The most satisfying and most difficult part of any prospect series is to put your money where your mouth is and attempt to have a clean look at what your opening night roster could look like. Part of the issue doing such in the first week of June is there’s a lot of unknowns, and a lot of chances for me to make myself look like an idiot.
I don’t know who we are going to draft in a few weeks and I don’t know if they’ll be NHL ready. Aside from if Hughes or Kakko fall to sixth, this draft is wide open. There’s no right choice or wrong choice realistically in the top 10, although fans will tell you not selecting Bowen (if available) would definitely be wrong.
Who knows what other players could find their way to Detroit through this summer. Ryan Callahan is a distinct possibility to move from Tampa to Detroit for cap relief that Tampa can use to sign Brayden Point. There’s also the chance that Jacob Trouba comes to Detroit from Winnipeg. Of course, some of us can even dream that Panarin or Duchene could be interested in coming to Detroit on a huge discount to make it worthwhile.
With that said, these projections are based mostly on last season. It’s doing what we can with the roster we know will be around, and not stumbling around in the dark with the unknown that have yet to be and may never be.
Evgeny Svechnikov, Taro Hirose, Dominic Turgeon, and Ryan Kuffner. The first three are likely just starting in Grand Rapids to work on their game or get their timing back. Kuffner left a lot to be desired during his short stint in Detroit next year, and needs to prove that he is more than an AHL player. Any one of the first three are interchangeable on this roster, including moving Veleno, Rasmussen, or Abdelkader down.
Jacob de la Rose becomes the depth (13th) forward on this roster to give the younger, scoring forwards more ice time. He’ll likely rotate into the lineup now and then, especially in the occurrence of an injury, and will get a full time spot if any of the prospects don’t live up to the hype early in the season and end up being sent back down to Grand Rapids. It is definitely worth noting that NONE of the prospects currently on this roster are AHL ineligible. The prospects in this system that would have to return to their respective CHL clubs are, in this scenario, preemptively remaining with their CHL clubs.
Down the center is pretty easy in this scenario. Detroit is very much against starting a prospect at the center position, so you can almost know for sure that there isn’t going to be a kid at that position. Larkin, Athanasiou, Nielsen, and Glendening down the middle is the one area where I’m 100% confident I nailed the final draft if there’s no moves to be made involving a center coming in or one of those players going out. The only prospect I see possibly moving to center on a trial basis later this year is Rasmussen.
Line One: Bertuzzi/Larkin/Mantha
Keeping the top line together was an easy solve for me. They were tearing it up last year to end the season. Before he took a shot to the groin, Larkin had a solid Worlds. Mantha had an amazing Worlds with Team Canada, while Bertuzzi didn’t really have a chance to play. Given that it was the one and only line that did terrific last season, especially during the final stretch, I don’t see much logic in dismantling it.
If they remain healthy, Mantha could push for 35-40 goals, Larkin might surpass the 80 point mark, and Bertuzzi could likely slot into the upper 50’s to low 60’s in point production. Bertuzzi might not have the raw talent of Mantha or Larkin, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for in terms of competitive drive. Mickey Redmond continually, and affectionately, refers to Bertuzzi as a “Junkyard Dog”. Bertuzzi wins puck battles, he grinds in the corners, and most importantly creates space and time for scoring forwards to do their thing. If he can add a bit of skill to that list of assets, he could be a staple on the top line for years to come.
Line Two: Helm/Athanasiou/Zadina
Like I said earlier in the article, I’m going off the assumption that no off-season moves are made. I hope to be wrong, but a few boring summers from Ken Holland has me not expecting much. I know this is a new general manager with a track record for making moves, but I’ll appreciate them when they come rather than anticipate them and be disappointed. Darren Helm would usually be at the top of my list of movable veterans to open up more spots for youth.
Darren Helm is featured on this line over a few other possible contenders for the spot for two reasons: 1) There’s a very frequent argument that Athanasiou is better suited for a position on the wing. Putting Darren Helm on this line and keeping the line together (Blashill’s blender is being ignored for this article too) helps maintain line chemistry if Athanasiou is eventually moved back to the wing in favor of Darren Helm at center. 2) Zadina is a highly rated offensive prospect. While his defensive game isn’t exactly in shambles, he and Athanasiou can both be considered to be defensive liabilities. Putting Helm on this line compliments Athanasiou’s speed while also helping to offset the defensive liability of Zadina and Athanasiou without overly compromising their offensive presence with a player like Abdelkader.
