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 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.

Michael Rasmussen and The Plan

“That was always the plan.”

Among other moves today, the Red Wings assigned Michael Rasmussen – their first rounder from last summer’s draft, ninth overall – back to the Tri-Cities Americans of the Western Hockey League.

Rasmussen led the Red Wings in goals scored over the preseason, with four goals in five games.  One might think that’d earn him an extended look, especially considering that he could play up to nine games in the NHL without burning the first year of his entry-level contract.  As I was reminded many times via Twitter and has been included in most of the articles about his demotion, though, it was always the plan to send him back to junior.

It might be the right move.  With the salary cap crunch the Red Wings are facing, buying an extra year before Rasmussen hits free agency definitely makes sense.  With the roster the team is looking at, though, there’s certainly a case that can be made for keeping him up (at least for those free nine games).

Rasmussen is better served by playing top-line minutes, we hear, than toiling on the fourth line in Detroit.  Absolutely true.  But that’s a false equivalency.

Martin Frk, who has made the opening night lineup after being waived out of town (and later brought back) to start the season last year, is currently slotted on the nominal top line with Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha.  I suggest that he could have gone on a line with Frans Nielsen and Justin Abdelkader instead, bumping Darren Helm onto Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening‘s line, and pushing Luke Witkowski into the 13th forward’s spot.  Then Rasmussen would join Larkin and Mantha, getting those top-line minutes.

This has trickle-down impact as by the time Rasmussen’s nine games are up – or it has been determined that he’s unable to play that role, if that’s what comes of it – Tyler Bertuzzi or Evgeny Svechnikov may be ready to step up.  This would make signing David Booth, which seems inevitable right now, unnecessary.

Whether or not it’s the right move, the fact that this was always the plan smacks of “Red Wings Way” to me.

No one expected Rasmussen to come in and score four goals.  That’s fine.  But how many goals would he have had to score to change the plan?  Is it even possible to change the plan?  Because there’s another plan that looks like it could be good here, but we won’t see it because it was never the plan.

Thoughts on Athanasiou’s (Lack Of) Contract

We’re a week into the Red Wings’ preseason, having wrapped up training camp and three exhibition games, and forward Andreas Athanasiou is still not with the team.

The most recent report from MLive’s Ansar Khan – who still has me blocked on Twitter – is that Athanasiou is asking for $2.5 million per season while the Red Wings are offering $1.9 million.  That doesn’t match what I’d heard Athanasiou was asking but I’m not hung up on that because the $1.9 million is more important to me and has been reported by several outlets.

Last night I Tweeted the following about that:

It was an intentional oversimplification but I think there’s a point there nonetheless.

The knocks against Athanasiou are that he’s a one-dimensional player and that he only has 101 NHL games under his belt.  And they’re valid issues.

But if I’m Athanasiou, I’m looking at Darren Helm’s contract for $3.85 million per season.  I’m saying he’s one-dimensional, too, it’s just that defense is his dimension.  I’m saying he was given his contract at age 29, just as a player known for his speed could be expected to begin his decline, which is just as much of an unknown as youth is.

Darren Helm, speedy defensive specialist on the decline, is worth twice what Andreas Athanasiou, speedy offensive specialist who may be an unknown, is worth?

If I’m Athanasiou, the Wings’ first offer is still in my mind.  $1.2 million per season.  It’d’ve made the Red Wings second-leading goal scorer their second-lowest-paid forward not on an entry level deal, above newcomer Luke Witkowski.  Even the $1.9 million deal lifts him only past Luke Glendening.

Are there deals across the NHL that can be used as comparables to show that Athanasiou is worth no more than $1.9 million?  Of course.  The problem is that Ken Holland already has a history of giving out bad deals.  If I’m Athanasiou, I’m looking at $1.9 million and saying, “Now?  You just happen to get sane about your contracts when it’s my turn?”

Athanasiou seems to me like the kind of guy who’d get offended by a low offer.  I don’t see that as a bad thing but I know there are plenty who would.  I think he’d find it hard being the team’s second-highest goal scorer and being paid like their fourth-line faceoff specialist.

By extension, I don’t think the two sides are as close as it’s been reported lately.  Whatever number they say he wants, I think Athanasiou wants to not be among the lowest-paid forwards on the team.  It takes getting up to Helm’s $3.85 to do that.

Do I think he’ll actually get that?  Not a chance.  But I can see why he’d be unwilling to give any more than he already has.  So if Holland is holding firm at $1.9 million and Athanasiou is already at $2.5 million, that $600,000 might as well be $6 million.

But I admit that this is all conjecture.  Athanasiou may very well sign for $1.9 million minutes after I publish this.  If I’m reading him right, though, I don’t see that happening.

Thoughts on Day One of Free Agency

Sigh.  Okay, I guess we’re doing this.

Day One of the 2017 Free Agent Season is in the books (or at least as far as the Red Wings are considered).  Detroit general manager Ken Holland called it “a great day for the Red Wings.”  Lets take a look at what the team did and didn’t do.

