With NHL season on horizon, Detroit Red Wings face mountain of questions

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Jeff Blashill was at his office at Little Caesars Arena, eager to turn the conversation from theory to practice.

“I can’t wait till we have a game to talk about,” he said Wednesday.

He has about another month to wait before the pandemic-shortened 2021 NHL season will get underway, at which point it will have been 10 months since the Detroit Red Wings last played. Wings players have been skating at LCA for about 10 days, and Blashill and his assistants tend to their work in the coaches’ offices.

While the NHL and the NHL Players Association have agreed on finances, there’s still much more to sort out before the training camp begins in late December.

Here are highlights from Blashill’s interview with the Free Press.

Shorter season, same challenge

According to reports from Canadian sports sites TSN and Sportsnet, the aim is to stage a 56-game season. Travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada will force geographical realignment, with the Wings expected to be in a division with Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Florida and Tampa Bay.

“We talk about the importance of every single game, and that becomes magnified when you’re in a season with not as many games,” Blashill said. “Our focus will continue to be on us to improve on a daily basis, and that doesn’t change if it 56 games, or 48 games, or 100 games. Our focus will be on getting better every single day.”

[Predicting which young prospects Detroit Red Wings will be on team in 2021-22 ]

Who will be available?

One concern is what the team will look like. “What does our squad look like as we do begin the regular season,” Blashill said. “What’s the roster limit? Are we allowed to carry extra players? Those issues are being discussed.

“Whatever the number of players are, we are going to have to find ways to have scrimmages, and get our guys back to playing in tight areas and the things you can’t replicate when you’re skating in the summer. I think our guys are extremely hungry to practice and play and get going.”

Blashill said the Wings plan on bringing back everyone loaned to Europe (a list that includes Filip Zadina and Filip Hronek) except in the Swedish Hockey League, which only accepted players made available for the entire season. That means Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno will not be available.

[That time the Detroit Red Wings made Steve Yzerman cry ]

Working during pandemic

The Wings follow safety protocols set forth by the NHL, and by the state.

“A big piece of it is wearing masks and when can, space out properly, making sure we’re at least 6 feet apart,” Blashill said. “I think our guys have done a good job of that. Guys understand the importance of wearing a mask, the diminished viral role that happens because of that. So we are wearing masks, social distancing and being real good with our hygiene, making sure we wash our hands. All the simple things that you can do to stay safe, our guys have done that.”

Coaches can’t run practices until camp begins, so the players skating at LCA are running their own scrimmages.

Will we see a C?

Dylan Larkin was earmarked to be named captain before the start of the 2019-20 season, but that was when Ken Holland was the general manager. When Steve Yzerman took the job, he decided he wanted to get to know his players before making the decision. In May, Yzerman said he anticipated naming a captain before the 2020-21 season, but that was before it became clear the season would have to start without fans at games. Will that affect the decision?

“Steve and I talked about it at that time,” Blashill said. “We haven’t had that conversation in a little bit, so I would just leave that statement sit as it was.”

The team held news conferences when Yzerman was named captain in 1986, and again when Henrik Zetterberg was named captain in 2013. For Nicklas Lidstrom, he was announced as the new captain on opening night in 2006, drawing a standing ovation.

Better depth

The 2021 Wings will look different than the team that finished last season 17-49-5. There are fresh faces in forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan; defensemen Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill; and goaltender Thomas Greiss.

One of the issues that plagued the Wings last season was they basically had one scoring line. Anthony Mantha spent six weeks recovering from a punctured lung, and if it wasn’t him sitting in sick bay, it was Zadina or Andreas Athanasiou, who was traded to Edmonton in February.

“We hope there are guys who find their scoring touch, or new guys to add to it,” Blashill said. “What I know for sure is, we need more out of each line. We certainly cannot be a one-line team and expect to win. Part of that is I have to make sure I give opportunity to the other lines — opportunity generally means ice time — to go out and win their shifts and produce.

“The one thing I know we need more out of lines up front, and we need more depth offensively. Certainly we have ideas of how we’d like the lineup to go. But we have to be ready for the potential some of our guys not being available based on the obstacles we are going to face, the obstacle behind the coronavirus.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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