Detroit Red Wings finally appear to have four lines with identity

Detroit Free Press

Things can change quickly, but it looks like the Detroit Red Wings have hit on four lines, each with an identity that can help the team win.

That hinges, though, on Filip Zadina continuing to do Saturday what he did Wednesday, in the first game of the Wings’ home-and-home series against the Flyers.  That night, Zadina went to the net and won puck battles and worked hard to complement linemates Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond. It was Raymond who scored in the 6-3 victory in Philadelphia, but Zadina was right there in front of the crease, ready if Raymond hadn’t connected on his own rebound.

That line contributed the first two goals. The second line, with Pius Suter centering Robby Fabbri and Tyler Bertuzzi, scored twice in the second period. Then, in the third period, Joe Veleno’s line with Givani Smith and Sam Gagner had one goal, and Michael Rasmussen’s line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Adam Erne had the other.

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“The lines seem to make sense from a construction,” coach Jeff Blashill said Thursday. “I think the Suter line with the addition of Bert gives them some muscle and some puck-battle wins, and a really good player. The Larkin line, if Z plays with that grittiness, they all can kind of contribute together. The Rasmussen line has an identity. Veleno’s line did a good job. I think that can kind of be a combination line — there’s some skill there. Gags has been a skill player throughout his career. Veleno can do a little of both, and I thought Smitty was real physical on the forecheck.

“It does give you some balance and some identity on each line that I think is important.”

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The Wings will be without defenseman Filip Hronek on Saturday, as he was placed in COVID-19 protocol Thursday. But either (or both) defensemen Nick Leddy and Troy Stecher could be available, and if not, the Wings will call up a defenseman from the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The pandemic and injuries can change things quickly, of course, and top-six winger Jakub Vrana (shoulder) is awaiting clearance pending a mid-month checkup with his surgeon. But for a team that over the past couple seasons has had a patchwork of lines — and barely one scoring line, at times — being able to roll four solid lines is a welcome development.

“The minutes were much more evened out,” Blashill said. “It does’t mean they were even, but instead of our top players playing 22 minutes, they were playing 18-20. That’s more of a window we’d like, both for those particular games and for the season in totality.”

Vrana’s skill level demands a spot on a top line, but for now, it’s key that Zadina seems to have figured out what he needs to do to stay with Larkin and Raymond.

“They’re really good players, so it’s easy to play with them,” Zadina said. “I just want to use my ability to help them in puck battles and go to the net-front and create some space for them.”

Zadina was promoted because Blashill wanted Namestnikov back on the third line, where he adds a scoring dimension.  As for the fourth line, Givani Smith got the nod over his brother, Gemel, for two reasons: It allows Veleno to play center (Gemel’s position) and Givani adds a physical dimension the Wings otherwise lack.

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“It had more to do with Joe than with Gemel, for sure,” Blashill said. “If I’m going to play Joe on that line, I want to play him at center. Givani does give us an element that we’d like to have more of, and that’s that real physical presence. He was real physical on the forecheck when I went back and watched all the forechecks. He gives us that physical presence. We’ll see where it goes. Gemel is going to get an opportunity, but the lines looked solid.”

Veleno showed off his strength as he skated up the middle and fed Smith for his fourth goal of the season. It was a huge goal because it gave the Wings a two-goal cushion, and it was a nice reward for Smith, who has really leaned into what he needs to do to be successful, after he struggled to stay out of the penalty box earlier in the season.

“I don’t think it was his physicality why he took penalties,” Blashill said. “He’s taken them for after-the-whistle stuff that he’s learned that he can’t be the guy taking a penalty in those situations. I hope he’s learned that. And then there are times he’s got to move his feet more and not take hooking and holding penalties.

“Him and I have had lots of conversations about what can separate him on this team, and one of those things is his physicality. I thought he did a good job of that.”

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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