Thoughts on the Opening Night Roster

I’ve struggled to put together words about what I think of the Red Wings’ expected lineup on Saturday in Nashville.

Some years you can look at the lineup and there’s something odd about it, either good or bad, that makes things interesting.  An unexpected missing player or a prospect who had a breakout camp to make the team.

Maybe you could say the absence of Niklas Kronwall is the former but, given the fact that his retirement was kind of telegraphed and the glut of defensemen on the Red Wings’ roster, I don’t really think so.

The roster that the Wings will open the season with has pretty much been set since the July 1 signings of Patrik Nemeth and Valtteri Filppula.  Once Adam Erne was acquired on August 14, the idea of Filip Zadina or Joe Veleno or Evgeny Svechnikov challenging for a roster spot in camp was put to bed.

I’ll admit, part of why I was hopeful that the Red Wings would claim Josh Ho-Sang off of waivers is that at least it would be a surprise and give something to follow.

I’m not saying there’s nothing exciting about the Detroit lineup.  It’s just most of that excitement is centered around six or seven players.

Yes, I want to see what the line of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi can do together over an entire season.  I want to see if Taro Hirose is the real deal after the hot start to his pro career last spring.  I want to see if Filip Hronek takes another step and if Dennis Cholowski can stick in Detroit.

And I always want to watch Andreas Athanasiou.

That’s a third of the team.

There are a lot of players on the Red Wings’ roster for whom my hope going into the season is simply that they don’t regress.  Or, in some cases, don’t continue to regress.  My expected best case scenario for them is for me to not notice they’re out there.

This is not going to be a good team.  Yeah, some of the players have to talk about just getting in and then surprising people.  Aside from that, no one is predicting Detroit to finish outside of the bottom five in the league.

This is a rebuilding team.  We should expect them to be bad.  It’s beneficial, to a certain extent, for them to be bad, as it should help their draft position.

It is not, however, an exciting team.  There may be some exciting players but it is not an exciting team.

This team is built to lose, but hopefully not embarrassingly.  A big part of the roster is there to just not screw up so badly that the remaining players can’t make something of it.

That’s not much to get excited about.

Red Wings Defenseman Kronwall Retires

Longtime Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall announced his retirement on Tuesday.

Via a video posted to the Red Wings’ social media accounts, Kronwall stated, “They say every journey has to come to an end.  Well, my journey as a player for the Detroit Red Wings ends here.”

Drafted by Detroit in the first round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Kronwall spent his entire 953-game career with the Red Wings.  He specifically called attention to that in his announcement, thanking the Red Wings’ organization “for believing in me and giving me a chance to stay with the same organization throughout my whole career.  That’s something I always put a big price tag on and I can’t in words express how grateful I am for giving me that opportunity to keep myself and my family around.”

Reportedly the Columbus Blue Jackets had inquired into acquiring Kronwall as a trade deadline rental last season but then-Detroit General Manager Ken Holland didn’t even ask Kronwall if he would be interested, allowing him to close out his career with the team that drafted him.

Kronwall will move into a position in the team’s front office, as Advisor to the General Manager.

Red Wings Add Blueliner Nemeth

The Red Wings signed defenseman Patrik Nemeth on Monday, as NHL free agency opened.

The deal was first broken by Frank Seravalli of TSN.

The two-year term gives the Red Wings some depth going into next summer, when much of their blue line corps will hit free agency.  Between now and then, though, it adds to a logjam that already includes Madison Bowey, Dennis Cholowski, Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Green, and Filip Hronek.  Additionally, free agent signee Oliwer Kaski will look to contend for a roster spot and veteran Niklas Kronwall may choose to return for another season.

This could be a sign that one or more of that group won’t be back with the Red Wings in the fall.  At this time, however, that’s a lot of defensemen for not enough roster spots.

On the State of the Logjam

It feels like every offseason we talk about the logjam on the Red Wings’ blueline.  With Libor Sulak bolting the Griffins for the KHL on Tuesday and Jake Chelios doing the same last week, now’s a good time to take a look at where things stand in the Detroit organization.

Last season, the Red Wings came out of camp with the following 14 defensemen spread out between Detroit and Grand Rapids, excluding players signed to AHL deals:

Jake Chelios
Dennis Cholowski
Trevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser
Jonathan Ericsson
Mike Green
Joe Hicketts
Filip Hronek
Nick Jensen
Niklas Kronwall
Brian Lashoff
Dylan McIlrath
Vili Saarijarvi
Libor Sulak

There were also part-time defenseman Luke Witkowski and signed-but-assigned-to-Europe Gustav Lindstrom but I’m ignoring them for the purposes of this.

