With the NHL All-Star Break upon us, roughly 5% of the league’s players find themselves in San Jose putting in time with the fans and the media, as well as preparing for the Skill Competition and the game itself. In short, they’re working.
The other 95% of the players are lying on a beach somewhere or taking time off with their families. At this point of the season, it’s a well-deserved break that is luckily extended with their bye weeks.
The Red Wings have nine days off between games, but they’re not resting for a playoff push. For a team that is already flirting with last place, the playoffs are a pipe dream. But the playoffs shouldn’t be the focus for the Red Wings this year. They’re in a rebuild. The focus should be on development of prospects and building for the future.
So while the players are resting this week, team management should be hard at work. With the trade deadline looming, Ken Holland should be working the phone to get his ducks in order so that when play resumes, they can showcase the right players.
The All-Star Break is when team management should evaluate where the team is at at this point in the season, what they’re missing, and what the immediate next steps should be to fill those gaps.
I’m no general manager, but with no hockey on to watch, I thought I’d take a stab at it.
WHERE THEY’RE AT
The Wings have already spent a day in last place, so from a standings point of view they are in a bad spot. They’re a lottery team.
But that’s okay because their young talent is developing nicely. They have three possible 30-goal scorers in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou. They are all good to very good forward prospects who get better every year. Larkin is obviously the best of the bunch, emerging as a legit top line center.
On the blue line, they have a couple of good defense prospects in Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek. Both have spent significant time playing in the NHL this season and both have improved over that time. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, Cholowski is looking like he may pan out to be a top-line defender.
They also have a lot of depth players. It’s something that every team needs, but the Red Wings just have too much of it right now. Tyler Bertuzzi is probably the best of the bunch, but guys like Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, and Danny DeKeyser will add depth to their lineup long-term.
Which leads me to the salary cap. The three mentioned above are the only ones locked up for the long-term. Darren Helm and Luke Glendening are only locked up for the mid-term (two more years after this season) and the rest are pretty much gone after next season.
At the end of this season, if the Wings do absolutely nothing, they’ll have a whopping $20-million freed up in cap space. What they do with that cap space is still up for debate, but they could use it to try and fill what they’re missing.
WHAT THEY’RE MISSING
The most prominent thing that this team is missing is elite talent. Sure, Larkin is coming into his own as a top-line center, but he’s not the elite goal scorer that Patrik Laine is or the elite playmaker that Auston Matthews is. If anything, he’s the latter half of the one-two punch that pairs like Crosby-Malkin, Kucherov-Stamkos, and Ovechkin-Backstrom are. Even that’s being generous.
And yes, Cholowski may be a great top-pair defenseman, but he doesn’t have the skating of P.K. Subban or the versatility of Brent Burns.
Filip Zadina could be that talent, but he’s still a few years away from realizing that yet. Being a lottery team, there’s a very good chance that the Wings walk away from the 2019 Entry Draft with a player like Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but that’s leaving your fate in the hands of luck.
If they want to take their destiny into their own hands, they could take a run at free agents like Artemi Panarin and Erik Karlsson, but good luck convincing elite players in their prime to join a rebuild that is still an elite player and starting goaltender away from being a true contender.
A gamebreaker, maybe two, is really what this team needs to get to the next level.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
Getting to that next level is not going to be easy or happen quickly. The Wings need to roll with the punches that seasons like this bring. A low finish in the standings leads to a high draft pick. It’s going to take a few years for those draft picks to realize their potential and make an impact in the NHL.
As for immediate next steps, they need to stay the course. Let veterans like Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, and Nick Jensen walk. If you need to extend Gustav Nyquist, then do it, but only let it be mid-term and keep the cap hit low.
A better option would be to continue to collect assets that rental players like Jensen and Nyquist will bring in return. The team already has 11 draft picks in this year’s draft, but picking up another 2nd-rounder would go a long way. So would adding more picks to future drafts.
The one player they do need to extend, though, is Jimmy Howard. Howie is still a serviceable goalie who is good for 35 starts a season. He’s kept the Wings in more games than is fair for him and there is nobody in the pipeline to take his spot. They’ll need Howard’s services for a few more years still.
Other than the goalie, though, the Wings should not be extending anyone or making a splash in free agency. They can weaponize that $20-million in cap space by taking on bad contracts in a package with good prospects/draft picks or by retaining salary on a trade for one of their less-favourable contracts. As the years go by, it will be easy to do for a player like Nielsen or Trevor Daley.
This season is as bad as it’s going to get for the Red Wings. They are trending in the right direction, but they need to stay focused on rebuilding. A win-now mentality won’t get them any further ahead.
So while the players rest up to come back and close out the season, coaching and management should be more focused on their individual development than winning individual games. Because in three years, we’re not going to remember all the losses, but more so the steps that were taken that led us back to victory.