Red Wings: Is Mitchell Stephens a Transitional Piece?

Octopus Thrower

The Detroit Red Wings roster is starting to take shape as the regular season approaches, and Mitchell Stephens seems to have found a role as the fourth line center for the team. Is it only a matter of time before Joe Veleno takes his spot or can Stephens secure his position through the entire season?

Age: 24
Center
First Year With the Red Wings
Goals: 0
Assists: 1
CF%: 31.2
Pts/60: 0.9
ixG: 0.23
GAR: -2.7
(Advanced Stats Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey)

Last Season With the Tampa Bay Lightning

Stephens had a very tough year with the Lightning last season. The stats are pretty ugly to look at – his goals above replacement and corsi-for are among the lowest for Detroit’s entire roster (only based on the 2020-21 season). He struggled to create any sort of offense on the bottom line; even on a very good hockey team.

The season went from bad to worse when Stephens went down with a lower-body injury in late January and sat out a good chunk of the season. Before heading back to Tampa, Stephens had a short stretch of conditioning with the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s minor league team. He actually looked excellent in his return to play, notching eight points in just four games (one goal and seven assists),

Between the NHL and the AHL, Stephens only played in 11 games last season. It’s hard to truly judge him on such a limited performance, especially considering he’s young and had to fight for a spot on the best team in the league. He seems to have recovered well from injury, but again, such a limited showcase make accurate judgements hard.

Best Case Scenario This Season

Stephens is clearly the best center for Detroit’s fourth line. Even as prospects vie for his roster spot, he continues his own development cycle; his skillset as a two-way center is especially accelerated, as he finds success as a good fit in Jeff Blashill’s scheme. While he doesn’t improve his shot, he uses his speed and playmaking to begin contributing offensively, mostly relying on his teammates to finish or create opportunities that his safe play allows for. Stephen’s line mates are most happy with his performance, as the stable center lets his wingers do most of the offensive damage. He also finds success as the second center on the penalty kill, right behind Pius Suter.

Worst Case Scenario

Stephens is beaten out by Joe Veleno for the fourth line center spot and he’s slotted down to the role of the 13th forward/a regularly scratched member of the regular roster. He can’t seem to battle his way into a meaningful role on a mediocre (albeit competitive) roster. Stephen’s moves on from Detroit after his contract expires in order to find a spot on an NHL roster.

The Prediction Part

Stephens is the day one fourth line center for the Red Wings and he does essentially what’s expected of him. While he won’t provide much in terms of offense, he’ll play just consistent enough and just safe enough to provide his wingers with stability down the middle, which will in turn allow his line mates to take a few risks. Stephens will be deployed like any other fourth liner in the league, preserving leads or keeping games close with low-risk play that fits well into Blashill’s system. However, later in the season, it’ll become harder and harder to ignore the noise that Veleno is making in Grand Rapids and Stephens’ role as the center for Detroit’s bottom line is eventually usurped. He still provides an important ability as a depth piece in a position that isn’t especially strong on the roster, but he won’t end the season as a starter – at least in his previous role.

Possibility of Becoming a Trade Deadline Target: Unlikely

Stephens is just not the type of player that gets a lot of attention at the deadline. Even if he has a solid start to the year as Detroit’s fourth line center, his youth and inexperience at an NHL level aren’t desirable traits for a team in contention. Also, a fourth line center without much of an offensive presence is a pretty replaceable role on most teams; any offer for Stephens at or before the deadline consist of scraps.

The Bottom Line

Based on a solid start to the preseason, his experience and playstyle, Stephens will probably begin the season as a center for the Red Wings fourth line. However, he’s going to have Veleno hot on his heels all year, so there’s not too much room for error. Stephens has had a decent showing in the preseason (he’s scored a goal in two games so far), showing surprising flashes of speed and proving his worth as a gritty, defensive center. The biggest question for Stephens is his staying power on the roster; with so much talent coming through the pipeline, it’s going to be hard to keep a starting spot on the team moving forward. Is Stephens just another transitional player as the team marches towards contention? This season will almost certainly answer that question.

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