The NHL playoffs remain in full swing, with the Detroit Red Wings sitting at home, contemplating the beginning of another offseason, mired in the midst of a rebuild. But even for a largely irrelevant team in the process of rebuilding, the NHL playoffs have some meaning for the Red Wings. Most notably, it provides the Wings with a bunch of models for roster construction as Detroit looks to build the next Hockeytown contender. In this way, the NHL playoffs are kind of like a store where the Red Wings can select 16 different blueprints to download as the model to build their franchise. The question is, who should they choose? This is my investigation into the question at hand:
Who they shouldn’t choose
Colorado, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto, New York Islanders
These five teams are not good fits for the Red Wings for a few reasons. Colorado, Pittsburgh, and Toronto are driven mainly by special talents acquired at the very top of the NHL Draft. Unfortunately, the Red Wings have not gotten any luck in the lottery yet and shouldn’t count on getting it as long as they are in the lottery. While it would be nice to have a player of the caliber of Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, or Sidney Crosby, the reality is that the Red Wings’ next generation likely won’t get one, at least not at the top of the draft. And more importantly, as these playoffs show, you don’t really need one either.
Tampa shouldn’t be the blueprint, despite Steve Yzerman’s new presence as team GM, because they are a blend of NHL Draft lottery luck (Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman) and mid-round NHL Draft steals, which we shouldn’t expect to replicate (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point). Additionally, the amount of talent on Tampa’s roster means it should be a pipe dream ceiling, not the expectation.
Lastly, the Islanders are an odd team whose talent level does not suggest they should have even been in the playoffs at all. Helped by a bit of luck and phenomenal coaching, I would not recommend trying to try and recreate what the Isles had this year because it is far too difficult.
The defense driven options
Carolina and Nashville
If the Red Wings want to build around defense, these are two good options. Carolina, after all, is now in the Eastern Conference Finals and seem like one of the teams most likely to dominate the next decade. Nashville has won a President’s Trophy and made a Stanley Cup Finals in the last three seasons. How did they do it? Building around defense. Using Corsica Hockey’s Player Ratings, Carolina has four defensemen with player grades of 77 and above (Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk). The Red Wings this season, by comparison, didn’t have anyone above a 74.5 grade. Nashville had four defensemen with player grades of 77.5 and above (Roman Josi, Matthias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban). Both teams have good but not great offenses to go with the great D, with very good but not elite wingers (Teuvo Teravainen, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Williams for CAR; Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg for NSH).
What the Red Wings have to do to make this work: The Red Wings have invested a lot of draft capital in their defense and so it’s not totally ridiculous to see this blueprint as a viable option. Filip Hronek seems like he will be a legit top four defenseman in the NHL and Dennis Cholowski certainly showed the potential to be that. Jared McIsaac’s QMJHL season seems to suggest he could be on the path to that and the Wings love Gustav Lindstrom’s play over in the SHL.
Still, having this plan work out would probably require 1) Bowen Byram falling to the Wings at #6 in June and 2) all of those prospects + Byram hitting their absolute ceilings. It’s one thing if McIsaac, Hronek, and Cholowski all become top four dudes. That would go a long way to making the Wings a legit contender again. But it’s a totally different thing if all became upper echelon defensemen, which is what this blueprint requires.
All this said, the Red Wings aren’t in a bad spot in terms of the forwards that this plan asks for. Dylan Larkin is a very comparable player to Sebastian Aho, Carolina’s top line center, and is already better than Ryan Johansen, Nashville’s 1C. Anthony Mantha isn’t far off from being an Arvidsson/Teravainen type guy and Filip Zadina certainly has a great shot to be that caliber, in addition to whatever Joe Veleno turns into. Still, it seems like they need a lot to go right defensively for this plan to work.
The offensively driven options
Calgary, Washington, San Jose
These are all some of the most high-scoring teams in the NHL right now. Let’s start with Calgary, who flamed out (pun intended) in the first round despite having the best record in the west. The Flames were built on the back of a dominant top line of Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, and Johnny Gaudreau, as well as a second line of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, and Mikael Backlund. They also have an offensively-gifted defensemen in Mark Giordano helping out.
