The Detroit Red Wings future is in jeopardy. The team is having a tough 2016-17 season. Special teams struggles and woes on the blueline have forced them into the basement of the Eastern Conference. They are about to miss their first postseason in 25 years.
One of the problems with making the playoffs every year is getting stuck with a mid-first round draft pick. The Red Wings haven’t had a top-ten draft pick since they took Martin Lapointe 10th overall back in 1991. Since then, their mid-to-late first round drafting has been good enough to keep them competitive.
Detroit Red Wings Future Safe With Young Players
The Kids Are Alright
Their latest batch of young drafted talent has slowly crept onto the team the last couple of years. Last season, Dylan Larkin became the first teenager to don the Winged Wheel in a regular season game in fifteen years. He went on to lead the team in goals and came third in points behind Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
This season, Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha have fought for and won their roster spots. At 22 and 20 years old respectively, these three are proving to be smart, talented hockey players. They give the Red Wings a core to build their forward unit around. They have been the silver lining to the Red Wings awful 2016-17 season.
The Lark-Ness Monster
Last year, Larkin took the league by storm. He caught everyone off guard with his unbelievable speed and keen eye for the net. As the Red Wings representative at the All-Star Game, Larkin broke the 20-year-old fastest skater record, a title which he still owns. He led the team in goals, with 23, and recorded 45 points in 80 games.
This season, Larkin is having a bit of a sophomore slump. He’s only scored 12 goals and 19 points in 58 games. That puts him on pace for 17 goals and 28 points. His 7.72 shots per 60 minutes is down from 9.76. It’s a big regression from his performance last year.
The book is out on Larkin and he has been unable to adapt. He moves very quickly with the puck and defenders have learned to cut off his lane to the net, forcing Larkin to circle the zone until he’s forced to pass the puck. Nothing goes towards the net, which is evident by his 13.65 iCF/60 (down from 17.3 last year).
In addition to this, Larkin has lost the privilege of playing on the top line with Zetterberg every night. The captain leads the team in points and noticeably makes his linemates better. In addition to this, at 20 years old, Larkin is still learning how to jump the mental hurdles of adversity. He’s played at the international level and in junior, but this is the first time in his career that Larkin is dealing with loss at such a huge and visible level. Poor attitude and low morale are very contagious, and Larkin is navigating these waters through the Red Wings poor 2016-17 showing.
At least he’s got his friends to go through it with. As they say, misery loves company.
The Hardest Name In Hockey
Ah-tha-nah-sou? At-han-ah-see-you? Ath-anna-see-ou? No matter how you say it, Athanasiou is one of the most electrifying players on the Red Wings roster. His blistering speed and smooth hands have taken many opposition defensemen and goalies by surprise.
He had a hard time cracking the Red Wings roster, starting the season as a healthy scratch and then receiving very sheltered minutes. But after being scratched on January 7th, Athanasiou has exploded offensively, and showed that he deserves to be on this team and in the NHL.
This season, Athanasiou is tied for second on the team for goals with 14, despite only playing in 45 games. For the sake of comparison, the players with whom he’s tied, Zetterberg and Tomas Tatar, have 14 goals in 60 games. Athanasiou has the highest goals per 60 minutes on the team with 1.62, the third highest points per sixty minutes with 2.37, and the highest primary points per 60 minutes with 2.00. His individual Corsi-For per 60 minutes of 16.96 is also team-leading. Despite this impressive offense, Athanasiou still only receives an average of just under 11 minutes a game. This is less than Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and Darren Helm.
Andreas Athanasiou now tied in 5v5 goals with Ovechkin, Kane, Kucherov, Marner and Atkinson despite playing 200-300 fewer minutes than them.
There isn’t much of an explanation for Athanasiou’s sheltered minutes. It used to be that head coach Jim Blashill didn’t like his defensive hustle, but Athanasiou has had a much better defensive game as of late. Athanasiou’s offensive production has been elite this season. Just imagine what he could do with more time on ice and better linemates?
Athanasiou’s struggles have been frustrating for fans. Compounding this frustration is the fact that he hasn’t been the only young Red Wing who has had to prove himself over and over again to earn his ice time.
Mo Mantha, Less Problems
Mantha, endearingly nicknamed “Mo” by his teammates, broke onto the Red Wings roster in a big way this year. After ten games at the end of last season and a training camp that most deemed to be good enough, Mantha was sent to the Grand Rapids Griffins to start the season. This was particularly painful considering names like Drew Miller and Steve Ott were penned into the opening night roster.
It didn’t take long for Mantha to get the call, though. When Athanasiou fell to injury in mid-November, Mantha joined the team and immediately made an impact, scoring two goals and six points in his first ten games. It would only get better from there. In 45 games this year, Mantha has 13 goals and 31 points, leading the three youngsters in the scoring race. Granted, Mantha benefits from spending time on the top line with Zetterberg where he gets to log minutes with the team’s smartest and hardest working player, but he does make the most of his time. He’s boasts the third highest goals per 60 minutes on the team with 1.00 and second highest points per 60 minutes with 2.49.
He’s more than just a points monster, too. Mantha’s underlying numbers support the fact that he’s actually a good hockey player and not just lucky. He has the best on-ice CF% on the team and his 7.47 Relative CF% is not only best on the team, it’s top ten in the league. Mantha has proven this season that he’s one of the best rookies in the NHL.
The Red Wings Future Is Bright Up Front
These three Red Wings have proven that despite a weak defensive group and contracts that are anchors on this team’s cap, there is hope for the future of this club. They are hard-working and committed individuals.
Larkin may be having a sophomore slump, but he’s only 20 years old. He has to develop parts of his game in the NHL that most players get time to develop in the AHL. He’ll get there and will be a dynamic centre in this league.
Athanasiou has had an uphill battle to earn a roster spot and additional minutes, despite being the team’s most frequent scorer. Once they clear some of the clutter on their roster, the coaches won’t have a choice but to use him and his speed more often.
As for Mantha, he’s faced adversity all along his road to the NHL. In 2014, he broke his leg in the training camp and missed more than half of his debut AHL season. From there, Red Wings brass have called him “very, very disappointing” as a prospect and “a spare part” in the 2015 AHL playoffs. He had to fight tooth and nail to make the Red Wings roster and then had to fight even harder to earn his ice time. He’s proven everyone wrong every step of the way.
This is the kind of fighting spirit the Red Wings need. This kind of fire and energy makes a difference for team morale. It builds momentum on the ice. It creates hope for fans. It’s a beacon of light in an otherwise dark tunnel leading the Red Wings to their first playoff miss in twenty five years.
Building around these three young stars is a good start to returning this team to playoff form. But can the team manage the contracts with their current cap situation? It will take some work, but anything is possible.
It starts right now with this trade deadline. Unloading the UFA contracts of Thomas Vanek and Brendan Smith is vital. Then, the team needs to take a serious look at some of the heavier contracts it handed out and consider whether or not they are worth it. Helm, Luke Glendening, and Jonathan Ericsson are a few of them. Can these players be traded to create cap space? Can they be left exposed in the upcoming expansion draft? With the Las Vegas Golden Knights joining the league, general manager Ken Holland has more options this off-season than he would normally.
If he has the long-term health of this club at heart, then he will find a way to protect these three rookies and build a team around them. Of course, landing an elite talent in an upcoming draft would be good too, but that would require a little bit of asset acquisition (read: tanking). It’s something the Red Wings have never had to do.