On the Detroit Red Wings, and their apparent problems with youth

The Detroit Red Wings have been toiling in mediocrity ever since 2009, the year after they won the Stanley Cup. They’ve managed to maintain their 25 season long playoff streak, but haven’t advanced past the second round. The way that they’ve sacrificed their future in order to continuously make the playoffs is almost comical, as they spend all of their salary cap space on older players in order to be the eighth best team in their conference and get bounced from the postseason before they can make a serious run.

The future doesn’t exactly look great, and the past couple of seasons have been rough for the Wings, especially from a management standpoint. Sure, there are bright spots of youth such as Dylan Larkin, and Petr Mrazek, as well as promising prospect such as Anthony Mantha and Evgeny Svechnikov, but overall, the team’s future outlook has gotten worse. In 2014, the Wings traded away a Calle Jarnkrok in order to get David Legwand, and lost depth forward Andrej Nestrasil on waivers. In 2015, Ken Holland traded away Mattias Janmark for one month of Erik Cole, Mike Babcock bolted for Toronto, and 29-year-old Justin Abdelkader signed a seven-year, 29.75 million dollar contract (lol). In 2016, Pavel Datsyuk “retired” from the NHL to head back home to his native Russia, leaving a massive hole at center.

That’s a whole lot of forward depth they’ve lost, as Jarnkrok, Janmark, and Nestrasil have all found homes with other NHL teams. As a result, the Wings have been forced to consistently replenish their forward ranks, and have found themselves consistently forking up money to sign unrestricted free agents.

The free agents haven’t quite been helping. We saw what the Red Wings looked like without Babcock and without Datsyuk at the start of the 2015-2016 season, as the veteran forward spent the first 16 games on the sidelines, recovering from an injury. The results were… interesting, to say the least. Over that brief time span, the Wings only managed a 47.6% CF%, which ranked 22nd in the league. When it came to scoring chances and expected goals, they were even worse, and couldn’t even top 45%, with a 42.9% xGF%, and an abysmally low 41.4% SCF%. They ranked last in the league under both metrics, which should be a giant red flag for management.

Incredibly, it seems as though it wasn’t, and after Datsyuk signed with a KHL team, the Red Wings shipped his contract (along with their 2016 first round pick) off to the Arizona Coyotes, and then used the available cap space to sign Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen. Both players are 32-years-old, and while they may provide some value as middle six forwards, they aren’t going to be good NHL players four-to-six years from now. The Arizona Coyotes used the pick to take Jakob Chychrun, a talented defender who surprisingly dropped to 16th overall in the draft. He has the potential to be a consistent top-pairing blue liner at the NHL level, and made the Coyotes roster as an 18-year-old.

Recent moves have really called the decision-making abilities of management into question, even more so than any of the previous transactions. The Wings continue to lose young talent in favor of aging, ineffective veterans, and the team’s future is hurting because of it.

First, they waived Martin Frk, a 23-year-old prospect with intriguing goal-scoring potential. Next came Teemu Pulkkinen, a 24-year-old who had 61 points in 47 AHL games last season. Both players were claimed by NHL teams, stripping the Red Wings of two talented players who both had the potential to fill out a bottom six.

Who did they keep on their roster that necessitated putting Frk and Pulkkinen on waivers, you ask? Surely some impressive other prospects, such as Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha, or maybe a veteran player that showed he has what it takes to remain productive for a number of seasons going forward?

Nope. The Detroit Red Wings lost Martin Frk and Teemu Pulkkinen for nothing in order to keep Drew Miller and Steve Ott on the roster. Though it’s not the end of the world, it’s a very obvious gaffe on behalf of Ken Holland, and one that’s going to hurt the Wings in both the short-term and the long-term.

In the short-term, the Wings suffered from head coach Jeff Blashill’s decision to actually play Miller and Ott; neither could be considered an above replacement level player at the NHL level, and yet they actually got ice time alongside Luke Glendening last night while Andreas Athanasiou sat in the press box, and the Wings lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning by a final score of 6-4.

That trio is arguably one of the worst lines in the entire league, and their debut was comically bad. All three somehow finished the night with a -14 or worse Corsi differential in less than eight minutes of ice time. Initial reports make it seem as though the “OMG” line will be broken up by the second game of the season, but the fact that they even made an appearance is perplexing enough.

In the long-term, the Red Wings lost two solid prospects that could have contributed at the NHL level in order to play two ineffective veterans. There’s no guarantee that either of Frk or Pulkkinen will stick at the NHL level, and the Wings may end up losing very little from their questionable waiver wire decisions.

There’s still a chance that they do stick, however, and if that ends up being the case, the Red Wings sacrificed quality forward depth in order to have no forward depth. The trade-off is beyond confusing, and Ken Holland’s decision making really comes into question.

The loss of two potentially good depth forwards in exchange for two clearly bad depth forwards makes no sense, and it also shows a complete lack of value from the side of management.

It’s not just these slight losses that sting, though. It’s the buildup of everything over the past couple of seasons, accumulated into this current season. The Atlantic Division isn’t exactly the strongest in hockey, but there’s a legitimate chance that the Red Wings miss the playoffs.

Maybe having Mattias Janmark, Calle Jarnkrok, Teemu Pulkkinen, Andrej Nestrasil, Martin Frk, and Andreas Athanasiou in the lineup every night would help. At the very least, it would give the Red Wings a complete bottom six for fairly cheap; the current combined cap hit of these six players is 5.3 million.

With those six on their roster and in the lineup, Detroit wouldn’t have to spend 4.25 million per year on Abdelkader, or 3.85 million per year on Darren Helm, or 2.6 million for Thomas Vanek, or 1.025 million for Drew Miller, or even the measly 800,000 they’re paying Steve Ott. There’s even an argument to be made that they wouldn’t have needed to sign Frans Nielsen for 5.25 million per year. All in all, that’s 17.775 million extra dollars the Wings are spending on players they don’t quite need, and for a probable upgrade in forwards (assuming a hypothetical six for six swap), the Wings would be saving 12.475 million dollars against the cap.

That’s a lot of extra cap space to work with, and the Wings could have really made a splash in free agency with it. Not only could they have gone after upgrades on defense, like Jason Demers, Keith Yandle, and Dan Hamhuis, they also could have taken their chances with offer-sheets to big-name RFAs such as Nikita Kucherov and Rikard Rakell (though, what are the odds someone offer-sheets someone nowadays? A couple billion to one?).

A roster featuring Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Tatar, and Nikita Kucherov on offense, with Mike Green, Jason Demers, and Brendan Smith on defense is a roster capable of competing with the best teams in the East, especially if it’s filled out by a capable bottom half. There’s no guarantee the Wings could have ever put that roster together, but they didn’t even give themselves a chance, and you could argue they actively got worse in the process.

The Red Wings have done a very good job of adding young talent via the draft, and they stockpiled an impressive amount of young talent for a team that is always in the playoffs. It’s how they’ve stayed in contention for so long, and how they continue to be, at the very least, a decent team.

In the past couple of years, however, they’ve lost an impressive amount of young depth, and their roster is hurting because of it. Recent moves have really started to show just how perplexing Ken Holland’s roster decisions have been, but the prioritization of experience over talent has been hurting this team for a number of years.

The Red Wings could be a much better team than the one they are now, but they aren’t. The end of their playoff streak is getting close and closer, and they have no one but themselves to blame for it.

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