Detroit Red Wings mailbag: How Steve Yzerman, Jeff Blashill gauge players progress

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James | Detroit Free Press

General manager Steve Yzerman made low-key moves to inject more competitiveness into the Detroit Red Wings, who were affected by the pandemic shortly after the season began.

That’s left the Wings near the bottom of the NHL standings. But nobody outside the locker room considered the 2021 team would be in the playoffs. This was going to be another rebuilding year — and next season will, too. To be a contender, they need growth from key rebuilding blocks: Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha, Filip Zadina, Filip Hronek and more.

That’s the subject of this mailbag, with a question from Larry B.: “Both Yzerman and (head coach Jeff) Blashill talk about improvement being the most important aspect for the team. So what statistics, and levels, should we expect to see that show improvement as a team, and what stats/analytics should we expect to see that show improvement for both players just getting into their prime (i.e., Larkin, Mantha, etc.) and players in the development phase (i.e., Zadina, Hronek, Michael Rasmussen, etc.)”

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The Wings entered the season expecting to improve on last season’s last-place finish thanks to newcomers in goaltender Thomas Greiss, defensemen Marc Staal, Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher, and forwards Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov. But one week in, the Wings lost five regulars to COVID-19, including Zadina and Robby Fabbri, while Bertuzzi, Jonathan Bernier, and Luke Glendening all have missed time because of injuries. That’s left the Wings reeling.

So why not turn the team over to the young players, rather than play veterans? The Wings’ philosophy hasn’t changed under Yzerman: young players need to be ready to play in the NHL. And their ability to do so is judged on several levels.

“It’s an organization outlook, and so certainly Steve has a say in what the expectations are for our players,” Blashill said. “They are certainly in line with what mine are, and that is that we continue to try to learn to play the right way. I know that’s kind of a vague term. So what does that mean?

“That means not being careless with the puck. Managing the puck. Finding the balance between making plays with the puck, which offensive players have to do, and yet managing it; not turning it over at our blue line, not turning it over at their blue line, not trying to force things that aren’t there. That’s a growth aspect. That would be one area.

“How each player checks — is he continuing to grow defensively, to where they are hard to play against because they are checking well, not giving up easy chances. How your work ethic and compete is every day. Those are kind of the main areas that we have to make sure we are growing these guys.”

Those tenants speak to why Yzerman named Larkin captain. Larkin began the season with eight points in 10 games. He’s tailed off a bit, but Larkin’s work ethic is rarely in question. Anthony Mantha had seven points after 12 games, and there was enough frustration with his effort he was made a healthy scratch for a game.

“There’s going to be times you produce at higher levels and times you don’t produce at higher levels, but that’s not going to dictate our outlook on their growth,” Blashill said. “Our outlook on their growth is going to be managing the puck, because every good team does; playing good defensively, because every good team does; and working and competing. If you have those four components — you show me a championship team that doesn’t. Every championship team I’ve ever seen, they have those components. They manage the puck, they defend well, and they work and compete.

“That’s ultimately what the end goal is here. So, with Dylan, and Anthony and Filip Zadina and Filip Hronek and any other player we have, we want to make sure they are learning long term to play the right way and have those championship components.”

More: Here’s what Detroit Red Wings’ Filip Zadina may have unlocked while playing in Europe

Zadina showed that growth during a 28-game stretch with the Wings last season, and looked even better after spending last autumn playing in the Czech Republic. Taro Hirose has been in and out of the lineup, but when Fabbri and Zadina returned from a two-week COVID quarantine, it gave the Wings an influx of power play guys (Hirose is not a penalty killer). Rasmussen joined the lineup after Fabbri was lost to COVID-19 after the opening weekend, but the Wings want Rasmussen to emerge as a shutdown center, and he has a better chance to grow into that role with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“With Ras, organizationally, we feel like if he can become a center that can play against the other team’s best, similarly to what Jordan Staal does, who is a heck of a player, so that is a mouthful to ask him to become that,” Blashill said. “But if he can become in that kind of model, that is a huge asset. And he’s not there yet in the NHL. And the NHL is not a place to learn it. You’re way better off learning in the American league.”

Defenseman Dennis Cholowski, a first-round pick from 2016, began the season on the taxi squad but was assigned to the Griffins when the AHL season began. He’s an NHL-caliber skater, but he hasn’t shown the growth needed in his assertiveness and puck management.

“With (Ras) and Dennis and any young player, you can’t just come and fit in,” Blashill said. “Ultimately you have to show that you are making us better. It’s not good enough to show well, I can kind of play and help us lose — that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for our young players to grow to a level where they come in and help us win. That’s what the really good players do. When he is ready to do that, he will show that.

“I use the words,’ look like you don’t belong in the AHL.’ That’s what the real prospects that play in the American league do. They stand out. They look like they don’t belong. That’s what both Rasmussen and Cholowski have to do. At some point, they have to turn potential into reality. That’s a big factor. At some point, you have to show what you have.”

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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