Trevor Daley

The big – and most-expected – signing for Detroit was veteran defenseman Trevor Daley.  It’s a three-year deal for $9.5 million with a no-trade clause that scales back in the third year.

I don’t love it.  I wish the Wings were just going with the kids for a bit and seeing where it takes them.  That said, I don’t hate it, either.  By all accounts, Daley will be a great mentor for some of those kids and, assuming Mike Green is dealt at the deadline next year, the lost roster spot will only be for half a season.  The contract is much better than I was expecting.

It says something when a resounding “meh” is the most you can say for the best signing of the day.

Luke Witkowski

The other deal the Wings closed immediately upon the opening of free agency was to bring in Tampa Bay defenseman Luke Witkowski.

This is the guy who broke Anthony Mantha‘s hand in a stupid fight near the end of the season.  I see no reason to bring a guy like him in.

The deal is for $750,000, which can be completely buried in the AHL.  But we said that about Steve Ott‘s deal at this time last summer and he saw zero minutes in Grand Rapids so don’t count on it.

If the Wings were looking for a big, tough, young defenseman, they had Dylan McIlrath in Grand Rapids already.  If they wanted that from a forward, where they supposedly are ready to shift Witkowski, then they had Tyler Bertuzzi.  This signing was completely unnecessary.

I feel like this is also part of a “grass is greener” issue with the Wings’ front office.  Too many times of late they’ve brought in someone else’s marginal player rather than give their own marginal player a shot.  Which is funny because if someone lasts long enough to become a veteran in the Detroit system, Holland will bring them back repeatedly.  See Darren Helm, Daniel Cleary, Kyle Quincey.

Tom McCollum

Speaking of bringing someone back, the Wings traded for goalie Tom McCollum, one year after letting him walk from the Griffins as a free agent.  I guess this makes McCollum and Matej Machovsky the tandem in Grand Rapids after the Wings find a way to unload Petr Mrazek.

Turner Elson

In another Grand Rapids move, the Wings signed Turner Elson out of the Colorado organization.  He’s a center, so I suppose he somewhat makes up for the loss of Tomas Nosek to the Vegas Golden Knights via expansion.  Or he makes up for any of the other minor leaguers getting shuffled around this summer…

Kyle Criscuolo

… such as the Griffins losing Kyle Criscuolo to the Sabres.  It’s always tough to see big pieces of a championship team depart.  He had an AHL-only deal with Grand Rapids and now he gets a two-way deal with Buffalo so he’s moving up in the world.

Mitch Callahan

Moving up or moving home is Mitch Callahan.  He signed with the Edmonton Oilers and will either get the shot with them that he never really got in Detroit or will get to play closer to home, as the Oilers’ AHL affiliate is the Bakersfield Condors, who play just a couple hours from Callahan’s hometown of Wittier, CA.

Eddie Pasquale

Joining Callahan in the Edmonton organization is goalie Eddie Pasquale, who spent only a season with the Griffins.  As mentioned above, the Griffins seem to have their tandem set, but that’s a lot of turnover at goaltender through the organization.

Matt Caito

The Griffins also lost Matt Caito to the Iowa Wild.  Caito spent most of the season with ECHL Toledo so I don’t think we can call this a big loss.


So the Wings got the defenseman they wanted but who might not be able to help them much at a price that was acceptable.  They added a guy they definitely didn’t need, and they swapped some players around at the AHL level.

Are they better than they were yesterday?  Probably.  Are they good enough to make the playoffs?  Probably not.  And the Griffins are probably worse than they were when they won the Calder Cup.

Wings Add Defenseman Witkowski

The Red Wings signed defenseman Luke Witkowski from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday at the opening of NHL free agency.

The move comes paired with the signing of veteran defenseman Trevor Daley from the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Assuming Witkowski isn’t bound for the Grand Rapids Griffins, it gives the Red Wings nine defensemen on their roster.

Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press reports that the team may shift Witkowski to forward.

Witkowski, a native of Holland, Michigan, captained the Syracuse Crunch team that the Griffins defeated in the Calder Cup Finals for the first half of the season.  After being called up to the Tampa Bay Lighting, he could not be returned to the team for the playoffs.

I don’t like this move.

As a defenseman, Witkowski doesn’t seem to provide anything that the recently re-signed Dylan McIlrath can’t.  If he makes the Wings’ roster, it’s at the expense of Xavier Ouellet or Ryan Sproul.  If he’s in Grand Rapids, he’s taking a roster spot from Joe Hicketts or Filip Hronek or Robbie Russo or Dan Renouf, or forcing Vili Saarijarvi back to juniors.

As a forward…  Why not just sign a forward?  Why not give Tyler Bertuzzi a shot?

Update, 5:25 PM:  I completely missed this earlier but the Red Wings announced this as a two-year deal.

The official press release did not include term and seemingly all other outlets continue to report it as a one-year deal but it’s probably safe to trust the official Twitter account.