On the Red Wings’ Blueline Depth and Future Callups

Last week I wrote about how the Red Wings’ then-upcoming road trip through Western Canada, specifically Sunday afternoon’s tilt with the Edmonton Oilers and last night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, might give them an opportunity to get a prospect such as Joe Hicketts into the lineup.

My thinking was that with Danny DeKeyser eligible for long-term injured reserve, a roster spot and cap space would be available.  Combined with road games on consecutive nights, the team might have wanted to rest someone (I was thinking Niklas Kronwall), giving a chance for Hicketts to step into the lineup.

We know now that that didn’t happen.  While the Wings won both of those games, it still concerns me a little.

What this trip seems to have shown us is that Luke Witkowski is the team’s eighth defenseman.  He’s also the 13th forward but I’m not worried about getting him in the lineup, I’m looking at how he blocks others.

It appears to me that the Red Wings are not going to call up a defenseman when Witkowski is available.  That means that to get someone like Hicketts into the lineup, three injuries need to happen, either three defensemen or two defensemen and a forward.

Right now Detroit has only one blueliner hurt.  If another was, or needed to be rested, Witkowski would step in.  If a third defenseman got hurt, it would open up a spot.  If a forward got hurt, Witkowski would shift there and his blueline spot would open up.

That final scenario could be further complicated, though, as David Booth could take over for an injured forward while Witkowski continued to skate on defense.  This means it might take the right combination of four injuries for one of Grand Rapids’ defensemen to get called up.

Obviously I could be reading too much into one road trip.  Maybe Hicketts didn’t get a look because the Griffins were playing on Sunday and the team figured he should stay there.  I don’t know.  But it seems to me like it’s going to take a lot for one of the Red Wings’ prospects to get a chance in Detroit this season.

On Hicketts, DeKeyser, and Kronwall

Last weekend, Katie Strang of the Athletic did a feature on Grand Rapids Griffins’ defenseman Joe Hicketts.  A notable item from it is the assertion of Daniel Cleary that Hicketts nearly made the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp.

“He was close to making our team this year,” said longtime Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary, now a director of player development with the organization. “Very, very damn close.”

Yesterday, Peter Flynn from Winging it in Motown ran with that, suggesting that Hicketts should be in the Detroit lineup with Danny DeKeyser now expected to miss enough time to go on long-term injured reserve.

I agree with Flynn.  It was understandable to not bring Hicketts up when DeKeyser went down because he wasn’t expected to have to go on LTIR, which means there wouldn’t have been enough cap space for the call-up.  Now that we know DeKeyser will miss at least ten more days (and four more games), it’s time to give Hicketts a look.

That said, this is the Red Wings we’re talking about.  They’re not going to sit Niklas Kronwall or Jonathan Ericsson for being (relatively) terrible because the vets on this team are allowed to play through their issues.  They may swap Hicketts in for Xavier Ouellet or Nick Jensen but my gut feeling is that’s not the change fans are clamoring for.

There is an in for Hicketts, however.  Last season the Red Wings brass said they wanted to limit Kronwall’s playing time in certain situations and, while they didn’t say as much coming into this season, one has to think it still holds true.  One of those situations just happens to be coming in a week, with the Wings headed through Western Canada and playing on back-to-back nights in Edmonton and Vancouver.

The Red Wings could easily use that opportunity to get a look at Hicketts without stepping on any of their veterans’ toes.

It’s telling that Hicketts hasn’t been called up yet.  It’ll be even more telling if he doesn’t get a look early next week out west.

Update – 10/31, 12:00 PM: WIIM’s Prashanth Iyer shows that my eye test of Kronwall and Ericsson doesn’t seem to stand up.

With that the case, and knowing that the Red Wings aren’t going to sit Trevor Daley or Mike Green in favor of Hicketts, you’re looking at benching Nick Jensen or Xavier Ouellet to make room.  Now they’ve got the room to do that but do you?  I don’t know if I should, but I hesitate.  Maybe that’s more of a failing eye test thing, though.

On the Blueline Logjam

It feels like this is a topic that comes up every year.  Throughout the entire Red Wings organization, there is a logjam at defense.

It’s been this way for several seasons.  The initial answer was that the team would trade defensive depth for help at forward but those trades never materialized.

Other moves have happened.  They did lose Alexey Marchenko on waivers to Toronto last season and then traded Brendan Smith to the New York Rangers.  Nathan Paetsch and Conor Allen chose to leave the Griffins for Rochester.  They also added Trevor Daley and sometimes-defenseman Luke Witkowski in Detroit while Filip Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi graduated from juniors to Grand Rapids.

