As American Thanksgiving and the holiday season are upon us, PHR is taking a look at what teams are thankful for in 2022-23. There also might be a few things your team would like down the road. We’ll examine what’s gone well in the early going and what could improve as the season rolls on for the Detroit Red Wings.
Who are the Red Wings thankful for?
The answer to this question isn’t all that original or innovative as Yzerman happened to be who the Red Wings were thankful for in 2020 and 2021. But, take a look at Detroit’s place in the standings, their offseason, and their recent draft history and it’s not too difficult to see why Detroit is thankful for Yzerman and his “Yzer-plan.”
Considering Yzerman was covered in our previous two iterations of this series, we’ll take a look at what the legendary player turned legendary executive has done in the time being. Looking back at last year’s trade deadline, the then-promising Red Wings looked to be turning a corner in their rebuild, but still weren’t in contention for a playoff spots. Yzerman dealt Vladislav Namestnikov and Troy Stecher for later-round draft picks and executed a blockbuster deal including one of the deadline’s prized assets: Nick Leddy.
In exchange for the UFA-t0-be and Luke Witkowski, Yzerman brought back a second-round pick, defenseman Jake Walman and forward Oskar Sundqvist. Walman and Sundqvist have dealt with their share of injuries since arriving in Detroit, but both have fit in nicely and have proven to be part of the solution. While they’re not superstars, the pair of players in addition to a second-round pick in a deep 2023 draft class represents incredible value for a pending UFA who was, at the time, struggling.
Fast forward to this summer, the Red Wings ready to finish the rebuild and playoff aspirations on the mind, Yzerman made himself one of the busiest executives of the offseason. Detroit first acquired the rights to goaltender Ville Husso, who has been fantastic thus far, and signed him to a three-year contract. The team followed the Husso acquisition with a free agent spending spree that included the likes of Andrew Copp, Dominik Kubalik, and David Perron up front and Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta, Robert Hagg, and Mark Pysyk on defense.
The recent additions, combined with Detroit’s established stars like Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, along with a young wave of talent like Lucas Raymond and reigning Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider, as well as a few breakouts helped propel the Red Wings to an 11-5-4 record thus far, putting them in playoff position. Detroit has plenty of people to thank for the turn-around, but sitting at the top is the boss in Yzerman.
What are the Red Wings thankful for?
Breakouts and Rebounds
Three seasons ago, winger Dominik Kubalik finished third in Calder voting, seemingly coming out of nowhere as a 24-year-old rookie, scoring 30 goals in just 68 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. That was the last Chicago team to make the playoffs and as the team regressed, so did Kubalik, who hadn’t yet come close to matching his rookie production since.
Things seemed to hit an all-time low for Kubalik in the NHL last season, putting up just 32 points in 78 games, a far cry form his 30 goals (and 46 points) in fewer games just two years prior. The rebuilding Blackhawks opted not to qualify Kubalik and he hit the free agent market this summer, picked up on a two-year deal. Now, Detroit appears to have one of the best value contracts in the entire sport.
The organization seems to have that rookie version of Kubalik, or maybe something better. Now 27, Kubalik has 21 points, nine goals and 12 assists, in just 20 games thus far. Coming into today, Kubalik ranks second on the team in points, behind only Larkin. Whether or not Kubalik can maintain this level of production is a good question, especially being that the team is only through 20 games, but what he has done has played a major part in the team being in a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving, a team that also ranked just 17th in the NHL in goals-for coming into today.
On top of Kubalik’s rebound, the Red Wings have seen an impressive breakout from homegrown defenseman Filip Hronek. Now 25, Hronek made his debut back in 2018-19 and has shown to be a capable puck-mover on the backend. Hronek hit a career-high 38 points in 78 games last season, around his average point-per-game total for his career. This season, however, the defenseman has turned things to another level, netting six goals to go with 12 assists for 18 points through his first 20 games.
As helpful as Hronek’s offensive boost has been for Detroit, he’s also taken the next step in his defensive game. The defenseman had compiled a career -95 plus/minus rating, which included a -29 last season. Now in 2021-22, Hronek has improved his rating, registering a +10 so far. Those numbers could be attributed to team performance in many instances, and though the jump in Red Wings performance from Hronek’s first four years to this one is significant, the stark difference in Hronek’s own numbers is telling nonetheless. On top of his plus/minus, Hronek’s possession metrics have jumped modestly as well, including Corsi and Fenwick ratings above 50 for the first time since his rookie year.
What would the Red Wings be even more thankful for?
As successful as Detroit has been this season, the team has had to do it without a number of players for fairly significant periods of time. Notably, Bertuzzi missed 13 games, Sundqvist seven, and exciting rookie Elmer Soderblom has missed seven and counting too. Winger Filip Zadina, who was injured November 5th is expected to be out long-term as well. Robby Fabbri, who has yet to play this year, as well as Matt Luff and Mark Pysyk are currently on IR
Sure, Bertuzzi and Sundqvist are back now, and Soderblom and Zadina combined for two points in 22 games, both from Soderblom, however the constant shuffling of lines and players in and out of the lineup does still serve to hamper team chemistry on the ice. On top of this, although the team didn’t expect to have Fabbri to start this season, Detroit could stand to have more offense and losing a player such as Fabbri, who had 30 points in 56 games in 2021-22, is felt.
Worth noting to this end is forward Jakub Vrana, who has played just two games this season. Vrana is not injured, but is instead participating in the Players’ Assistance Program. Of course, the organization’s first priority is to get Vrana the help he needs and to have the 26-year-old take as much time as he needs to get it and be comfortable returning, however Vrana’s missed production, in addition to the Red Wings’ bulk of injuries, serves to compound the injury and offense issues.
What’s on the Red Wings holiday wishlist?
A Larkin extension in place
Like Yzerman in the first question, this seems a bit easy, but it’s hard to imagine the front office, the players, and the fans want much else more than signing their superstar captain to a long-term extension.
The last time the Red Wings made the playoffs, Larkin was a rookie fresh off a 45 point debut. That was 2015-16 and since, Detroit and Larkin have failed to make the playoffs. In that time, the team has gone through a meaningful and much needed rebuild, with Larkin patient throughout. For his career, Larkin has diligently worked on his game to become an all-around contributor and roughly a point-per-game player now, currently on pace for his best season yet with 23 points in 20 games.
The Red Wings have plenty of talent on their team besides Larkin and have even more coming, however his presence as a Michigan native, team captain, and well-rounded player on the ice cannot be understated for Detroit. There’s no indication Larkin wants to leave and given his status in the locker room and Yzerman’s reputation as an executive, it wouldn’t be surprising if the two sides are intentionally not focused on negotiations at the moment with plenty at stake on the ice. Still, getting Larkin signed would presumably give both team and player peace of mind and allow the team to continue to build as they see fit, without worrying about Larkin’s future, and whether or not that’s in Detroit.