With everyone healthy, it made for a nice, even split of seven defensemen each for the Red Wings and the Griffins.  For most of the season, though, not everyone was healthy, leading to everyone on that list with the exception of Saarijarvi playing at least one game in Detroit.

As an aside, it drives me slightly nuts that the Red Wings brought up Chelios – who had no future in the organization even then – late in the season, rather than giving Saarijarvi a look.  In meaningless games, there’s no harm in giving an actual prospect minutes, even if you’re concerned he’s not quite ready.  McIlrath could be swapped for Chelios in this argument as well.

By the end of the season, Jensen was gone but Madison Bowey had joined the group, keeping the numbers the same.

Since then we’ve seen the addition of Finnish free agent Oliwer Kaski and the departures of Chelios and Sulak.  Not much of a difference.  What else could we see this summer?

The big name is Kronwall, whose contract is up this summer.  Ken Holland had stated that, should Kronwall want to return, there would be a spot for him.  Holland is in Edmonton and this is Steve Yzerman‘s team now, so does that offer still stand?  It feels like buzz about Kronwall returning for one more season has died down in the last several weeks.  Is that meaningful or is it just the nature of the news cycle?  My gut feeling is that Kronwall is done.

Hicketts is also something of a question mark.  He’s a restricted free agent so he has limited options but it’s possible he bolts for Europe, seeing few options in the Detroit organization.  I wouldn’t call it likely, though.

Then there are trade options.  Early “What Will Yzerman Do as GM?” stories pushed the possibility of trading Jonathan Ericsson or Trevor Daley before the start of the season.  While I’d like to see that, I think they have more value at the trade deadline and Yzerman will hold onto them until then.

On the flip side, there’s the question of whether or not Lindstrom will come over this season, adding a body back to the mix.  Gut feeling again…  I’m going to say he spends another season in Europe.  That could change if Ericsson or Daley are moved in the summer.

So coming out of camp next fall, that gives the Red Wings and Griffins something like the following:

Bowey
Cholowski
Daley
DeKeyser
Ericsson
Green
Hicketts
Hronek
Kaski
Lashoff
McIlrath
Saarijarvi

That’s still 12 names, so the logjam isn’t gone but there might be some room to work.

Let’s say Detroit starts with Bowey, Cholowski, Daley, DeKeyser, Ericsson, Green, and Hronek.  Bowey could be buried in GR but he can also be your seventh defenseman so we’ll assume he and Cholowski split time.

That puts Hicketts, Kaski, Lashoff, McIlrath, and Saarijarvi in Grand Rapids.  Maybe Kaski has a great camp and swaps out for Bowey…  Whatever.

The thing to see here is that, while the roster is still pretty packed, minutes in Grand Rapids have become available.  The ascension of Hronek and Cholowski, combined with the departures of Chelios and Sulak, means that Saarijarvi and Kaski (again, assuming he’s in GR) could have the opportunity for a decent amount of playing time to prove that they’re ready, which will be important if Daley, Ericsson, and/or Green are moved at the trade deadline.

Of course, it’s still early in the summer.  The Red Wings could make another Chelios-like signing to put a body (or bodies) in Grand Rapids, making those minutes harder to find.  Jared MacIssac could make the jump from juniors over the summer.  As of right now, though, there has been some movement on the logjam.

Post Trade-Deadline Thoughts

I tried to sum up my thoughts on what turned out to be the final Red Wings’ trade of this season’s deadline in my post about the trade of Gustav Nyquist to the San Jose Sharks, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I absolutely get playing the percentages.  I get that you can’t trade for things that other teams don’t want to give you.  It’s just that this team isn’t very good right now, it isn’t very fun to watch, and even their rebuild strategy is boring.

So, yeah, good deal, I’m just not going to get excited about it.

When Ken Holland spoke to the media after the trade deadline passed, he highlighted that there wasn’t a market for goalies, so he couldn’t move Jimmy Howard.  He wasn’t going to ask Niklas Kronwall to move out of respect for the veteran.  No one asked about Thomas Vanek and no one was willing to pay for Luke Glendening.

The general consensus reflects that.  The Red Wings did the best they could with what they had.

I think that’s the part that’s depressing to me.  Not that the Wings were sellers.  Not that the team is in a rebuild.  That they’re sellers with not much to sell, so they can’t get big pieces back for the rebuild.