This led to last night, where Hronek and Saarijarvi, two of the organization’s top prospects, couldn’t even crack the lineup for the Griffins’ home opener.

Some of that is politics, I’m sure.  You don’t send Ryan Sproul to Grand Rapids to have him sit there and the other five guys all played on the Griffins’ championship-winning team last year, so of course you dress them for the banner-raising.  But that you have to deal with issues like that shows a bigger problem.

When healthy, the Red Wings expect to be playing Danny DeKeyser,
Daley, Jonathan EricssonMike GreenNiklas Kronwall, and Nick Jensen.  Xavier Ouellet slots in as the seventh defenseman, and he filled in on opening night with Kronwall hurt, while Witkowski is your thirteenth forward or eighth defenseman (depending on injuries).

That pushes Ryan Sproul down to Grand Rapids, where he, Brian Lashoff, and Dylan McIlrath are the vets on the blueline.  That’s three spots out of six taken up by players who are legitimately no longer prospects.  Dan Renouf and Robbie Russo, who both made it into games in Detroit last season, come next, followed by Joe Hicketts.  Hronek and Saarijarvi have nowhere to play.

Oh, sure, there will be injuries.  And players will rotate in and out of the lineup.  But is that how you want these guys to start their pro careers?  Slotting in irregularly, hoping someone else gets hurt so they get a chance?

The organization has made no move to fix this.  In fact, they’ve only added to it by bringing back players such as Lashoff and McIlrath, opting for veteran leadership in Grand Rapids over a chance for their prospects to play.  In fact, if the rumored Riley Sheahan for Derrick Pouliot trade had gone through, it would have only made the situation worse.

This has been an issue for several seasons.  I can’t help but think that this is the year it becomes a big problem.

Thoughts Heading Into Free Agency

NHL free agency opens in about three hours and, while some signings seem certain thanks to the league’s interview period, some things are still up in the air.

The Red Wings are likely to sign veteran defenseman Trevor Daley.  Five years ago, I love this deal.  I still like Daley quite a bit.  I don’t think he makes Detroit a competitor, though, so I’m not sold on him taking a roster spot from Xavier Ouellet or Ryan Sproul.

In no particular order, that would give the Wings Daley, Ouellet, Sproul, Nick Jensen, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Green, and Danny DeKeyser on the blue line.  Eight guys who’d have to be waived to go to Grand Rapids, plus Robbie Russo, Dan Renouf, and Joe Hicketts waiting with the Griffins.  Quite the logjam.

The Wings are rumored to be interested in another defenseman or a forward but it looks like the cap hit for Daley – coupled with re-signing Ouellet and forwards Tomas Tatar and Andreas Athanasiou – takes them out of consideration there.  I would be completely against bringing in another defenseman but given the loss of Tomas Nosek via expansion, adding a center as a reclamation project wouldn’t be a horrible move.

I’d love to see the Wings take a flyer of Mikhail Grigorenko, who Craig Custance wrote about a couple days ago at The Athletic.  It would have to be on the cheap and it would have to be with the caveat that the Wings don’t try to turn Grigorenko into a grinder.

If you want a grinding center who can play on the fourth line, bring back Landon Ferraro.  Worst-case scenario, you can probably get him through waivers to Grand Rapids, as the Blues slid him through last year.

Red Wings Leave Mrazek Exposed for Expansion Draft

There were few surprises when the Red Wings’ expansion draft protection list was (eventually) released this morning, but the one that did come down was a big one, as the team opted to protect goalie Jimmy Howard rather than Petr Mrazek.

Available
Louis-Marc Aubry (F)
Mitch Callahan (F)
Colin Campbell (F)
Martin Frk (F)
Luke Glendening (F)
Darren Helm (F)
Drew Miller (F)
Tomas Nosek (F)
Riley Sheahan (F)
Ben Street (F)
Eric Tangradi (F)
Adam Almquist (D)
Jonathan Ericsson (D)
Niklas Kronwall (D)
Brian Lashoff (D)
Dylan McIlrath (D)
Xavier Ouellet (D)
Ryan Sproul (D)
Jared Coreau (G)
Petr Mrazek (G)
Edward Pasquale (G)
Jake Paterson (G)

Protected
Justin Abdelkader (F)
Andreas Athanasiou (F)
Anthony Mantha (F)
Frans Nielsen (F)
Gustav Nyquist (F)
Tomas Tatar (F)
Henrik Zetterberg (F)
Danny DeKeyser (D)
Mike Green (D)
Nick Jensen (D)
Jimmy Howard (G)

I’ve been ranting about this on Twitter all morning, so obviously I think this is the wrong move.  Let me touch on a couple other things first, though.

