This is a big next six months or so for 24-year old Teemu Pulkkinen.
Picking up an assist today in Finland’s 3-2 win over the USA, the goals are considerable for the Red Wings forward.
1) Continue a solid start to the current Finland campaign at the World Championships. Pulkkinen is getting key amounts of icetime (playing 15+ minutes in both the first two round-robin games), on a very deep and skilled roster.
2) Get the best deal possible from the Red Wings in restricted free agency, and expedite the conclusion of that deal so that he misses no training camp time this September.
3) Back on the international stage, though he’s believed by some to be a longshot for the last three slots on Finland’s World Cup of Hockey roster (they’ve named ten forwards already Finland roster ), it’d be a big step forward to play in Toronto this September.
4) Then the day job itself — how does Pulkkinen go from being a healthy scratch through the entire 5-game drubbing the Red Wings suffered at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to being a key component and getting Top 6 forward status and (likely) second power-play unit time as well?
It’s a lot to achieve for Pulkkinen, but none of it is impossible. There seems to be a collective understanding amongst all, though it hasn’t been fully acknowledged yet by Red Wings GM Ken Holland or head coach Jeff Blashill (though it doesn’t truly need to be publicly) that the route to go for the Red Wings, and the only back to moving past the mediocre results of the past few seasons is to rely on the team’s talented younger players.
Pulkkinen heads that list of a player that can achieve and can be counted on for more. Of course, the dislocated shoulder he suffered early in the season, which kept him on Injured Reserve until mid-January was quite detrimental to his season, but he sure wasn’t given much of a chance in the four games following his recovery to make much of an impact. Two of the four, he received under 10 minutes of icetime, and then played quite sporadically in seven more to finish out the regular season.
As noted, he sat as a healthy scratch the entire series against the Lightning — quite the stark contrast from the fantastic run he had in Grand Rapids the prior spring, scoring 14 goals in 16 games. Pulkkinen doubled the goal-scoring output of all other Griffins (Tyler Bertuzzi was second on the team, with 7 goals). So, let’s be clear, his finishing touch isn’t in doubt, and on a Red Wings team losing their second-leading scorer in Pavel Datsyuk, and one that only had Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar crack the 20-goal mark, it’s crazy to consider there might not be a big role for Pulkkinen on this Red Wings team next fall.
There’s been the notion among some that the Red Wings need to choose players like Pulkkinen, or Tomas Jurco (another skilled player who couldn’t buy his way into the Red Wings playoff lineup, who’s already scored a goal and three assists in two games for Team Slovakia!!!) and move them for either future assets or veterans more ready to contribute. That’s so beyond logical, I wouldn’t even know where to tear that concept apart. The problem with the Red Wings isn’t finding skilled players — it’s knowing enough to use them and deploy them as those players should be. If you trade players like Pulkkinen, Jurco, or even Athanasiou, you’re getting either veterans back who are too long in the tooth to either contribute as you’ll hope, if at all, or lottery tickets known as mid-level draft picks, and given you’re stuck with aging players like Zetterberg, Kronwall, and Green — those are the veterans who need the help now.
The answer isn’t blowing up the damn roster, it’s using the roster much, much better than the Red Wings did this past season. I know much has been written about the influence of the Swedes in the Red Wings dressing room, and I’ve noted it on Twitter and in this forum as well, it’s certainly a “thing”. But I’m now hearing it’ll be far less of a thing next season. Jeff Blashill did give an ear, and maybe too much of one, to captain Henrik Zetterberg when it came to lineups, icetime, and various other team activities, on and off the ice. Blashill gave a certain amount of rope to Zetterberg, and to some extent, Niklas Kronwall. That rope won’t be of the same length, nor will Zetterberg’s sphere of influence be as widespread. Will that be easy for a second-year coach to do? Well, given Jeff Blashill doesn’t have a honeymoon period this coming season, nor is he immediately following a future Hall of Fame coach who’d been there a decade, and was well-decorated and well-respected, I’d say it will be.
Now, that doesn’t mean in the least that fans are going to see as much of Pulkkinen, Jurco, Mantha, and Athanasiou as they’d like to, but I don’t think the Red Wings nor their head coach has a choice. The landscape of the Atlantic Division is going to change over the next 2-3 seasons. The Sabres and Maple Leafs aren’t going to be punching bags for much longer. The Panthers, despite their playoff exit, and the advancing age of Roberto Luongo, will surprise few if they continue to develop and consistently make the playoffs. The Lightning and their trust and development of younger players continues to shine and speak for itself.
Though Ken Holland verbally spat on the methodology and concept of a “rebuild”, continuing to allow or influence the Red Wings’ lack of trust for younger, skilled players (besides Dylan Larkin this season) is going to be extremely costly in the long-term. Players like Pulkkinen have to play, and they have to play a lot. Putting the spotlight on forwards in the early-to-mid 20’s this coming season is the only way to truly know what direction to take the franchise going into Little Caesars Arena in the fall of 2017. How can these players possibly be good enough to take key roles for Finland (in Jurco’s case, Slovakia), and then wear suits and eat popcorn during countless regular season games, and in the playoffs?
I think Pulkkinen will get the role he is deserving of this October with the Red Wings, and I actually think he’ll thrive in it. But I’ve been wrong before about the Red Wings and the responsibilities doled out to young and talented players.