This is where it gets awfully interesting – and expensive. The Wings have nearly $9.3 million tied up in their goaltenders heading into the season after Holland was unable to trade veteran Jimmy Howard, with his $5.3 million contract. But sometimes the best trades are the ones that don’t get made. At least that’s how Blashill views it.
Restricted free agent Petr Mrazek, who agreed to a deal worth $4 million a season, enters the season as the incumbent No. 1 goaltender, his standing is precarious. Will we see the Mrazek who was putting up Vezina Trophy-type numbers in the first half of last season, or the one who messed the sheets in the second half and lost the job to Howard?
Even if Mrazek keeps the gig, it’s unlikely he’ll play more than 55 games. Which means the Wings will still rely heavily on the backup. But which Howard will we see, the one who played so well in the first half of the 2014-15 season he earned a spot in the NHL All-Star Game, or the one who hasn’t been the same guy since tearing his groin a few hours after he’d learned he was selected to play in that game?
Either way, the club doesn’t have a guy in the minors pounding on the door to the NHL, so Wings fans should be grateful to have these two guys. With what looks like an unstable defense and forward group that looks incapable of outscoring the team’s mistakes, great goaltending may have to be Detroit’s saving grace. Without it, things could get ugly.
So no, the pressure on Blashill won’t let up in his second season. And if he can get this team into the playoffs next spring, he should be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
IF YOU’RE HEADED TO CAMP
Tickets for all events are available online at www.centreice.org. Prices for practice sessions are $10 for standing-room only, $15 for reserved seating and $20 for the mezzanine. Tickets for the Training Camp Alumni and Celebrity Game and Red and White Game will start at $20 for standing-room only, $25 for reserved seating and $30 for the mezzanine. Select 2016 training camp merchandise will also be available for purchase.
For additional information, please contact the Centre Ice Arena offices at (231) 933-7465.