Red Wings Should Use 2017-18 To Experiment As They Enter Post-Streak Era

Red Wings Should Use 2017-18 To Experiment As They Enter Post-Streak Era
Photo: © James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
There is no shortage of disappointment in Hockeytown after the Detroit Red Wings' playoff streak of 25 straight postseason berths ended in this year.

The Red Wings concluded the 2015-16 season with the franchise's third consecutive first-round loss, which began a perfect storm of discouragement in Detroit.

On June 10, the legendary Gordie Howe passed away.

Later that month, it was confirmed that Pavel Datsyuk would not be returning to the team after 14 seasons. Then, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland traded down in the draft to dump the final year of Datsyuk's $7.5 million salary cap hit and gave up on Jakub Chychrun, a defenseman who was slated as a top five pick at one point. Shortly after free agency opened on July 1, the departure of Datsyuk became official with his inking of a two-year contract to play for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.

The team began 2016-17 by dropping its first two games and showed its significant flaws, most notably on the blue line.

Fast forward to February 10, when owner Mike Ilitch passed away. Ilitch purchased the team in 1982, stockpiling talent at every level, which led to Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. At the time of his death, Detroit held a 22-22-10 record, and there was still a sliver of hope for playoffs in Hockeytown.

Then on March 28, the Red Wings were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Finally on April 9, Detroit defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-1 in the final game in Joe Louis Arena and finished the season with a 33-36-13 record, the franchise's fewest wins in an 82-game season since 1989-90, the only previous time in 25 years Detroit failed to make the playoffs.

Time To Experiment

With the playoff streak in the rearview mirror, the organization is in a position for a top 10 draft pick, Detroit's highest since picking Martin Lapointe at No. 10 in 1991. Should the team be fortunate enough to win the draft lottery -- which takes place on Saturday, April 29 -- or merely land a top three pick, a return to the playoffs could come sooner rather than later.

Any season that ends without a Stanley Cup should be viewed as a disappointment, and with recent first-round exits, the Red Wings organization should be more than disappointed.

Seeing the streak end is a proverbial blessing in disguise for Holland and co., and not having to worry about simply extending postseason berths can allow management to use 2017-18 as a season to experiment.

Taking a season to put everything under the microscope could be good for the organization. Holland, whose contract is up in 2018, can take time to determine the true standing of players, the team, and the value of its prospects.

A Recap Of 2016-17

Even through the darkness of losing the streak, some players shined brightly. Veteran Henrik Zetterberg returned to past form, recording 17 goals and 68 points while leading the team with a plus-15 rating.

Rookie Anthony Mantha established himself as a full-time NHL player, drove possession and scored 17 goals in 60 games. Tomas Tatar came on late to reach the 25-goal plateau with a bum shoulder he is set to have surgery on this offseason. Andreas Athanasiou built on his promising play of 2015-16, recording 18 goals in 64 games while averaging just 13:28 of ice time.

However, the bulk of the Red Wings roster had forgettable seasons, including Danny DeKeyser, Justin Abdelkader, Petr Mrazek, Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, Darren Helm, and Riley Sheahan, whose scoring struggles were well documented.

DeKeyser struggled to live up to the six-year, $30 million deal he signed this past summer, scoring just 12 points and finishing the season with a minus-22 rating. Hindered by injuries Abdelkader also failed to build on the success he saw during 2014-15 and 2015-16, when he scored a combined 44 goals. He is in the first year of a seven-year, $30 million contract.

If Red Wings fans tell you they didn't expect Jimmy Howard to be traded last summer, they're lying. Mrazek dominated the crease this past season and became the clear No. 1 goaltender. At times, he looked like a future Vezina winner. Then on February 14, Mrazek turned 24, and the wheels came off. In his next 14 starts, Mrazek only had six starts above a .900 save percentage, winning just five games in that span.

In 2016-17, Detroit still had Howard on the roster, but Mrazek was pegged as the go-to netminder. The two combined to be Jekyll and Hyde in the crease; Howard played the best hockey of his career, and Mrazek's woes continued. Howard struggled to maintain his health again and given his age, salary, and term, it makes sense for Detroit to give Mrazek the reins next season and hope he can get back to the dominant game he has displayed.