I half-expected Niklas Kronwall to be protected, even though his contract and injury history make him pretty much unclaimable, so seeing him available is good.  Similarly, the Red Wings could have left Andreas Athanasiou unprotected to protect Darren Helm but didn’t.  So there were some good choices here.

Let’s come back to the goalies, though.

Yesterday the Arizona Coyotes and Calgary Flames made waves with the Coyotes sending veteran goalie Mike Smith to the Flames for a pick and a prospect.  At the time, I wondered how Ken Holland couldn’t have gotten a deal done to send Jimmy Howard to Calgary instead, as the Wings certainly could have asked for less, with the cleared cap space being the real acquisition for Detroit.  After all, Smith is two years older than Howard, signed for more money, and had worse stats than Howard last season.

One response was that Smith is seen as more durable than Howard.  While that’s possible, it’d be somewhat ridiculous, as Howard missed significant time last season but Smith missed half the year in 2015-16.

Another idea was that Calgary GM Brad Treliving specifically wanted Smith, as he was with the Coyotes when they signed him.  That’s always possible, but I find it hard to believe that familiarity was worth the higher price paid for Smith than the Wings would have to have asked for Howard.  Either Treliving did a disservice to the Flames by overpaying for a goalie or Ken Holland did a disservice to the Red Wings by not negotiating hard enough to trade Howard.

I’m also focusing on Howard here because we know the Flames traded for Smith and Howard is more like Smith than Mrazek is.  We have no idea what kind of deal it would have taken to move Mrazek to Calgary but we can guess what kind of deal would have gotten Howard there.

If Howard gets dealt yesterday, Mrazek gets protected today, and concerns about losing a goalie for nothing are gone.

I think it could have been avoided, but regardless the reason, the Red Wings hit yesterday’s deadline with two NHL goalies on their roster and could only protect one.

With that out of the way, some thoughts on protecting Howard over Mrazek…

There’s a lot of chatter that neither will be selected because there are better goalies available.  If that’s the case, I would think you try to slide Howard through because at 33 and with a $5.29 million cap hit and coming off an injury-filled season, it’s less likely that he gets claimed, just in case.

If there’s a deal in place to “guide” the Golden Knights towards picking a certain player, it doesn’t matter who you have unprotected.  That said, Ken Holland said he wasn’t going to do that.  Kenny has lied to us before, though.

Ignoring both of those, the reason to leave Mrazek unprotected is because you don’t care if you lose him.  For a team in the Red Wings’ position, that’s a mistake.  This team needs to get younger and cheaper, even if that means worse (which I think it arguable).  Shed bad contracts and look to the future.  You do that by protecting Mrazek, not Howard.

Protecting Howard over Mrazek feels like sacrificing youth for another playoff push.  It feels like the tie goes to the veteran.  It feels like the “Red Wings Way” that led to the end of the playoff streak and no long playoff runs in nearly a decade.

On Benching Mantha and Learning Lessons

I’ve Tweeted a bit about being unhappy with Anthony Mantha‘s benching for the Red Wings’ 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night.  With him skating as the extra forward again in Saturday’s practice and his status for today’s game against the New York Rangers unknown, I’ve been thinking about it a bit more.

Mantha said all of the right things about being a scratch.  He talked about needing to compete more and about playing at both ends of the ice.  He talked about the team playing well in the game he missed.  And of course he did.  What else did you really expect him to say?

So let’s assume that sitting a young guy is an effective way to teach him a lesson.  The beat writers seem to be running with the fact that Andreas Athanasiou responded to being scratched earlier this year by scoring a goal and two assists in his next game as proof that scratching works, after all.

If that works, where does it end?  Why is 22-year-old Mantha young enough for this method to teach a lesson but 25-year old Riley Sheahan is too old for a benching to get him to focus on the offensive aspects of his game?

Also, is there an additional lesson being learned here?  While Mantha – or Athanasiou or Ryan Sproul before him – sits, Niklas Kronwall and Danny DeKeyser play every night, no matter what mistakes they make.  Could that not teach resentment?  Could that not show a young player that he is an acceptable target but a seemingly worse player is safe?

Mantha is saying all the right things.  That doesn’t mean he’s learning exactly what the Wings’ brass wants him to.

Postgame Notes: Red Wings @ Panthers – 10/15

Alright, I watched the first period through a bad stream and listened to the second on the radio so I’m just going to ignore those.  Third period?

At no point in those 20 minutes did I feel like the Red Wings – down only a goal, somehow still alive in a game I’m told they had no right to be alive in – had any urgency.  Maybe they would have had they been able to connect on a single pass, I don’t know, but they just looked absolutely lost out there.

