Young players, prospects will be Wings’ focus for the rest of year
No wonder Robby Fabbri looks frustrated: His minus-25 has helped the Wings lay claim to the dubious distinction of having the six worst plus-minus numbers in the NHL.
As they return from the All-Star Break and their league-mandated week off, the Red Wings face home-and-home games against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Friday and Little Caesars Arena Saturday, both at 7 p.m.
They also face something else: a six-game losing streak and the lowest point total in the NHL (28 points, 12-35-4), 13 behind the next worse team (the LA Kings).
There’s not much mystery about how the Wings will end the season. If it’s at the bottom, they will have the best chance (18.5 percent) of winning the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NHL draft. That player is projected to be left wing Alexis Lafreniere of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski Oceanic.
The consensus second-best player available is center Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. Both players should be able to step right into the NHL and contribute next season.
But there’s still half a season to go. What can the Wings do for the next 31 games?
Detriot’s greatest curiosity is how the young players already with the team and those playing with in Grand Rapids with the AHL Griffins will continue to develop.
Dylan Larkin has struggled at times in 2019-20, but Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek and Filip Zadina have taken major steps.
Bertuzzi, who is coming off his first All-Star Game appearance, leads the team with 17 goals and 36 points in 61 games. Hronek, at the age of 22 and in his first full NHL season, leads the Wings with an on-ice average of 23 minutes and 35 seconds per game, And he’s been their best overall defenseman leading all Red Wings rearguards with nine goals, 17 assists and 26 points in 49 games.
Zadina has begun to show why he was the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft. Since being recalled from Grand Rapids Nov. 24, the 20-year-old right wing has eight goals and 15 points in 26 games.
His production has picked up as he becomes more accustomed to the NHL and has taken advantage of his ability to shoot the puck. Zadina also recorded his first career two-goal game in Detroit’s final contest before its break.
Left wing Givani Smith, who was the Red Wings’ second-round pick in 2016 (46th overall), is showing promise as a physical forechecking force and net-front presence as he has shuttled back and forth from Detroit to Grand Rapids this season. Smith has two goals and three points in 15 games.
He and Zadina – along with defenseman Dennis Cholowski, who is still trying to rediscover his game after a fast start last season – were sent to Grand Rapids for the break so they could continue to play and develop. They were recalled to the Red Wings on Thursday.
And the best may be yet to come. GM Steve Yzerman said that, at some point, the Red Wings will call up Moritz Seider, their top pick (sixth overall) last June who had six assists in seven games and was plus-6 for Germany during the recent World Juniors Championship. He also was voted one of Germany’s three top players for the tournament.
Also coming up for nine-game stints before the end of the season will be center Joe Veleno (30th overall in 2018) and defenseman Gustav Lindstrom (second round pick in 2017). If any of that trio plays a 10th NHL game, their entry-level contracts would kick in this season.
Detroit’s most disappointing young player by far this season has been Andreas Athanasiou.
After scoring 30 goals in 2018-19, the 25-year old, who’s in his fifth NHL season, has only five goals and 19 points in 36 games this year. And his minus-35 is tied with teammate Valtteri Filppula for the league’s worst, despite the fact that he has missed 15 games due to injury.
(To show how bad the Wings have been this season, the six worst plus-minus numbers in the NHL belong to Detroit players. Mike Green is minus-27, Robby Fabbri and Hronek are each minus-25 and Cholowski is minus-23.)
Some in and close to the organization have always felt Athanasiou would ultimately be traded. But he has played so badly this season that it would be almost impossible to move him by the Feb. 24 trading deadline.
In fact, don’t expect much action by the Red Wings at the deadline.
Though they would like to shed veterans like Green, fellow defensemen Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson and goalie Jimmy Howard for draft picks, all four have either played poorly or been injured much of the year or both. So it would be difficult to trade any one of them.
Although Daley, 36 and who is likely in his final NHL season, has reportedly asked to be traded for a Cup contender, Green is the likeliest to be moved because of his offensive abilities. But he probably would not return much better than a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
Another question facing the Wings involves the future of coach Jeff Blashill.
Yzerman has said that Blashill will be judged on how the team’s young talent develops and not on the Red wings won-lost record because of their dearth of talent. So, by that metric, Blashill should be figuring on a return next season.
However, Yzerman can’t be happy with the way the Wings have played this season and would probably like to bring in his own coach.
Another factor was added when the Vegas Golden Knights unexpectedly fired Gerard Gallant as its coach. Yzerman would have to look at his good friend and former Red Wings linemate as a candidate to replace Blashill next season. But Gallant will have other offers.