Wojo: Ready or not, Wings taking a needed leap into the pool of youth

Detroit News

Detroit — Is it still too early to judge the Red Wings solely on stats and standings? Yeah, it is. But it’s time for a look, a leap, and perhaps a little luck.

In year three of the Steve Yzerman-led rebuild, they’re taking a closer look at their young talent, and hoping for a leap. The Wings certainly will be younger, deeper defensively and presumably better, whether the record reflects it or not. The process has passed the weeding-out stage and is headed toward the finding-out stage, and it’s time to push it a bit.

So they’re looking at Lucas (Raymond) and seeking Mo (Seider). The touted first-rounders, 19 and 20 respectively, will make their highly anticipated debuts, which instantly makes this season more interesting. A bunch of guys have a bunch to prove, from captain Dylan Larkin to the old-young goalie tandem of Thomas Greiss and Alex Nedeljkovic, to center Pius Suter, 25, surprisingly unsigned by Chicago after a solid rookie campaign.

For Jeff Blashill, in his seventh season as coach, the heat will only rise if the youngsters don’t. It’ll be painful at times, with a jolting opener against the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night. The Wings are pegged by most to land in the NHL’s bottom five, which is where they finished in the pandemic-shortened 56-game slate.

More: Meet the 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings

Already, luck hasn’t been kind. They struck out again in the draft lottery, and they’ll be without forward Jakub Vrana for four months after shoulder surgery. He was a revelation following his trade from Washington, replacing a guy the Wings were weary of waiting on in Anthony Mantha. Vrana, 25, had eight goals in just 11 games and was (still is) counted on heavily. The Wings’ offense was awful — 30th in scoring and on the power play (11.4%) — and needs help everywhere.

This is why timelines and guidelines are so hard to define. Vrana’s loss is huge. But it opened a spot for Raymond, No. 4 overall pick in 2020, a shifty Swedish forward who played too well in the preseason to leave off the roster. That doesn’t mean he’ll be in Detroit all year — the Grand Rapids shuttle should be active — but it does mean the Wings are collecting potentially high-end talent, including defenseman Seider, Yzerman’s first No. 1 pick here in 2019.

The Wings have missed the playoffs five straight years after 25 consecutive appearances and it would be a stunner if they sniffed contention this season. But just as the Tigers’ rebuild accelerated with the arrival of youth and a bit of luck, the Wings must do the same.

“We don’t want to continue the trend that’s been going on here,” said Larkin, coming off a rough season that ended with a neck injury. “We’ve talked about starting our own thing, our own team, and we’re gonna write our own history. We’re going to focus on trying to start something new with a push for the playoffs and playing in meaningful games.”

The games should be more meaningful individually, with a mix of first-time guys, middle-time guys and a few old-time guys. If Greiss isn’t strong enough to be the primary starter in net, Nedeljkovic will get his shot, and he was outstanding as a rookie with Carolina.

If Filip Zadina or Tyler Bertuzzi can’t recapture their scoring prowess, guys like Suter, Robby Fabbri, Sam Gagner and Adam Erne will get more chances. The big leap should take place on defense, where Seider will log plenty of minutes, along with veteran acquisition Nick Leddy and holdover Danny DeKeyser. Another rookie, Gustav Lindstrom, 22, will get a shot, and we haven’t even mentioned oft-overlooked Filip Hronek, 23, who actually led the Wings in points last season (26).

Not saying much, I know. But it says something about the direction.

“We have a lot of new faces, and I don’t think there’s any doubt we have an opportunity to have a real good (defense) corps,” Blashill said. “How good are we up front? Can we score a lot more? I think we’re heading in the right direction, but how much better will we be? How quickly? I can’t answer that. Up to the development of the players.”

I can’t answer either, or even guess. But at some point, the progress has to be more than incremental. With Chris Ilitch’s other team, fans’ patience is gradually being rewarded. The Tigers took a leap this season and will unwrap Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson at some point. The Wings are unwrapping Raymond and Seider, who are mature beyond their years and skilled beyond normalcy.

“The objective is to improve our team, and I look at it as, OK, are some of our younger players ready to play?” Yzerman said before training camp. “In some cases we are counting on them. In some cases, they’re going to have to show us they can do it. As for (statistics), it’s all kind of an educated guess really. I think we’re going to score more goals, I think our power play’s going to be a little bit better.”

It had better be. The Wings brought in assistant Alex Tanguay for a boost, and it should help to have Larkin and Bertuzzi back.

Getting younger probably means you’ll get better in the long term. In the short term, the measurables are different. The truth is, if the young gems take a leap, the standings won’t matter as much.

Raymond has generated tremendous buzz, showing savvy and poise. The franchise hasn’t promoted a player in his teens since Larkin, then 19, arrived in 2015. Raymond is still looking for a car and a place (he lives with Seider at the moment), and when he talks about his NHL debut, he drops phrases such as “really cool” and “really awesome.”

Wide-eyed? A bit, sure. Intimidated? Doesn’t seem like it. He’s expected to play on the top line with Larkin and Bertuzzi.

“I feel really comfortable,” Raymond said. “You always have these expectations how it’s going to be, but it’s almost impossible to guess until you get out there.”

With the return of full crowds at Little Caesars Arena and fresh faces on the ice, the Wings should start their upward curve. Yzerman has made shrewd deals and cleared out older players and heavier contracts, and the Raymond-Seider combo is tantalizing.

Again, the cautionary tale. Mantha was that touted guy once. Andreas Athanasiou, Evgeny Svechnikov and Dennis Cholowski were those guys once. Some were good, but not cornerstones.

“Listen, these aren’t the first two names over the last 6-8-10 years that people have been really excited about,” Blashill said. “Some have done a good job, some have faltered. Both Seider and Raymond have attributes to be real good players and real good winners. How good can they become? I don’t know that answer.”

The team at least has intriguing possibilities, including another first-rounder, Joe Veleno, who will start in Grand Rapids. The Wings went from last in the league in 2019-20 with a historically bad 39 points, to 48 points in 15 fewer games last season. Promising, not guaranteeing.

“We’ve got an opportunity to take a step,” Blashill said. “I will tell you, the step we took last year is an easier one. Every step gets harder and harder and harder. It’s like going from a golfer who shoots 100 to a golfer who shoots 90. That’s an easy step. It’s hard to be an 80, and way harder to be a 70.”

A leap will take some luck, as well as a long look at youth. Perhaps in another year or so, talk of playoffs can replace talk of potential. Until then, progress will be measured in prospects, and it should be a process worth watching.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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