Athanasiou being on the second line is the most sensible thing. He scored 30 goals, and it did not appear to be a fluke. The more ice time Athanasiou receives, the more scoring he does. There’s no player currently on the roster (excluding the top line) that is better suited for a top 6 role than Athanasiou. His position as a center is just a continuation of last year, he could be moved to the wing in place of Darren Helm if that’s the scenario that unfolds.
Filip Zadina making the roster is almost guaranteed. A spot in Detroit is Zadina’s to lose at this point, and I don’t anticipate him losing it. He has a long summer to prepare for the chance. Slotting him at the second line makes sense for offensive depth, specifically placing him with Andreas Athanasiou. This roster specifically avoids having more than one prospect on any single line, save the bottom line with Rasmussen and Ehn. Zadina could possibly be better suited with a playmaker like Nielsen, but unlike Nielsen, Zadina will require top six ice time and top six capable players in order to showcase his offensive prowess and be an impact factor in Detroit.
Line Three: Veleno/Nielsen/Abdelkader
Abdelkader being on this line gave me some pause. I’d much rather have Hirose or Svechnikov at this spot without compromising Ehn and Rasmussen both making the roster. But again, we cycle back to the assumption that no off-season roster moves are made. Which includes not buying out, waiving, or trading Nielsen or Abdelkader. I also wanted to continually avoid putting two prospects on the same line. As we all saw in the beginning of the 2018/2019 season, when the majority of our defense was all prospects, it’s usually not a good idea to shove them all into the same spots. This is the primary reason that Rasmussen (or Ehn if he can pick up the offense) are not featured on the third line in this scenario. Abdelkader might have had a disappointing season last year, but he isn’t completely useless. Perhaps Joe Veleno can put on his best Henrik Zetterberg impression and use Abdelkader as an extension to the post.
Veleno being on the third line is a calculated move. While I’d love to see he and Zadina develop chemistry, that experiment is better suited for a power play. Even strength lines have to be well composed, and having two rookies on the same line is going to lead to a lot of defensive problems that we don’t need to add to the already existing defensive problems. I’m also under the impression that, while he starts in Detroit, Veleno isn’t going to stay there. He’s going to need to practically run the offense for this line. Nielsen is a decent playmaker but he isn’t as good as he used to be, and Abdelkader relies almost entirely on his linesmates to produce offense. Unless Veleno can be good enough in his NHL debut to somehow revitalize the careers of Nielsen and Abdelkader, he’ll likely be returned to Grand Rapids at some point in favor of Svechnikov or Hirose.
Nielsen on this line makes sense to me for the previously stated reasons. He’s not completely useless, but he’s not going to surpass Larkin or Athanasiou on the depth chart. In fact, he’s probably going to be passed sooner or later by Rasmussen for the third line center position. Putting him here to start makes the most sense between Veleno and Abdelkader, as he can take the majority of the faceoffs and use his playmaking ability and hockey sense to assist Veleno in his development while he’s with Detroit.
Line Four: Rasmussen/Glendening/Ehn
I’m going to show my favoritism flag when I tell you that Glendening is one of my favorite players in Detroit. While he does contribute, he’s not an offensive player. But what he lacks in offense he makes up for in pure play. He cycles the forecheck, he wins puck battles. He hits, he defends. He is one of the most ideal penalty killers and fourth line centers in the league and I will never regret saying that.
Ehn being on this line makes sense given his role. While he’ll have diminished ice time, he can make up for the lack of even strength time on ice with a penalty killing role. He started to show a bit of offensive prowess at the end of the season, and continued it in Grand Rapids during their short playoff run. If Ehn can kill penalties, stabilize the bottom line with Glendening, and still throw up 10 or so goals in a season, Detroit will be in business.
Rasmussen is placed on the fourth line instead of being placed in Grand Rapids in this scenario. For the first time, realistically, Rasmussen is going to get a long summer to work on himself. He’s going to build muscle, he’s going to train, and he’s going to come back better at his role. If he doesn’t do any of those things, he will eventually be scratched in favor of de la Rose, before being sent back to Grand Rapids. If he does do those things, he could likely move up in the forward units, and will be a major factor on the second power play unit. Rasmussen is the most interchangeable prospect to make the roster in my estimation. I could imagine Svechnikov making it over him, or possibly even Hirose. There’s a lot riding on camp for all these prospects, and Rasmussen could end up developing in Grand Rapids even if he starts the season in Detroit.
The defense in Detroit for this roster outlook reads like a straight up depth chart. The top of the depth chart at LD/RD will all make the roster.
