Rookies, young players the focus as Red Wings open 2018-19 season
Making their NHL debuts Thursday will be, from left, Christoffer Ehn, Dennis Cholowski, Michael Rasmussen and Libor Sulak.
Youth and development are the key words for the Red Wings this season.
When the puck is dropped for the opening of the 2018-19 season Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets (7:30 p.m., FOX Sports Detroit), the most curious eyes will be on those Detroit players making their NHL debuts: defensemen Dennis Cholowski, 20, and Libor Sulak, 24; forward Michael Rasmussen, 19, and center Christoffer Ehn, 22.
Defenseman Filip Hronek, 20, could also make his debut after being recalled from AHL Grand Rapids because of injuries to veteran defensemen. And defenseman Joe Hicketts, 22, was also recalled. He played five games with Detroit this season.
Since the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2012, the team has lacked a defenseman who can quickly and efficiently move the puck out of the defensive zone and start the rush on a consistent basis.
Cholowski and Sulak each addresses that need in his own way.
Cholowski is patient with the puck and outstanding at making the first pass out of the zone, while Sulak is an outstanding skater with elite speed. They both showed those talents during the preseason.
Cholowski was one of the Red Wings’ best players in exhibition games, averaging more than 20 minutes in six games, including considerable power play and penalty kill time. He had two goals and four assists for six points and was plus-5.
"I've liked him lots," Detroit coach Jeff Blashill told www.mlive.com. "I like his skill-set, I like what he's good at. We need what he's good at it.
“Pro experience matters, but so does talent. So if he's good enough and can make an impact, he should be here."
Sulak, in his first season in North America after being signed as an undrafted free agent, was also impressive with a goal and two assists in six games.
Veteran defensemen Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson begin the season on injured reserve. Green will be out for over a month as he recovers from a liver virus. Kronwall has an unknown injury and Ericsson an upper-body injury.
"He's got unreal jump. He can take two strides and be out of the zone," Blashill said. “He is one of those guys whose athletic ability makes up for mistakes at times because he may not do the right thing but all the sudden he's still winning the battle because he's so athletic."
Unless he continues to impress, Sulak will likely be sent to AHL Grand Rapids when Mike Green returns from a liver virus. Green was put on injured reserve to begin the season.
Rasmussen’s talent and size (6-6, 231) make him a rare combination for the Wings, who have long been one of the NHL’s physically smallest teams. He’s somebody who demands attention.
Ehn, 22, is the biggest surprise on the opening night roster. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft (106th overall) and is playing his first season in North America after skating for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League for the past two seasons.
Another factor this season is the development of the Wings’ young players who have already proven they can play in the NHL and have some level of success. Will they continue to improve and lead the franchise back to the Stanley Cup playoffs, where it hasn’t been since 2016, and ultimately into contention for the Stanley Cup itself?
Homegrown center Dylan Larkin, 22, who led the team with 63 points in his third season in 2017-18, was already in the spotlight before No. 1 center and longtime captain Henrik Zetterberg retired because of a bad back at the start of training camp. That has thrust Larkin into the No. 1 center slot. And, although no one will likely inherit the “C” from Zetterberg this season, Larkin is the heavy favorite to be the next captain whenever the organization decides to name the next one.
He also has been named an alternate captain along with veteran center Frans Nielsen. They join Kronwall and Justin Abdelkader as alternate captains. Larkin will wear the third “A” during home games and Nielsen will wear it for visiting games.
Therefore, Larkin’s progress as a team leader will be heavily monitored this season.
His linemates will also be watched closely.
Right wing Anthony Mantha, 24, led the Wings with 24 goals in his first full campaign last season. He has the talent and size (6-5, 225 pounds) to become an elite NHL power forward. Many eyes will be focused on if he can achieve that lofty status and, if he does, how long it takes.
Left wing Tyler Bertuzzi, 23, had seven goals and 24 points in the last half of 2017-18, after being promoted from Grand Rapids and recovering from a training camp injury. He has shown the ability to be effective in a top-six role. But the question for him is if he can improve his skating and get strong enough to match his grittiness and off-the-charts hockey IQ.
Zetterberg’s retirement also shifts Andreas Athanasiou, 24, from the wing to the No. 3 center position. Athanasiou has used his tremendous speed and finishing ability to dominate and score spectacular goals at times over his first two seasons. But his inconsistency and lack of focus have been an issue with Blashill and the Wings’ player leadership group.
Athanasiou is a natural center, and the added defensive responsibilities of the position at the NHL level may force him to stay focused … or not.
Red Wings Rookies
Dennis Cholowski, defenseman, 20 – The Red Wings’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2016. Impressed with his all-around game during the preseason. Showed the ability to efficiently and quickly get the puck out of his own zone, start the rush and jump into the offense after the play crossed the other blue line. Was one of Detroit’s best players during exhibition games.
Libor Sulak, defenseman, 24 – Signed as an undrafted free agent. Is in his first season in North American after playing professionally in Europe for four seasons. Sulak is an outstanding skater with elite speed and acceleration. He is still raw and doesn’t have a lot of experience playing on the smaller North American ice surface.
Michael Rasmussen, forward, 19 – The Wings’ first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in 2017, Rasmussen combines skill and size (6-6, 231). He’s a natural center who is beginning his pro career on the wing, so he has fewer defensive responsibilities. Has shown skill as a net-front presence. If the team decides he is not ready for the NHL, Rasmussen can be sent back to his junior team, Tr-City of the Western Hockey League.
Chrisfoffer Ehn, forward, 22 – Selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft (106thoverall pick), is playing his first season in North America after skating for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League for the past two seasons. Showed the ability to play both center and wing in a third- or fourth-line role. Defensively responsible and brings a lot of energy to each shift.