There is some skill waiting in the Wings. Not enough yet, obviously, and it’s fair to wonder whether any of these timelines will overlap in a way that produces a legitimate playoff team at some point.
But at least there’s something worth watching now. And maybe even cheering, as a few thousand fans did Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena in the Red Wings’ preseason home opener.
Lucas Raymond, Detroit’s top pick in last year’s draft, made his much-anticipated NHL debut in the 6-2 exhibition win over Buffalo. He scored an unassisted goal on his first shift of the second period, added an assist late in the game and finished the night plus-3 in what was essentially the first act of his final audition for the bosses.
For the 19-year-old Swedish winger, it was solid start to his first pro season in North America, regardless of what head coach Jeff Blashill and general manager Steve Yzerman ultimately decide to do with their 23-man roster ahead of the regular-season opener Oct. 14 against Tampa Bay. (Odds are, he’ll spend most of it Grand Rapids, so don’t get your hopes up.)
“He did a good job,” Blashill said, making note of Raymond’s smarts and his two-way ability — the sort of things that can help a young player force his way into an NHL lineup ahead of schedule.
But what’s also clear a couple weeks before the puck drops on Blashill’s seventh season behind the Wings’ bench — and Yzerman’s third season in charge of filling it with players — is that their job isn’t getting any easier.
There’s more young talent worth keeping an eye on this preseason, certainly. More players who could conceivably be part of a playoff push a couple years from now as well. But there are still far more question marks than answers if you’re trying to find a bridge from here to there.
Blashill felt compelled to remind everyone in his postgame media session Thursday that this was still the preseason, “so you take everything with a grain of salt.” It’s probably a spoonful, if we’re being honest. Especially against the Sabres, a team likely to finish last in the NHL again this season.
Still, for a roster in the midst of a major rebuild — and one that already has some serious injury concerns — there were a few hopeful signs. Starting up front, where Blashill, who admittedly lacks the “pure high-end guys” some other coaches can send over the boards — in Toronto and Edmonton and Colorado, for example — but does have something to work with here.
The Wings’ record won’t improve much, if at all, without a full healthy season from center Dylan Larkin (neck) and winger Tyler Bertuzzi (back), neither of whom will see much ice time this preseason. And the loss of Jakub Vrana through the winter — Blashill announced Thursday he’ll miss at least four months following shoulder surgery — robs this roster of its best goal scorer.
That’s half of the team’s top-six forward pool right there, obviously. So it’s not hard to envision a scenario where this thing goes nowhere fast for Blashill & Co. this winter, and Wings fans again turn their attention to the draft lottery and the Shane Wright sweepstakes.
But watching Thursday’s game you could see something else as well. And it wasn’t the same-old thing, either. It was a pair of second-chance 25-year-olds in Pius Suter and Robby Fabbri generating scoring chances — and a little optimism — with their play on that line with Raymond.
Suter is the Swiss center who was one of Yzerman’s low-key free-agent signings in July coming off a breakout season with the Blackhawks, who oddly passed on re-signing him. And after a strong start in training camp, he continued to impress Thursday, playing nearly 20 minutes and finishing with three assists. He won faceoffs — Luke Witkowski scored directly off one of those — and put shots on goal (five) and played the sort of 200-foot game that’ll be required of a second-line center on a nightly basis.
Can Suter reliably fill that role? His track record — and the predictive stats — suggest he probably won’t, but he’ll get a shot here, nonetheless.
“He’s been impressive so far,” Blashill said. “He’s smart, he’s a playmaker, he’s strong on his stick for a guy who’s a bit undersized. He can play the power play and the penalty kill. So he’s got a lot of attributes.”
Suter, who spent five seasons playing professionally in Switzerland after taking an early crack at the NHL, also seems to have a good chemistry with Fabbri, a long-ago junior teammate who scored a pair of goals Thursday and looks rejuvenated after a frustrating 2020 season that started with COVID list and ended with a concussion.
“The biggest thing I’d say with Fabbs is he has been outstanding from his compete level — absolutely outstanding,” Blashill said. “He trained here all summer, and I think he’s got his body in the best spot it’s probably been in since he’s been a pro.”
What that means for the Red Wings’ future is impossible to say, of course. Fabbri, one of Yzerman’s early trade acquisitions two seasons ago, is among eight players on the projected 23-man roster scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He could be a trade chip at the deadline, or he could be a player who earns an extension with his play.
What it means for the moment, however, is that Blashill at least has some options as he searches for that elusive secondary scoring. The Wings are hoping for big developmental steps from the likes of Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen this season, but that’s far from guaranteed. Same goes for the others, whether it’s a veteran like Bobby Ryan — as seems likely to start this season — or a rookie like Raymond.
“Sutes is a guy who can make some plays, Fabbs is a guy who can score,” Blashill said. “We’ll find somebody to play on that right side, just like we’ll find somebody with Dylan and Bert. I think they’re lines that can create offense.”
We’ll find out soon enough who gets the first shot, and then we’ll see how long the optimism lasts. But as Red Wings fans are learning the hard way, you’ve got to start somewhere.