Who’s Missing: McIsaac, Lindstrom, Kaski, Saarijarvi
McIsaac is back to Halifax. Lindstrom and Saarijarvi are likely AHL bound for the entire year. Kaski will at least start in Grand Rapids. Depending on how quickly he can become reacquainted with North American ice and how well he dominates the minor leagues, he could be up at some point. Especially in the event of injuries (hard to imagine after last year that there won’t be plenty of opportunities with that) or trades (Green, Daley, Ericsson all pending UFAs). This also has the assumption that Kronwall AND Witkowski both aren’t brought back, and Trevor Daley becomes the healthy scratch.
Top Pair: DeKeyser / Green
In the pairings I chose, there is no true rookie pair. The top pairing is the most veteran of the three, with Green and DeKeyser having over 1200 games of NHL experience between them. There might be some debate, given Hronek’s progression, that Mike Green might not be able to hold the title of top RD this season. There is little to no competition for DeKeyser as Detroit’s top LD unless Cholowski can really step it up this offseason.
That said, there’s little reason to not imagine this as Detroit’s top pair. While it’s still not as strong as other top defensive pairings around the league, prospects are still developing and not ready to completely take over the reins in Detroit. I don’t imagine the ice time between the top pair and the second pair to be too far apart. DeKeyser is an easy selection for top LD, while Green is going to have to fight off Hronek for his spot as the top RD.
Second Pair: Ericsson / Hronek
Again, and I feel I have to state this frequently, this entire article is done under the roster as it stands now. It is not taking into account any moves Yzerman might make. So Ericsson is still here, Kronwall is not, and unfortunately that makes Ericsson our verified second LD. Cholowski still has to prove that he has progressed during camp to overtake that position. Until he does, Ericsson is going to unfortunately stay.
The good part about this pairing is Filip Hronek. I’ve praised Hronek frequently in previous articles, and I will continue to praise him here. Hronek is our top defensive prospect, and he’ll likely be battling Mike Green for the top spot at RD. Until he outperforms Green, he’s slotted here on the second pair to try and supplement the failures of Ericsson. This could actually be a serviceable pair in the long term, assuming Ericsson isn’t bought-out or waived with a year left in his contract. What Ericsson lacks, Hronek makes up for. Ericsson could also help alleviate Hronek’s pure defensive responsibilities with his physicality, allowing Hronek to free up his ice time for leading the rush and moving the puck.
Third Pair: Cholowski / Bowey
In my defensive article for Projecting the Prospects, I mentioned on the likeliness that Cholowski starts in Grand Rapids. He’s here due to the lack of moves made so far this summer (albeit the buyout window hasn’t even opened yet). If Kronwall does not return and Ericsson stays, Cholowski makes Detroit simply due to the lack of depth options on the left side, and will likely rotate with Trevor Daley at the position. Daley prefers the right side, but the right side is suddenly pretty deep with talent.
Bowey might also rotate in and out with Daley on the right side, depending on how well he performs in his first full season with Detroit. He played a little under 20 games for the Wings last season, and he quickly became comfortable with his position there. I don’t imagine him not making the roster out of camp, and he’ll have this year to prove himself valuable to Detroit. If he could battle his way to maintain the third RD, he could be signed to a decent contract. That’s going to be on his mind when performing. Assuming at some point Green is traded and Hronek officially takes over the top pair’s RD position, Bowey could move up to the second spot. There’s a lot of potential for movement on the back end this season.
Howard starts. Bernier is backup. There won’t be any change there, as there are no prospects ready to take a step into the NHL, nor are there any free agent acquisitions likely for Detroit for goaltending, unless it’s to help reinforce Grand Rapids in the event that Rybar is not brought back. With the limited amount of goaltenders that play for a team at any given level, goaltending is already set for next year at the NHL, AHL, and ECHL levels. The only exception to that is between the AHL and ECHL starter positions. Fulcher may get the ECHL position if Nagle is not brought back, and Grand Rapids is going to be in need of a starter as Sateri already signed in the KHL. This won’t affect Detroit’s prospects, as Larsson is already projected to be the backup in Grand Rapids and Fulcher will take over the crease in Toledo.
This is simply the roster as is currently. One single signing or one single trade could drastically shake up this entire outlook. As it stands, any prospect could make the roster or fail to make the roster. The only prospects that I am 100% sure will make Detroit are Zadina and Hronek. This is simply the first wave of Detroit’s future starting to mingle with Detroit’s present, with Steve Yzerman manning the wheel.
Stevie has also stated several times that he has no intention of making a “big splash” in Free Agency this summer. Rumblings of a trade for Trouba came and went, with Hronek being asked for by Winnipeg and Yzerman quickly taking him off the table. You can track Yzerman’s moves as a GM to attempt to predict what he’ll do next, but Detroit is an entirely different beast to what he inherited in Tampa Bay.
All in all, #LGRW.
– Jesse L
Featured Image Photo Credit: NHL.com