Red Wings position breakdown: Internal improvement key to forwards sparking offense

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-day series, as The Detroit News takes a closer look at each position group in the Red Wings’ organization. Today: Forwards.

Detroit — The Red Wings haven’t been able to score enough goals to be competitive for several seasons.

It was a key reason the Wings were only 19-27-10 this season, given the fact they scored 127 goals (only Anaheim’s 126 were fewer).

If the Wings are to improve next season, it’s going to take a better offensive attack. The Wings feel they can ignite that, even by staying put to a certain extent, via internal improvement.

There’s a lengthy list of young forwards on the current roster, and those about to be promoted to NHL duty, who could quickly jumpstart the offense.

“Obviously our one area we need to address, need to get better at, is we need to score more goals and improve offensively,” general manager Steve Yzerman said during his end-of-season media session. “That is easier said than done. The biggest part of that is having players that have the ability to produce. Over the course of the season there was a lot of progress made collectively as a team.

“I am hopeful our younger players can generate a little bit more offense. With the players that have been here for a while, I expect them to score more than they did this year. Personnel-wise, can Adam Erne generate a little bit more offense? Can Filip Zadina score a little bit more? Can Robby Fabbri and Dylan Larkin generate a little bit more offense?

“Collectively, we need to score more.”

Add to those players, the likely graduation to the NHL of Joe Veleno, Lucas Raymond, Jonatan Berggren, this year’s possible first-round pick, plus other recent forward draft picks in college and junior hockey, and the Wings have optimism.

But for now, the forward unit has to improve, one way or another.

Yzerman likely will sift through the free-agent market to strengthen the lineup. Not everyone from the Wings’ own unrestricted free agents will be brought back. Trades are also an option.

But much of the improvement in this position group, the Wings feel, can be attained by internal improvement, experience, and time.

Here are where the Red Wings’ forwards in the organization, under pro contracts, stand heading into the offseason:

Unrestricted free agents

Valtteri Filppula: This proud, classy veteran didn’t sulk when playing time was cut, and was a fine teammate. Filppula, at 37, could be seeing his career come to an end.

Sam Gagner: Gagner didn’t provide the offense the Wings envisioned, but he was efficient defensively and was a positive influence on the wave of young players. For the right price, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gagner re-signed.

Luke Glendening: One of the unquestioned leaders on this roster, and also one of the best faceoff men in the NHL. Though a UFA, Glendening doesn’t want to leave, and the Wings want to bring him back.

More: Luke Glendening becoming a valuable player Red Wings can’t afford to lose

Darren Helm: This will be interesting. Helm is a longtime, proud Red Wing who has done his job well, including being part of a consistent checking line last season. But open roster spots are few, and the Wings might want to phase youngsters into the lineup. As a UFA, Helm will get offers elsewhere.

Bobby Ryan: This classy veteran was a terrific sounding board for young players, and showed he could still score goals early on. But Ryan’s production slowed, and an arm injury ended his season early. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wings re-sign Ryan, but you wonder if a contending team might be a better fit this late in his career.

More: Future uncertain for three veteran Red Wings forwards

Under contract

Berggren: Berggren is likely to start in Grand Rapids in October after collecting 45 points in 49 games in Sweden this past season. Injuries have slowed Berggren during his young career, but his performance in recent months have solidified his standing in the organization.

Tyler Bertuzzi: Bertuzzi only played nine games before back surgery ended his season. The Wings missed his versatility and production. When Bertuzzi returns, evidently at the start of the next season, will he be the same player? Back issues can be troublesome.

More: Red Wings’ Tyler Bertuzzi looking forward, not back, after painful season

Erne: What a turnaround. After a team-leading 11-goal season, Erne went from being possibly being exposed in the expansion draft, to being a key player in the rebuild going forward. When playing with confidence, Erne can be an offensive weapon with his size and skill.

Fabbri: This will be a big season for Fabbri, who can be an UFA in the summer of 2022. When healthy, Fabbri can be a useful offensive player who hasn’t lost any of his skills despite some major knee injuries. With so many Wings prospects reaching the NHL soon, Fabbri could be dangled at the trade deadline.

Larkin: The unquestioned leader of this team, Larkin continued to evolve into an elite two-way center. But, whether it was from having no stable linemates, or not having Bertuzzi on his wing, or putting emphasis on the defensive side of the rink, Larkin’s offensive production went down. The Wings will need more offense next season.

Vladislav Namestnikov: It’ll be interesting to see whether Namestnikov is protected from the expansion draft. Namestnikov came as advertised, enabling coach Jeff Blashill to use him in a variety of ways, but at age 28, it’s debatable whether Namestnikov is part of the long-term future.

Frans Nielsen: Nielsen is a definite candidate to be bought out of the final year of his contract ($5.25 million cap hit next season) in the coming weeks. But at the same time, the way the classy veteran carries himself, letting young players see Nielsen’s example might be worth the remaining one year on the deal.

Richard Panik: Acquired in the Anthony Mantha trade, Panik has two more seasons left at a $2.75 million cap hit. He might be able to somewhat plug into Helm’s role, if Helm doesn’t return.

Michael Rasmussen: Rasmussen made one of the biggest jumps of any young player on the roster. showing glimpses of the big, shutdown center the Wings have long envisioned. Playing with a bit of an edge to his game, also, Rasmussen’s future seems bright.

Lucas Raymond: Some learning time in Grand Rapids likely will be needed, but eventually Raymond will have the chance to show why he is one of the most heralded prospects currently outside of the NHL.

Givani Smith: The Wings either must keep Smith at the start of next season, or expose him to waivers. There’s also the question of whether to protect him for the expansion draft. Given his potential and the glimpses of his rugged play last season at the NHL level, Smith likely will get a full-time chance next season.

Evgeny Svechnikov: A restricted free agent, it’s likely the Wings will let Svechnikov walk and not extend a contract. It’s probably best for both sides. Svechnikov gets a fresh chance somewhere else, and the Wings have a line of prospects about to reach the NHL.

Joe Veleno: He’s an exciting young prospect displayed a stronger, NHL-caliber body and terrific two-way hockey sense in a late-season NHL promotion. There’s growing confidence Veleno could be an important piece of the rebuild for a long time.

Jakub Vrana: The main piece returning from Washington in the Mantha trade, Vrana certainly didn’t disappoint, with eight goals in 11 games with the Wings. A pure, talented goal-scorer, Vrana also showed a willingness to play a sound defensive game. The only question now whether Vrana can do it over 82 games?

Zadina: The six goals and 19 points over 49 games was disappointing, but the overall game, the impressive work defensively, hounding pucks, was quite impressive. Zadina will be a key player going forward, but it’ll be interesting to see whether he’s the 25- to 30-goal-scorer scouts envisioned.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tkulfan

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