Moving the remaining two years and cap hit of $5.3 million on Howard's contract, while his stock is high, will give the team much needed cap space for the coming years. 

Larkin had a sophomore slump from hell. His play and numbers down the stretch suggest he's better than his overall point output and season totals.     

While Gustav Nyquist still finished second on the team in scoring with 48 points, his 12 goals are far from what the organization and fans expect. His goal totals have dropped in each of the past four seasons.

Just hours prior to free agency opening, Darren Helm signed a five-year, $19.25 million contract to remain in Detroit. The 30-year-old has never scored more than 33 points and continued his unlucky streak of injuries this season, totaling just eight goals and 17 points in 50 games.

Riley Sheahan failed to score a goal until the season finale, in which he potted two. Teams were reportedly all over him at the trade deadline, hinting that GMs saw past his unlucky streak and more toward his career year of 2015-16.

Far too many players have regressed under Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill's watch, and 2017-18 can serve as a year to see if regression recurs and to conclude whether Blashill is the right man for the job.

Expansion Plan

With a weak blue line, the Red Wings will opt for the seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie format next season.

Larkin is exempt. Only Frans Nielsen holds a no-movement clause, which forces his protection. The other six forwards should be Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Justin Abdelkader, Zetterberg, Tatar, and Nyquist.

This is based off of pure asset-management. It doesn't make sense to lose your captain and annual point leader in Zetterberg, nor the promise of Mantha and Athanasiou. Nyquist and Tatar have shown enough flash and offensive ability that losing them for nothing would be devastating to the franchise. Abdelkader is good for roughly 20 goals a season and is by far the grittiest player on a team that struggles to be tough to play against.

On the back end, Danny DeKeyser, Xavier Ouellet, and Nick Jensen deserve protection. While Mike Green is the best puck-mover from the blue line, he is a free agent following 2017-18 and will likely seek a contender for his next contract. The other three are younger, cheaper, and appear to have untapped potential.

In terms of age, promise, and salary, Mrazek is the goalie keeper.

Of the exposed players, Helm, Sheahan, and Green would likely generate the most interest from the Vegas Golden Knights. On a team that has a lot of freedom to build its roster and likely needs a couple years to mold itself, Helm would be locked for four more years at a reasonable salary of $3.85 per year, given his speed, penalty killing ability, and minor offense. Sheahan, 25, is young, big, and has shown offensive flashes that suggest 2016-17 was nothing more than a fluke. While a defensive liability, Green is a tremendous puck-mover and could go a long way if he's surrounded with the right talent.

Moving Forward

Full disclosure: it would be ridiculous for a team to believe all of its draft picks and prospects will pan out and reach the NHL level as full-time players.

Conversely, it would also be ridiculous if none of them panned out. 

While Detroit could realistically use reinforcements at every position, the blue line remains its thinnest area of skill.

Detroit has compiled a solid group of defensive prospects, which includes Vili Saarijarvi, Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts, and Dennis Cholowski. 

At forward, the aforementioned Mantha, Athanasiou, and Larkin have shown enough ability to believe they can be full-time difference-makers for years to come. A strong rookie AHL season from Evgeny Svechnikov, who was drafted in the first round in 2015, translated to a solid showing in his NHL debut this season.

Former second-round pick Tyler Bertuzzi has also shown a high-level of skill at both the AHL and NHL level and brings a gritty, grinding game that's hard to teach and even harder to learn.

With a soon-to-be top 10 pick and good potential for a top three choice, Detroit has another gem of a player on the horizon and could be in for a surprise to find him making an impact as soon as this coming season.  

These up-and-coming players on both ends of the ice could make for an interesting training camp that brings a refreshing look of youth and skill into 2017-18.

Even if none of them finds a spot on the roster to open the season, should the team open up cap space and choose to use the upcoming season to experiment, these players will be just one year closer to the Red Wings roster.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.
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