We’re now officially in late July, meaning that the 2017-18 NHL season, the 2018 NHL Draft, and the majority of the free agency period have all passed. With it, a lot has changed in the rebuilding plans for the Detroit Red Wings. Each passing season brings more clarity and new developments to the rebuilding blueprint, one that I laid out here last October. So what has changed and how does this impact the future? Let’s do a deep dive and investigate:
The 2017-18 Season: For a rebuilding team, the past season was pretty successful. If the goal is to lose a lot of games and get a high draft pick, that happened to perfection. The Red Wings finished with the fifth fewest points, which helped earn them the #6 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, their highest first round pick in a long time. But the season isn’t just about tanking, it’s also about crucial player development. And the Wings got quite a bit of that too. Dylan Larkin proved himself in a big way, breaking out and collecting a career high 63 points. In the process, his ceiling has become a #1 center, with the floor being an above-average #2. Having just turned 22 this summer, Larkin distinguished himself as a centerpiece of the rebuild, which is quite frankly, huge. Anthony Mantha had an up-and-down season, but his career high 24 goals shows he should be considered a top 6 winger in the future plans and that the 30 goal ceiling is still definitely in play. Finally, Tyler Bertuzzi busted onto the scene, playing with Henrik Zetterberg and looking like he belonged, and he now figures more into the middle 6 than as the grinder I previously thought he was going to be. The Red Wings also traded Petr Mrazek at the deadline for a couple picks and then fleeced the Vegas Golden Knights on the Tomas Tatar trade, somehow netting a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounder for him.
The Draft: Late June’s NHL Draft was the biggest draft in a long time for the franchise, as they boasted a bunch of picks, but more importantly, 4 picks in the top 36 (6, 30, 33, 36). And if it was a franchise-defining draft, then the future looks very bright, as it’s hard to be anything other than absolutely floored by the picks the Red Wings made. Of course, only time will tell on how the players pan out, but Detroit left draft night ecstatic with their haul of early picks, ones that mostly fell into their lap. Montreal and Arizona went off the board with picks 3 and 5, which allowed arguably the second most talented player in the draft, winger Filip Zadina, to tumble to the Wings. An offensive dynamo, Zadina is a playmaker and a finisher, someone who can score from anywhere on the ice, and he’s the rare potential 40 goal scoring prospect. He gives the Red Wings a potential game breaking talent, and the best pure goal scorer the team has had since Marian Hossa. They also netted center Joe Veleno, a consensus top 15 pick, at pick 30, and then scooped up skilled winger Jonatan Berggren and defenseman Jared McIsaac with picks 33 and 36. The Red Wings were declared one of the winners of the draft by most all outlets and so the early opinions are quite exciting.
Free Agency: Something that often gets lost among the Ken Holland haters is that the Red Wings have clearly re-adjusted their mentality since they committed to the rebuild. This summer and the last have featured none of the overpriced and overtermed contracts that were the playoff streak’s undoing. This summer featured the signings of a few old faces, Mike Green and Thomas Vanek, as well as goalie Jonathan Bernier. These moves have the intention of filling gaps in the roster, but also to boost trade value. Green was re-signed to a two year deal because he provides stability at the blue line, but also because the Red Wings believe if he has another good season, he has trade value. They had hoped to deal him last season but a neck injury made him untradeable when the deadline rolled around, robbing Detroit of an extra first/second round pick. The same goes for Vanek, as the Wings like how he compliments the growth and development of the younger players on the offensive end. But of course, when you sign a wily veteran winger to a one year deal, you’re doing it because you think you can trade him. Lastly, Bernier was signed because with Petr Mrazek gone, the Wings are in the need of a backup goalie. But also, Jimmy Howard is in the last year of his deal and he too could be on the trading block. Indeed, it’s become abundantly clear that a key component of the Red Wings’ rebuilding strategy is to stockpile draft picks. Detroit had 11 last year, 10 this year, and they already have 10 picks for next year’s draft, even before more trades may be made. And quite frankly when your profession involves trusting your future on the backs of incredibly raw 18 year olds, having a lot of bullets and hoping a few hit the target doesn’t seem like a bad strategy.
So how do things look currently?
As it currently stands, the rebuilding project is a lot clearer when compared to last year. The Red Wings now think they have over half of their future top 9 forwards and a good chunk of their future defense corps. At forward, you can pencil in Dylan Larkin as one of the future stars of the team. Michael Rasmussen, 2017’s 1st rounder, is likely to join the team in the fall after a monstrous season in the WHL. He, along with Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi are almost certainly parts of the future top 9. Whether Zadina plays this year in Detroit or not, you can pencil him in on the future top line, which gives you 5. Detroit would like 2015 first rounder Evgeny Svechnikov to be a part of this, but a rough season in Grand Rapids makes it less clear. Veleno and Berggren should be a part of this, but they will need several seasons to simmer. So while there are still some moving parts, things are starting to come together ever so slightly in the forwards.