Maybe Glendening on a cheaper contract or Darren Helm on a shorter one would have been moved but that’s not what the Wings have.  The trade deadline is hard to swallow because the team as constructed is not good and can’t even be sold for scrap.

Next year it might be different, with Mike Green and Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson all on expiring deals.  But that’s all we have as Wings fans now.  Wait for bad contracts to be burned off.  Watch what little the team can sell be moved for second and third round draft picks.  Hope that one of those picks hits.

On Keeping Howard, Nyquist, and Jensen

We’re ten days away from the 2019 trade deadline and, because of the company line coming out of the Red Wings, I find myself looking ahead to the team’s lineup for next season.

Four months ago, at the start of what was expected to be – and has proven to be – another lost season in Detroit, much of the chatter was about which players would be moved before the end of the season and what pieces might come back that could help the team’s rebuild.  Max Bultman of The Athletic, for example, was speculating about Jimmy Howard bringing in a first round pick or a top prospect back in November (subscription only).

But now we’re hearing how much the Wings want to keep Howard, as they’ve got no goalies in the system ready to take over for him.  We’re hearing about how much chemistry Gustav Nyqiust has with Dylan Larkin.  How Luke Glendening is such an important part of the room.  How Nick Jensen‘s analytics and low contract make him worth keeping while the team’s blueline prospects continue developing.

Let’s take a look at the Wings’ roster for last night’s game against the Senators, courtesy of MLive’s Ansar Khan (who still has me blocked on Twitter).

Gustav Nyquist – Dylan Larkin – Anthony Mantha
Darren HelmFrans NielsenThomas Vanek
Andreas Athanasiou – Luke Glendening – Christoffer Ehn
Justin AbdelkaderJacob de la RoseMichael Rasmussen

Niklas KronwallMike Green
Danny DeKeyser – Nick Jensen
Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

Jimmy Howard
Jonathan Bernier

Scratches: Martin Frk, Dennis Cholowski, Luke Witkowski

Nyquist, Vanek, Kronwall, Jensen, Witkowski, and Howard are all pending unrestricted free agents.  Additionally, Frk – who was sent down to the Grand Rapids Griffins along with Cholowski after last night’s game – is a restricted free agent.

Given the team’s stated desire to keep Howard, Jensen, and Nyquist, for this exercise, I’m going to assume that they’re brought back.  I’m also going to assume that Frk and Witkowski aren’t re-signed and that Kronwall retires.  With those assumptions in place, the Wings’ lineup becomes as follows:

Gustav Nyquist – Dylan Larkin – Anthony Mantha
Darren Helm – Frans Nielsen – Tyler Bertuzzi
Andreas Athanasiou – Luke Glendening – Christoffer Ehn
Justin Abdelkader – Jacob de la Rose – Michael Rasmussen

Dennis Cholowski – Mike Green
Danny DeKeyser – Nick Jensen
Jonathan Ericsson – Trevor Daley

Jimmy Howard
Jonathan Bernier

Scratches: Filip Hronek, available, available

I’ll continue my assumptions and have Filip Hronek up with the Red Wings next season, in this case as the seventh defenseman, after Cholowski slots into the spot vacated by Kronwall.  We can assume that Tyler Bertuzzi will be healthy so he gets Vanek’s spot.

How the Wings fill those open spots really doesn’t matter for my purposes.  The important thing is to see just how much of the roster would be returning in this scenario.

On the strength of this week’s wins over the Predators and Senators, the Red Wings currently sit in 28th place in the NHL, six points up on last-place Ottawa, with all three teams below them having a game in hand.

Some of that can be blamed on the team’s horrific start to the season when injuries forced forced them to ice an extremely inexperienced defensive corps.  At some point, though, you just have to accept that this lineup just isn’t very good.

This despite a near-career year from Nyquist.  This despite a resurgence from a Jimmy Howard who will be 35 before the season ends.

If the Wings are intent on bringing back Howard and Nyquist and Jensen, they’ll essentially be bringing back the entirety of their 28th place lineup next season, one year older, yet expecting a better result.

It’s fine for this team to be bad while they’re going through a rebuild but, at some point, you have to actually rebuild.  Bringing back the same losing lineup year after year isn’t a rebuild, it’s just losing.

Larkin, Nielsen Added to Red Wings Captaincy Rotation

Reporting from the Red Wings’ practice today, Helene St. James of the Free Press notes that the the team will not name a new captain this season, instead adding Dylan Larkin as a third alternate for home games with Frans Nielsen taking that role on the road.

