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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What Would it Take for Detroit to be a Playoff Team Next Season

Ken Holland is under the microscope like he’s never been before. The Red Wings sit four spots out of the NHL’s basement, Dennis Cholowski was just sent to the minors which angered nearly the entire fan base, and as of writing this we are nine days away from the trade deadline. Through all this Ken Holland still has to find a way to make the fan base believe in the team and believe in the direction he is taking them.

One of his key talking points in recent interviews has been that he wants Detroit to compete for a playoff spot next year, while most fans feel that is a pipe dream, it is not too crazy to think Detroit could make a rapid turnaround in today’s NHL. The 2017-18 Devils, Golden Knights and Avalanche being the three most recent examples of teams that performed well above expectations to make the playoffs.

Before we start, let me be clear, I did not write this article based on the opinion about whether I think Detroit *should* take this approach, I am just examining what Holland would have to do to make it somewhat realistic.

Looking at those three teams from last season, they took different paths to find themselves unexpectedly in the playoffs. For the Devils it took a literal MVP season from Taylor Hall to drag them there. For the Avalanche it took a near MVP season from Nathan MacKinnon. For the Golden Knights it took a very fast team playing a brilliant strategy with several players hitting career highs in production. The two things all of these teams had in common was multiple players playing well above expectation and young players stepping into the line up and playing key roles.

Since we can not bank on a coaching change, an MVP season from Dylan Larkin, or a completely newfound system of speed, we will just have to try and construct the best roster possible given the assets they have.

To begin, here is Detroit’s current depth chart:

Athanasiou – Larkin – Mantha

Bertuzzi – Nielsen – Nyquist**

Rasmussen – Glendening – Helm

De La Rose – Ehn – Abdelkader

Zadina* – Veleno* – Svechnikov

Vanek**

Dekeyser – Green

Kronwall** – Jensen**

Ericsson – Daley

Witkowski** – Cholowski*

Hicketts* – Hronek*

Howard**

Bernier

** Pending unrestricted free agent

* Currently in Grand Rapids or junior

Before we start building this hypothetical roster for next season, we have to establish two things:

1.) Which young players currently not on the roster are safe bets to be full timers next year.

2.) The unmovable contracts that will be on the team next year no matter what.

The youth: Filip Zadina, Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek.

The unmovables: Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen, Danny DeKeyser

Now that that’s established, let’s examine where the current group of players *should* plug in on the depth chart without any additions, essentially the role they’re best suited for without creating too many gaps.

BLANK – Larkin – Mantha

Athanasiou – BLANK – Nyquist

Bertuzzi – Nielsen – Rasmussen

Zadina – Glendening – Helm

Svechnikov – Abdelkader

BLANK – Green

Dekeyser – Hronek

Cholowski – Jensen

Ericsson

Howard

Bernier

The first glaring problem is that Detroit is missing three pieces at critical positions:

  • 1st Line Winger
  • 2nd Line Center
  • 1st Pairing Defenseman

Truthfully, I feel a little generous labeling Green as a top pairing guy but realistically they are not finding a complete top pairing in one off season. This is countered by the fact that they do have surprisingly decent depth at defense.

Capfriendly projects Detroit to have $14,420,456 in cap space before Zetterberg and Franzen hit LTIR, so in reality it’s about $24 million this summer, Holland’s biggest obstacle is that he won’t have enough cap space to fill those three glaring holes. Even if the cap goes up to $83 million as projected, that leaves Detroit about $28 million to play with. It’s easy enough to just say let’s throw infinity dollars at Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, and Artemi Panarin and call it a day but this isn’t 2002. There is also another further complication.

You’ll also notice that in order to keep them competitive I had to retain Howard, Jensen, and Nyquist on my hypothetical roster for now. If they all re-sign at their current cap hits (which is unlikely), that takes away nearly $11 million of the $24-$28 million in cap space. I left Trevor Daley off the roster because there seems to be some interest in him around the league and he brings less to the table than Nick Jensen so given the choice, I retained Jensen. I also left De La Rose off simply because of roster spots available but he barely saves any cap. I also chose not to bring back Kronwall, Vanek, or Witkowski.

While it’s easy to say let Howard, Nyquist, and Jensen walk, you’d have to pay similar players similar money via free agency or throw three prospects into those spots and Detroit does not have three prospects ready to fill any of those positions at the moment (maybe Joe Veleno but that’s a very tall order which I would not bet on).

Based on everything I have laid out, here is the best roster I could reasonably assemble for next season.

Athanasiou – Larkin – Mark Stone

Zadina – Nielsen – Mantha

Bertuzzi – Veleno – Rasmussen

Svechnikov – Glendening – Helm

Ehn – Abdelkader

Dekeyser – Erik Karlsson

Cholowski – Green

Hronek – Jensen

Ericsson

Howard

Bernier

Thoughts:

  • Landing 2 of the top 3 free agents is extremely unlikely. Short of signing Panarin or Duchene I don’t think there’s anyone in this UFA class worth signing long term.
  • This roster eats up roughly $82 million in cap space.
  • The main reason I was able to “sign” Stone and Karlsson is because the rest of the roster is loaded with entry level contracts.
  • I had to let Nyquist go.
  • The true 2nd line Center is still missing.
  • Zadina will have to contribute more than he likely will.
  • I very much doubt Veleno will be ready to take on a top 9 role next year but maybe he will.
  • This roster is very, very young.
  • I still think Detroit would be better off tanking next year and getting another high pick.
  • I fear Holland will miss on the big free agents and once again settle on over paying secondary free agents like Alex Edler or Wayne Simmonds. Frans Nielsen all over again.
  • I feel that this is a fringe playoff team at best. They’ll need to strike gold with a couple more draft picks to have any sustainability long term.

It is not impossible for Ken Holland to build a roster that makes the playoffs next year but as you can see, it’s not very likely either. To do this he would also have to go against his philosophy of remaining loyal to the veterans and embrace a younger roster. He would also have to fight the urge to extend contracts to guys like Vanek, Witkowski, and Kronwall. In the end, it may end up being Steve Yzerman anyway, rendering this point moot.