San Jose is a similar story, with a tremendous top six including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Timo Meier, as well as Evander Kane and Gustav Nyquist. Like Calgary, San Jose has an offensively-gifted defenseman. Actually, they have two: Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.
Washington’s top six isn’t as balanced but instead it features literally the greatest goal scorer in NHL history somehow still in something resembling his prime, Alex Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov plays the role of playmaker and TJ Oshie fills in. Like the other two, Washington has a great offensive-defenseman in John Carlson.
What the Red Wings have to do to make this work: This blueprint isn’t crazy to imagine working, but it requires some help. Going off of Corsica grades once again, Larkin (80.1) and Mantha (78.6) are of the caliber to fit into the top tier of this type of plan, but they need help. The Red Wings would need Filip Zadina to become, at the very least, a 30 goal scorer type and Joe Veleno probably has to become a similar player to Larkin. Taking another forward in this draft would help move this blueprint along, either a center like Alex Turcotte or a scoring forward like Vasili Podkolzin or Cole Caufield.
As for the defenseman part, the Red Wings have a couple guys that could fill that role potentially. Hronek and Cholowski both seem to have good offensive instincts. I, for one, think that Hronek could be a 60 point guy if he were running the power play for an elite offensive team. That said, it’s still not fair to expect that of him and a scenario where Bowen Byram falls to the Wings would give Detroit a more obvious option to fill that role. As a whole, I like this mold more than the Carolina plan but it’s still not a perfect fit.
The well balanced molds
These are teams that are neither superpowers at defense or at offense, but teams that are able to do each pretty well. Boston is the ideal mold given how impressive they’ve been these past two seasons. They have a dominant first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, and a very nice second line of Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, and David Backes. On defense, they have Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy, and Zdeno Chara, with Tuuka Rask in net. There is no overpowering strength but also no weaknesses.
Dallas is similar in having great forwards like Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov, and Jamie Benn, in addition to elite defenseman John Klingberg and the budding Miro Heiskanen. Dallas isn’t as deep as Boston, hence their much worse regular season record, but Dallas is not a bad starting mold, with Boston being the end-goal.
What the Red Wings have to do to make this work: The Red Wings are in an interesting position where again, Larkin and Mantha can slot in comfortably at the top of the team, but will need help from prospects or future draft picks. Defensively, the Red Wings are going to need several of their defensive prospects to become very good. Not as many as the Carolina model requires, but again it’s no walk in the park, especially on a team like the Wings who have no obvious defensive blue chipper (yet).
What I’d pick
I think the last blueprint is probably the best. The reality is that the next Red Wings contender is not going to be driven by a generational talent. It will exist because of a deep and balanced roster with several impact players on defense and offense. The Red Wings have one bona fide impact player in Larkin, as well as Mantha who is right on the cusp of that territory, in addition to some nice depth pieces (Tyler Bertuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou). That’s better than nothing but it’s still a long way to go.
Based on the prospects the Red Wings have now, as well as players that they could draft in June, to emulate the Boston model, Larkin would fit more into the Bergeron spot, while needing to develop some elite wingers (Zadina? Mantha?), in addition to developing a legit 2C (Veleno? Draft Turcotte?) to fill the Krecji spot. Perhaps most importantly, the Red Wings will need solid defensive development from some of their young prospects to develop a McAvoy or Krug type. Not superstars, but really, really good guys. There are a lot of options and hope, but also a lot of uncertainty throughout the system. That’s the quagmire of rebuilding.
The other aspect of the Boston template that works for the Red Wings analogy is that it is a team that was not built by winning the lottery. Instead, Boston was able to consistently develop guys from all over the draft, including mid-first round picks (Pastrnak, McAvoy, DeBrusk), in addition to later round guys and even college free agents (Krug). Now that Steve Yzerman is in charge, the Red Wings are likely to have more success in those later rounds of the draft, but the first round aspects are still fit. The Red Wings have been rebuilding for three seasons and have still never picked in the top 5 of the draft. Yet Boston shows that you also don’t need to be picking that high as long as you can build a talented and balanced roster thanks to great scouting and player development.