As I noted on Twitter, I expect that Niklas Kronwall will retire this summer and Larkin will take on the C, leaving Abdelkader and Nielsen with the As next season.

Given that the team isn’t even giving lip service to the idea of Henrik Zetterberg still being a part of this team – having given away his dressing room stall and with him doing a ceremonial puck drop at Thursday’s home opener – I would have almost preferred to see the Red Wings just name a new captain now.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter.  Keep in mind that this is a team that has rolled with fewer than three captains for several games over the past few seasons.  Clearly who actually wears a letter isn’t all that important.

Thoughts on Day One of Free Agency: 2018 Edition

I actually said most of what I wanted to say about the Red Wings’ efforts on the first day of the 2018 free agency period earlier in the day, but I want to highlight a bit of an unintentional rant on Twitter.

I feel like that rant could have come from any offseason since about 2013.

Every spring when the Wings go their separate ways, we hear from Ken Holland about how they’re going to give “the kids” a shot in the fall.  Every summer the team goes out and fills their open roster spots with veterans.  Then we hear that all the kids have to do is beat out the veterans.

Michael Rasmussen was the Wings’ best player in the preseason last year and didn’t even get his nine-game look during the regular season.  He was sent straight back to juniors.  I’m not saying he was definitely ready for the NHL, I’m just saying he earned a look that he didn’t get because there wasn’t a spot for him.

So lets look at the Wings’ roster.  These were their lines heading into the final game of last season, per Winging it in Motown:

Tyler Bertuzzi – Henrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist
Anthony Mantha – Dylan Larkin – Darren Helm
David Booth – Frans Nielsen – Justin Abdelkader
Luke WitkowskiAndreas AthanasiouMartin Frk

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser – Xavier Ouellet
Niklas Kronwall – Nick Jensen

Jimmy Howard
Jared Coreau

Okay, now lets look at it with the players who have departed the Wings removed:

Tyler Bertuzzi – Henrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist
Anthony Mantha – Dylan Larkin – Darren Helm
<open> – Frans Nielsen – Justin Abdelkader
Luke Witkowski – Andreas Athanasiou – Martin Frk

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser – <open>
Niklas Kronwall – Nick Jensen

Jimmy Howard
<open>

So that’s one open spot up front, one on the blueline, and the backup goalie job.  And who did the Red Wings sign (or re-sign) today?  A forward, a defenseman, and a goalie.

That leaves the lines looking like this:

Tyler Bertuzzi – Henrik Zetterberg – Gustav Nyquist
Anthony Mantha – Dylan Larkin – Darren Helm
Thomas Vanek – Frans Nielsen – Justin Abdelkader
Luke Witkowski – Andreas Athanasiou – Martin Frk

Jonathan Ericsson – Trevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser – Mike Green
Niklas Kronwall – Nick Jensen

Jimmy Howard
Jonathan Bernier

That’s a full lineup.  I don’t think it’s their best possible lineup, though.  Let’s assume that Frk and Jensen are either gone or in the press box.  We’ll do the same for Witkowski, even though I highly doubt he’s going anywhere.

Tyler Bertuzzi – Henrik Zetterberg – Gustav Nyquist
Anthony Mantha – Dylan Larkin – Filip Zadina
Thomas Vanek – Frans Nielsen – Michael Rasmussen
Darren Helm – Andreas Athanasiou – Justin Abdelkader

Jonathan Ericsson – Trevor Daley
Danny DeKeyser – Mike Green
Niklas Kronwall – Filip Hronek

Jimmy Howard
Jonathan Bernier

That’s getting a little better.  But where is Joe HickettsDennis CholowskiEvgeny Svechnikov?

Also, that only removes the players who I deemed most expendable from the Wings’ roster.  What if Svechnikov outplays Nyquist or Vanek this fall?  What if Cholowski is better than Ericsson or DeKeyser?  Do we really see any of those vets sitting in favor of the kids?  Of course not.

So Detroit’s lineup is relatively set.  At best, one of the kids is going to make the Wings’ blueline, because it makes no sense for them to be up as the seventh defenseman.  I’ll say it’s Hronek.  What does that mean for the Griffins?

Here are the defensemen who were dressed for the Griffins’ season-ending loss to the Manitoba Moose in Game Five of their first-round series:

Joe Hicketts
Robbie Russo
Filip Hronek
Brian Lashoff
Dan Renouf
Dylan McIlrath

Since then, the Wings have sent Russo to the Arizona Coyotes and let Renouf walk.  We’re also assuming Hronek makes the Detroit lineup, so that’s three open spots.

