Despite Yzerman, Red Wings not likely to be any better this season
One of many Red Wings’ questions is if the team’s top line – from left, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin – will continue to dominate the way they did late last season.
There is certainly more excitement surrounding the Red Wings as they open the season than there was a year ago because this will be the team’s first campaign with Steve Yzerman running the show as the general manager.
But when the puck drops to open the 2019-20 season for the Wings a little after 8 p.m. (Detroit time) in Nashville on Saturday night, will the Wings be appreciably better than they were last year, when they only managed 74 points and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. In fact, there is a good chance the Wings could be even worse this season.
Despite the off-season acquisitions of center Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Patrik Nemeth via free agency and forward Adam Erne in a trade, there has not been enough of an upgrade to close the gap between the Wings and the Eastern Conference contenders who finished above them in the standings in 2018-19.
And with Yzerman taking the reins during the rebuild, there is already speculation that he has written off this season in order to position the franchise for high picks in the 2020 NHL draft to deepen the team’s prospect pool. It also would allow him to focus on next season when the contracts of veterans Jonathan Ericsson, Mike Green and Trevor Daley will no longer be on the books.
But there could still be significant positives to come out of this season.
Will Dylan Larkin continue to grow as a player and a leader?
The 23-year-old Waterford native took a significant step last season with 32 goals and 73 points, both career highs. He also improved defensively and on face-offs to become an effective 200-foot center.
Many thought Larkin would have been named the Red Wings captain by now, but Yzerman and coach Jeff Blashill decided that the team would continue without a captain – no one has worn the “C” for Detroit since Henrik Zetterberg in 2017-18, before retiring before training camp last season. Instead they named Larkin one of four alternate captains, along with Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader and Luke Glendening.
Also, will Larkin and his linemates on the top line – Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi – continue to dominate the way they did over the last eight games on 2018-19, in which they combined for 18 goals and 39 points?
“Those guys are starting to come into their own a little bit,” Blashill told www.mlive.com. “When you are a top line, you got to be a top line every night. There’s a lot of pressure on that line, just like the (Patrice) Bergeron line (for Boston) and the (Nathan) MacKinnon line (for Colorado). You got to perform at a high level every night. You’re given lots of ice time and with that comes the burden of making sure you play great every night. They have to be one of the elite lines in the league.”
Mantha, 25, and Bertuzzi, 24, each had their most productive campaigns last season. Mantha had 25 goals and 48 points (in only 67 games) and Bertuzzi 21 goals and 47 points.
Because of Detroit’s lack of offensive talent, the trio will have to continue its ways of late last season.
And Andreas Athanasiou, 25, has to continue to be consistent and continually engaged coming off the first 30-goal season of his career.
It appears that Taro Hirose, signed as a free agent out of Michigan State late in 2018-19, will join Athanasiou and Filppula on the second line to begin the season.
Athanasiou has proven to be a dangerous and explosive scorer, And Hirose showed the ability to create and facilitate offense and meshed well with Athanasiou late in 2018-19.
But this line will have to provide secondary scoring, and it is unclear if either Fipllula or Nielsen still has the offensive punch to consistently help that cause.
Two combinations of Nielsen/Filppula, Glendening, Erne, Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Christoffer Ehn and Jacob de la Rose will make up the third and fourth lines.
Erne should be a welcome addition as a big (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) and young (24) physical winger who is tough to play against and has decent hands.
The Red Wings got off to a dreadful start last season because their top four veteran defensemen were all injured when the campaign began. That is not the case a year later as the top four – Dan DeKeyser, Mike Green, Nemeth and Filip Hronek – are all ready to go for Saturday night and Sunday, when Detroit plays the Dallas Stars in the home opener at 7 p.m.
Nemeth should improve the defense’s performance in its own zone – which was dreadful in 2018-19 – because of his size (6-3, 228), strength and shot-blocking ability.
But the Wings still lack a legitimate No. 1 NHL defenseman. Hronek may, in time, develop into one. He probably improved over the course of last season, which included more stints at AHL Grand Rapids than any other Red Wings player. He was the Czech Republic’s best defenseman in the World Championship in May and continued to impress in preseason games.
Dennis Cholowski, who fought his way back onto the season-opening roster, will combine with either Madison Bowey or Daly in the third defense pair.
Ericsson begins the season on the sidelines due to a soft-tissue injury.
Both the power-play and penalty-killing units will have to improve for Detroit to see any significant improvement in the standings.
Erne could help out as the net-front presence on the second power-play unit – Bertuzzi is excellent in that role on the first power play group. And a big-part of why Cholowski made the team was because he showed his skill in quarterbacking the power play during camp and preseason games.
Blashill likes that fact that Cholowski is a left-handed shot since both Green and Hronek – who also trigger the power play – are right-hand shots.
Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier return as the goaltending tandem. Howard was his usual steady self in 2018-19, but Bernier struggled as the backup and hoped to bounce back this season.
As does the entire team.