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.

Long Term Injured Reserve, Marian Hossa, and Niklas Kronwall

The Chicago Blackhawks announced over the summer that forward Marian Hossa would not play this season due to a skin condition.  Specific details have not been released, but the general understanding is that he essentially developed an allergy to his equipment, an ailment that was somewhat common in decades past.

The result is that Hossa develops an uncomfortable – possibly even painful – rash from wearing his hockey gear.  With medications increasingly unhelpful, the only way to avoid it is to stop wearing the equipment, which means not playing.

The NHL has investigated the situation and, per a report by The Athletic, has ruled that the Blackhawks can place Hossa on long-term injured reserve, giving them salary cap relief while Hossa is out.

Given that Hossa’s contract was one of the original back-diving deals and that this year just happens to be one of the ones that it looks like he was never supposed to play anyway, the timing is convenient.  That said, I don’t care about that.  I’m curious about how this applies to other LTIR cases.

Hossa is still physically able to play hockey.  It’s “just” uncomfortable.  Similarly, Johan Franzen may be physically able to play hockey, it would just be incredibly stupid for him to do so after having suffered such horrible repeated head injuries.

As such, it’s clear that LTIRetirement doesn’t mean that you can’t play hockey anymore, just that it’s not worth it to do so.  Exactly how far does that stretch?

About his oft-injured left knee, Niklas Kronwall said in 2016, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be pain-free, but hopefully, I’ll be able to be out there in a position where it doesn’t bite as much.”  Surgery is an option but it would effectively end his career.

Kronwall continues to play because he can and, seemingly, because he wants to.  Is it worth it for him to do so, to play through the pain, as Hossa would have to?  If the answer is no, why wouldn’t the NHL’s ruling on Hossa (and Franzen) apply to him, giving the Red Wings an out from their cap situation?

Or what if the team decides he’s no longer healthy enough to help them, even if Kronwall wants to keep playing?  That seems to be the situation Joffrey Lupul and the Toronto Maple Leafs are in.  The Hossa ruling seems to allow for that as well, though the league is investigating Lupul’s case as well.

If this is an option, I’d be using it today.  Obviously the Red Wings aren’t, but the way I read it, we could see it come up in the future.

Red Wings Sign Defenseman Daley

As expected, the Detroit Red Wings signed defenseman Trevor Daley today.

The team didn’t even get a chance to make an announcement before TSN’s Bob McKenzie was on top of it.

As I wrote earlier today, I don’t dislike the deal but I don’t love it.  I would have liked Daley a lot more five years ago but he’s still a steadying presence on a young blue line.  The problem is that we know Niklas Kronwall or Jonathan Ericsson isn’t going to sit, so he’s also taking a spot from one of those young players who need steadying.

The $3.178 million cap hit is better than the $4.5 million that had been reported earlier in the day but comes at the cost of being a three-year deal.  That’s not awful.

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.

How Losing Players in Expansion Can Help the Wings

I wrote yesterday (and ranted on Twitter before that) about the Red Wings leaving Petr Mrazek unprotected for the expansion draft but I should make something clear: No player the Golden Knights claim is going to immediately hurt Detroit to lose.  In fact, many of them would be addition by subtraction.

Oh, there are players that might sting more than others but even Mrazek (among others) is “only” a problem from an asset-management perspective.

Let’s look at it player-by-player (or group of players)…

Petr Mrazek
I’ll get this one out of the way first.  If Mrazek is claimed it clears $4 million from under the salary cap and solves the Wings’ goalie logjam.  Since all of the hit pieces went out, Mrazek probably doesn’t even want to come back to Detroit, so that awkward situation is resolved.  Jimmy Howard was the better goalie last year so assuming he can keep that up, the Wings actually upgrade in goal (if you’re comfortable making that assumption about a 33-year-old goalie).

Riley Sheahan
If Sheahan is claimed, the Wings get $2 million back on the salary cap and lose a player who can probably be replaced by Tomas Nosek.  Like Mrazek, there’s an asset-management issue here, as Sheahan was reportedly worth a first-round pick in trade and the Wings are risking giving him away for nothing.

Luke Glendening
See Riley Sheahan, minus the first-round pick.  Glendening is entirely replaceable at a cheaper rate.

Darren Helm
Helm is a little less replaceable but his contract is an albatross.  Getting out from under it would be helpful a few years down the road.  Supposedly other teams were interested in signing him last summer, so maybe he has trade value that would be forfeited.

Jonathan Ericsson / Niklas Kronwall
While there would be a PR hit from losing alternate captain Kronwall, both of these defensemen are somewhat replaceable and carry relatively large contracts.  Both have negative trade value, so unloading one via expansion would be useful.

Ryan Sproul / Xavier Ouellet
These are the players that could sting most to lose (outside of Mrazek).  Giving up young, cheap defensemen for nothing is never good.  Given their play to-date, they’re probably replaceable, but given their youth we can’t say that for sure.

Jared Coreau
The Golden Knights aren’t going to pick Coreau but if they did it’d leave the Wings with two goalies with NHL experience in the system, one of whom they just burned bridges with.  Ouch.  Perhaps there’s some entertainment value in that.

Any of the other Griffins names or free agents
Include Coreau in this one.  If Vegas were to, for some reason, claim someone who spent most of the season in Grand Rapids, it would mean Detroit’s roster survived expansion intact.  Of course, whether that’s a plus or a minus is really a matter of opinion.


One thing to consider in all of this is that cap space may not matter if the Wings are rebuilding.  Rebuilding means not signing big-name free-agents, so cap space becomes less important.

Term, however, can start to matter.  Helm and Glendening have the longest deals available, so having those off the books might not be helpful immediately but could pay off down the road.  Which is why the Golden Knights won’t claim them.

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.

Morning After: Red Wings @ Maple Leafs

This was a hard game to watch.

The Red Wings shot themselves in the foot early with a Darren Helm giveaway leading directly to a goal by Alexey Marchenko – the defenseman Detroit gave away for free via waivers because Ken Holland has such a weak grasp on the concept of asset management.

Then Niklas Kronwall takes a penalty and the Leafs score pretty quick on the power play and, ugh, it looks like it’s going to be one of those nights.

Nazem Kadri makes it 3-0 early in the second and the Toronto-based media is calling for a blowout but a strange thing happens.  Despite not managing a shot for about 15 minutes in the middle period, the Red Wings turn it on for the last five minutes and Gustav Nyquist scores.

Nyquist adds another just 36 seconds into the third and suddenly it’s a game.  But not really because most of the rest of the period is just the two teams fumbling around with each other.

We end with controversy, as Henrik Zetterberg gets high sticked – with a significant amount of blood drawn – and there’s no penalty.  Not that I want to have games relying on the Red Wings’ power play, but that could have made a massive difference.

After an earlier marginal goalie interference call on Nick Jensen, the missed high stick just adds to the “hard to watch” aspects of the game.  Yes, missed calls always go both ways and over a season they probably even out, but combined with the “Toronto Maple Leafs: Team…  Of…  Dessssstiny” narrative, it feels like the ice is tilted.

In the end, it wasn’t all bad.  Most of the losses this season haven’t been.  They just haven’t been good enough.  Late start, comeback falls short, blah blah blah.

On the plus side, Robbie Russo didn’t look horrible in his NHL debut.  A beat too slow in his decision making, probably (Mickey Redmond was harping on Russo taking too many hits), but his skating looked good.

Nyquist and Zetterberg also looked good.  Like the game mattered to them more than it did to some others.  There’s been some talk about not losing the culture of winning that the Red Wings have had and how Zetterberg is carrying that on even as the team misses the playoffs and I think you could really see that last night.