Well, it was three open spots.  Detroit signed Jake Chelios, today, so we’re back down to two spots for Vili Saarijarvi, Libor Sulak, and Dennis Cholowski.  Or the Griffins could just roll seven defensemen, as they reluctantly did for part of last season, all the while admitting it was less than ideal.

The bottom line is if the Red Wings actually want to have spots available for Svechnikov or David Pope or Dominic Turgeon or Saarijarvi or Cholowski, they’re going to have to move players out of the way.

Ken Holland has never proven able or willing to do this.  He’s proven content to wait for injuries, which haven’t always happened.  He wouldn’t have to hope for that without some of today’s signings.

Random Season-Ending Thoughts

I’ve been holding off on writing an end-of-season post because something felt off about the end of the Red Wings’ season and I think I’ve figured it out.

This doesn’t feel like the end of the season.  Not because the Red Wings aren’t advancing to the playoffs, but because the 2017-18 campaign didn’t feel like a season to me at all.

I had no expectations last fall.  I knew that this was going to be another lost year.  While it was good to get to open Little Caesars Arena and there were some important milestones and some young players took big steps forward, there wasn’t a single game this season that really mattered.  It was essentially a six-month slate of exhibitions.

I’m okay with that.  Another year has been burned off of the contracts of Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm and Luke GlendeningNiklas KronwallDanny DeKeyserJonathan Ericsson.

But where the Wings stand today is almost exactly where they were at this time last year.

There’s room for change at forward.  David Booth is likely done.  Evgeny Svechnikov is likely up for the season next year.  Michael Rasmussen will get a chance to make the team.  Andreas Athanasiou could be gone but would likely bring a roster player back in return so that doesn’t open up a spot for anyone.

If you assume that restricted free agents Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Martin Frk all return, that’s eleven forwards under contract for next year.  Athanasiou would make it twelve.  Svechnikov is thirteen.  Rasmussen is fourteen.

On the blueline it’s worse.  Mike Green is the only pending free agent defenseman on the team and there has already been talk about bringing him back.  That would give the Wings seven defensemen, though one has to think they’ll find a way to move spare part Xavier Ouellet.  Where’s the roster spot for Joe Hicketts or Filip Hronek or Vili Saarijarvi?

In goal, Jimmy Howard is the man.  They’ll need to find a backup with Petr Mrazek gone and Jared Coreau seemingly out as well, but aside from no longer paying $9 million for their goaltending tandem, that doesn’t impact space for kids to come up.

So in April 2018 we’re in the same spot we were in April 2017, and probably in a spot similar to where we’ll be in April 2019.

Until some of these dead weight contracts are up, all of these games are an extended preseason.


Ken Holland said something that really annoyed me during the Red Wings’ locker room cleanout, speaking about the infeasibility of icing a roster of “20 kids” – which absolutely no one has suggested.

Holland’s strawman arguments and false equivalencies annoy the hell out of me.  It comes across as condescending and insulting.

Another of his favorites is that it takes ten years to do a full rebuild, which the organization refuses to do.  But I want to take a look at that one.

The Red Wings squeaked into the playoffs with a win on the last day of the 2013 season.  They then went on a short run that pushed the eventual champions to overtime of Game Seven in the second round.  The playoff run makes the season seem better than it was but, given that this was an improvement over their first-round loss to the Nashville Predators the previous season, I’m willing to call 2013 a success.

In 2014, Detroit backed into the playoffs with a point earned in a shootout loss in the antepenultimate game of the season, then got bounced by the Boston Bruins in five games.

It was a similar story in 2015, making the postseason on the strength of an overtime loss in Montreal with two games remaining, then getting bounced by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

In 2016 the Wings were only in the playoffs because, after Detroit dropped a 3-2 decision to the New York Rangers in the last game of the season, the Ottawa Senators beat the Boston Bruins to push the Bruins behind the Red Wings.  It was another short postseason and another elimination by the Lightning.

So we’ll call 2013 acceptable but I’m not willing to say the same for anything since.  Yes, they made the playoffs.  I’m not saying it’s Cup-or-nothing.  I’m just not willing to settle for backing into the postseason and then doing nothing once you’re there.

That means we’re five years in to the downturn.  Next year will be six.  I could very easily see it taking a few more years to get back on the upswing.  All the sudden we’re looking at the ten year rebuild that Holland refused to do.

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.