Something both fortunate and unfortunate happened to the Detroit Red Wings in the final ten games of their season. A bunch of their players got injured and, with less than ten games left, there was no point in rushing them back. It forced the team to call up young talent from Grand Rapids and actually play them. With all of this AHL-level talent playing against NHL talent, the team should have fallen even lower in the standings. But they didn’t. They won. A lot.
It was a fortunate thing because these young players would have never gotten a chance to show their potential on the NHL stage this year. They proved that they could hang in the big league. The unfortunate part is that most of the injured players are still under contract and, if the season starts with no buyouts or trades, we’re left with almost the exact same roster as we’ve had for most of this season.
With that in mind, here are four prospects who should make the team next year, but probably won’t due to the lack of space on the NHL roster.
10 GP, 1 G, 7 P, 15 shots
Taro Hirose joined the Red Wings as soon as his NCAA season ended. An undrafted prospect, Hirose was named the Big Ten Player of the Year with his 15 goals and 50 points for Michigan State University.
The Red Wings were already a few injuries in, so Hirose was able to jump right into the top-6 and recorded an assist in each of his first five games. Eventually, he found himself on Andreas Athanasiou‘s wing where he was fed by the speedy winger for his first ever NHL goal against the Boston Bruins.
— e-Nick (@nickseguin19) April 1, 2019
Hirose’s passing is easily the best part of his game. He always finds the open lanes and almost always puts the puck on his teammates’ stick. He thinks the game at a very high level, but he needs to improve defensively to really round himself out. A 37.7 on-ice shot attempt percentage suggests he was chasing the puck more than controlling it.
While he’s jumped to the top of the Red Wings prospect pool, there’s still a good chance Hirose doesn’t make the team next year. There are a couple players ahead of him, most notably Evgeny Svechnikov and Filip Zadina. If both of these top prospects are ready for a full-time NHL assignment next year, that narrows the opening for Hirose who now has to compete against a veteran NHLer for a permanent roster spot. Most likely, he starts the season in Grand Rapids and gets the injury call-up.
4 GP, 0 P, minus-3, 38.1 FO%
Dominic Turgeon didn’t get as good of a look this year as he probably deserved. After a five-game stint in January of last year, Turgeon got a few more emergency call-ups, but never saw the NHL ice. Then, at the end of the season, he was diagnosed with blood clots in his right arm and had to undergo two surgeries and a difficult recovery.
He returned in time for the AHL season, but his game this year has been lacking. Six goals and 19 points through 69 games this season vs. 14 goals and 32 points through the same amount of games last season. He’s lost some of his confidence and swagger. Maybe it was the injury, or maybe it was the fact that he was the favorite for that 4th line center position but was overtaken by Christoffer Ehn.
Regardless of what it was, Turgeon looked shaky in his NHL stint this year. A defensively sound player, he’s not expected to generate that much offense, but was still on the ice for six goals against. He’s a big penalty killer and could easily replace one of the Red Wings older and more expensive bottom-line players. He needs his confidence back, though, so most likely he starts the season in Grand Rapids and gets the injury call-up.
8 GP, 1G, 1P, minus-2, 10 shots
Matt Puempel came to the Red Wings organization in the 2017 trade that saw Brendan Smith shipped to the New York Rangers. At that point, Puempel had played in 27 games for the Rangers and an additional 52 games for the Ottawa Senators before then. His lacking stat line (10, 5 – 15) is likely the reason for his continuous bouncing between the NHL and AHL, but since playing for the Griffins, he’s been one of their most gifted offensive players.
— e-Nick (@nickseguin19) April 4, 2019
Puempel could easily play a bottom-6 role in the NHL, but with the Red Wings crowded roster, there just hasn’t been room for him. In his eight games at the end of this season, Puempel added a goal on the power play and was on the ice for two goals against through 82 minutes of ice time. If nothing else, he proved that he could play a strong defensive game against NHL competition.
He’s not the scorer at the NHL level that he is in the AHL, which makes Puempel that perfect bubble player who could be successful in both leagues. Since the depth chart in Detroit is so crowded, it’s most likely that Puempel starts the season in Grand Rapids and gets the injury call-up.
11 GP, 0 P, minus-9, 27 blocks, 17 hits
Joe Hicketts has proven more than once that he can hang with the NHL crew. The 5’8″ defenseman has overcome hurdles at every level to prove his small frame didn’t matter. In his latest call-up at the end of the season, we were reminded of this by how we threw his weight around, his confidence with the puck, and the sheer energy that he plays hockey with.
It’s this energy that makes Hicketts such a captivating player. He is always playing with fire. Last season, Hicketts played in five games for the Red Wings and recorded three assists. This year, he started the season in Detroit amidst the sea of injuries on their blue line and was sent down as the regular NHL-ers returned. He accepted his role in Grand Rapids, contributing three goals and 27 points through 61 games. When he got a second chance with Detroit at the end of the season, Blashill played him an additional 3-4 minutes per game more than he did at the start of the season.
Hicketts continues to grow and develop, but at 22-years-old, you’ve got to wonder how much longer he’ll be willing to wait for the Red Wings to make a decision on his NHL future. His entry-level contract expires at the end of this season. Surely the team would be happy to have him back, though not to fill a full-time NHL role. Hicketts may want to take his services elsewhere. That remains to be seen. Should he decide to come back to Detroit though, unless the Wings have another onslaught of injuries in October, it’s most likely he starts the season in Grand Rapids and gets the injury call-up.
For now, these four players have returned to Grand Rapids to prepare for the AHL playoffs. The Red Wings may have a few roster spots opening up going into the 2019-20 season, but what they do with them remains to be seen. With those open positions comes free cap space and Ken Holland has been no stranger to the free agency market in past years. If it were me, I’d stay away from the open market and work with what I’ve already got. But it’s not me and the stakes are much higher for Holland and his management team.
Since fortune did not favor the team at last night’s NHL Draft Lottery, they have to look within their system for the help that’s going to take them to the next level. None of these players are elite game breakers. Hell, none of them are top-line scorers. But they add depth to the roster and, as we saw at the end of the season, can be swapped in for any current bottom-line player and the team’s results probably remain the same.
Most likely, though, they’ll start the season in Grand Rapids and get the injury call-up.