On defense, while the Red Wings didn’t get the opportunity to pick a blue chip defenseman (that was the plan before Zadina tumbled to 6), they have a deeper prospect pool than people think. Filip Hronek, who has had back-to-back huge seasons in the OHL and AHL, is the favorite to make the team this fall. Joe Hicketts is long overdue to leave Grand Rapids and hopefully the team can find a spot for him in Detroit this year. Outside of those two, 2016 first rounder Dennis Cholowski has a ceiling that is Jay Bouwmeester-like and if he pans out, you can pencil him in the future top 4. Libor Sulak and Vili Saarijarvi also have potential down in Grand Rapids and a pair of second rounders from the last two years, McIsaac and Gustav Lindstrom, will make the team when they are ready. The one thing this group is lacking is the elite blue chip talent and it seems like Detroit will set out to get that in next season’s draft. But as for now, they have a nice pool of talent that should produce at least 2-3 solid defenseman to build a defense around.
In net, the Red Wings like Keith Petruzzelli (2017 pick) and Filip Larsson (2016 pick), but both are still so young and raw and they realistically wouldn’t join the team until the 2020-21 season at the earliest. While they may be the netminders of the future (wouldn’t shock me if Detroit picked another goalie in 2019), expect Bernier and another veteran goalie signing to act as stopgaps until the younger players are available.
What’s the time frame on all of this?
The Red Wings chose not to tear it all down a la Buffalo and Arizona out of the fear it would derail a structured time frame and leave the team in a perpetual wilderness. That may yet be the right decision and so if we want to compare the Red Wings’ rebuild, perhaps we should compare it to the most successful rebuild in recent years, Toronto. The Leafs had the 2013-14 season begin their rebuild, a year they tried to contend in but ended up selling off pieces and ending the season with a bottom 10 record. They held the #8 pick in that draft and chose forward Will Nylander. In 2014-15 they embraced the tank and got a top 6 pick and selected forward Mitch Marner. In 2015-16 they tanked again and won the lottery, selecting Auston Matthews. With all the young talent on the team, they pushed for the playoffs in 2016-17 and slipped in as the 8 seed and played a competitive first round series. Then this past season they emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
You can compare that time frame to the Red Wings, with 2016-17 being the season where Detroit tried to contend for the playoffs but then crashed and burned, similar to Toronto’s 2013-14. And like Toronto, they too took a forward (Rasmussen). This past season, a full on tank job, is comparable to Toronto’s 2014-15, and like the Leafs again, Detroit took a forward (Zadina). So under this comparison, 2018-19 would be Detroit's last full tank season. While I doubt that the Wings will be in a good position to win the lottery next summer, it does feel like this upcoming season is the last year of bottoming out. Ideally, Detroit tanks one more season and trades Nyquist, Howard, Vanek, and maybe Green to stockpile more picks and finishes with a record bad enough to fetch another top 6ish pick. Then they would use that pick to select the blue chip defenseman that evaded them this past season. Under this plan, 2019-20 would be the first season where the team would seriously try to get better but the playoffs would feel like a stretch and would hinge on player development. Realistically, 2020-21 would be the first season with a legitimate shot to return to the postseason, and the goal should be to return to contention by 2021-22. By this time, many of the young prospects would be old enough to be making noise in the NHL and most of the old and bad contracts will have come off the books. Indeed, Kronwall is down to his last year, Ericsson on his second to last, and Zetterberg is on his last legs as a player. By 2021-22, only Abdelkader and Nielsen would be left on the books.
So an ideal depth chart for that season is (with age in parentheses):
Zadina (22) - Larkin (25) - Mantha (27)
Rasmussen (23) - Veleno (22) - Bertuzzi (27)
Svechnikov (25) - Athanasiou (27) - Berggren (21)
Abdelkader (35) - Nielsen (38) - Givani Smith (24)
2019 Draft Pick (21) - Cholowski (24)
Hronek (24) - Lindstrom (23)
DeKeyser (32) - Saarijarvi (24)
Petruzzelli (23) - Larsson (23)
How good is that team? I’m not sure, as it all depends on how the players pan out but there would be a lot of youth on the roster. The most important thing right now is that there is a coherent plan, a blueprint on how to make the team better and return to contention in a timely manner, with a bit of help from the 2018 draft. The future in Hockeytown looks a lot brighter now than it did at this point last season, and that should excite Red Wings fans everywhere.