There’s not even an individual play to call out or anything like that because they didn’t look bad as much as they looked incompetent.  There was one chance by Darren Helm and quite literally nothing else of note in the offensive zone.

On defense there was the absolute disaster that was Florida’s third goal.  Okay, Jaromir Jagr outplays Danny DeKeyser, I can live with that.  Mike Green with an unforced error is brutal.  On top of that, the Panthers got two guys in front of Mrazek completely alone.  Where did they come from that no one was on at least one of them?

But, hey, the Wings’ defense was pretty bad last year and they did nothing to fix it so we shouldn’t be surprised by these things.

One thing worth noting on that play – and I said it via Twitter – Petr Mrazek had a hell of a stop on the initial chance.  Dude got absolutely hung out to dry.

The coaching staff was quick to make changes after the Game One loss, we’ll see what comes of this one.

Red Wings Bring in Horcoff, Bring Back Cleary

A month ago I suggested that, as long as they were already bringing back Daniel Cleary, the Red Wings might also bring in Cleary’s good friend Shawn Horcoff.

I didn’t expect they would do it like this.

On Friday Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal reported that Horcoff would retire as a player and join the Red Wings as their new Director of Player Development.  Matheson noted that Jiri Fischer, up until now the only person to serve in that role for the Detroit organization, would be “moving to another position in the organization.”

The Red Wings confirmed the move several hours later.  As reported by MLive’s Ansar Khan, Fischer will move into a player evaluation role.

“Jiri Fischer came to me this summer and said he loves the job but wanted the opportunity to grow as an executive and would like to get into the player evaluation side of the industry,” Holland said.

Holland also took the opportunity to reveal that Cleary will attend Detroit’s training camp on a pro-try out.

Earlier this week, Winging it in Motown published a piece about why bringing Cleary in on a PTO might not be a horrible idea.  While the NHL has since announced that veteran roster requirements will be relaxed in the aftermath of the World Cup of Hockey, I still think their argument is valid.

More importantly, I think a PTO for Cleary is a step towards sanity for Ken Holland.  Last year, Cleary was given a one-year NHL deal but still had to battle for a roster spot in training camp – a battle he lost before being waived and sent to the Grand Rapids Griffins.  That deal was similar to deals with Danny DeKeyser and Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl and Luke Glendening.  It was a contract based on hope for a player.  It was Holland saying, “Here’s your deal, now go out there and earn it.”

With a PTO, Cleary has to earn his spot before getting a contract.  It’s a smart move.

For the record, I expect Cleary to be signed to an AHL deal upon the conclusion of the preseason.

Red Wings Sign DeKeyser to Six-Year Deal

The Detroit Red Wings signed defenseman Danny DeKeyser to a six-year contract on Tuesday.  In agreeing to the deal, the sides avoided a potentially-contentious arbitration meeting scheduled for Thursday.

The contract breakdown is as follows:

With DeKeyser signed, the Red Wings’ top concern becomes goalie Petr Mrazek, who is scheduled for an arbitration meeting on Wednesday.

My concern with the DeKeyser deal is that, once again, Ken Holland is giving a player long-term money based on his potential, not what he’s proven.

$5 million per season is #2 defenseman money.  I think DeKeyser is the best defenseman on this team, which isn’t saying much.  I think he could be a top defenseman eventually.  I do not think he’ll be worth $5 million in the 2016-17 season.

Giving out contracts like this is a gamble.  Maybe by the second year, he’s taken a step forward and become a legitimate #1 defenseman and it’s a bargain for the rest of the deal.  If not, though…  This is how you get healthy scratches making $2 million (the now-departed Jakub Kindl).

Red Wings Re-sign Goalie Coreau

As CapFriendly first revealed last night, the Detroit Red Wings have re-signed goalie Jared Coreau.

The deal sheds some light on what the Wings’ organization expects their goalie situation to look like in the coming years.

While Coreau’s one-way deal for 2017-18 does not prevent him from being sent down to Grand Rapids, it would appear that the 2016-17 campaign will be his last with the Griffins and he’ll be with the Red Wings for their first season at Little Caesars Arena.  One can assume that he would back up Petr Mrazek, with Jimmy Howard having been traded or claimed by Las Vegas in next summer’s expansion draft.

Coreau had opted for salary arbitration earlier in the day but, obviously, the hearing was not necessary.  This leaves defenseman Danny DeKeyser as the lone Red Wing facing arbitration.

Along with DeKeyser, the Red Wings still need to sign Teemu Pulkkinen, Mrazek, Colin Campbell, Ryan Sproul, Mitch Callahan, and Louis-Marc Aubry, who are all restricted free agents.