Nate Danielson is Better Off Returning to the WHL

The Hockey Writers

Since being drafted ninth overall in the 2023 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings, Nate Danielson has done nothing but impress. While some Red Wings fans weren’t sure about the choice on draft day, his play in Traverse City and the NHL Preseason is making believers out of all.

Nate Danielson Detroit Red Wings

Danielson has looked very strong in the Winged Wheel, dating back to the team’s development camp shortly after the draft. He has since impressed at the Traverse City prospect tournament, the team’s official training camp, and now in the preseason with his strong two-way play, skating and hockey sense.

The question that nobody expected to ask has already been brought up, “Should Danielson be in the NHL this year?”. While his inclusion on the roster would arguably make the team better, though only slightly, I believe that the best thing for Danielson, and by extension the future of the Red Wings, is for him to return to the WHL for this upcoming season. 

Why Not Now?

Danielson has always had the makeup of a great pro player, with the size, strength, and skating to overpower most junior defenses, and that appears to already be serving him quite well against increased competition. So why shouldn’t he be on the team when they play their first regular season game of the 2023-24 season? 

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Well, firstly it seems highly unlikely that he would be able to earn a role on this year’s team down the middle, with the additions of Andrew Copp and J.T. Compher making that all but impossible. If he made the team this year it would almost certainly be as a bottom-six winger, and he would therefore be unlikely to play significant minutes on a team that has its eyes set on improving once again. In previous years it would have been much easier for a player of Danielson’s caliber to make the Red Wings’ lineup out of training camp, but the team has shown significant improvement of late and it would be tough for him to earn a big enough role to justify sticking in the NHL this year.

Secondly, Danielson didn’t just need to come into the preseason and have a great showing to make the team, he needed to have a phenomenal showing where he blew several more established players out of the water if he wanted to steal a spot so soon. Guys like Joe Veleno, Jonatan Berggren and Elmer Söderblom have a leg up on Danielson with more professional experience and existing rapport with the coaching staff in Detroit while other depth pieces like Klim Kostin and Christian Fischer have a lot more NHL experience.

Lastly, he is still so young (he turned 19 on September 27) and still has room to grow and develop in the WHL this year with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Danielson wasn’t exactly a world-beater in junior last year, so I think getting a chance to dominate the competition there would be a positive thing for his confidence. I expect the Wheat Kings to see significant improvements to their roster with the continued development of high-end prospects like Charlie Elick (2024 Draft) and Roger McQueen (Kachow . . . I mean 2025 Draft), so they should be a much more competitive group.

Ultimately, the Red Wings are set at center for the time being and they already have a long list of third-line caliber wingers so his inclusion on the roster likely wouldn’t move the needle much this year and he’s better off playing another season in Brandon.

How Could Another Year in Brandon Help Danielson?

Danielson shared the captaincy for the Wheat Kings last year with Nolan Ritchie, who has since moved on to play in the AlpsHL in Italy. Should Danielson return, I expect he will be shortly named captain and will be counted on to lead the team to a much better result this year. 

He led the team in scoring last year with 78 points in 68 games, and I believe he will be able to score at roughly a 100-point pace, though his season will be shortened a bit by his NHL preseason success and a likely spot on Team Canada at the World Juniors in December/January.

Danielson will earn a lot more ice time in the WHL this year than he would in the NHL, and will have a lot more freedom to try things out and to make mistakes as he learns. The Red Wings will surely send him home with a list of the areas in his game that they’d love to see continued growth, and he’ll get the opportunity to really push himself to work on those areas.

Where Will Danielson Play The Following Year?

While he would still be eligible for one last season, I think there is exactly a 0% chance that Danielson returns to the WHL for the 2024-25 season. After completing four WHL seasons (after this coming year), he will be eligible to play in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins next year which is a pretty exciting idea when you think of the talented, young group gathering in Grand Rapids.

However, there’s always the chance that Danielson makes the Red Wings right out of training camp next season, which seems pretty likely at this point. He looks nearly NHL ready right now so another year of development should make him a near-lock for the team in 12 months. Whether he makes the NHL next season or not, I expect he will go pro after this season ends, possibly even making his NHL debut as early as this Spring if his WHL season ends early enough.

Danielson’s Future is Bright

Danielson has been the story of the preseason so far for the Red Wings which is a wonderful sign for a prospect who projects to be a top-six center for them going forward. The two-way play, speed, and hockey sense have all been on display throughout his play over the last few weeks and while I don’t think he’ll stick in the NHL this year, I am confident that he will be an exciting player to follow in the meantime. 

One final season in the WHL seems inevitable for Danielson at this point and I think that is the best course of action, providing him the time and space to tweak his game so he can come back to next year’s training camp ready to be a serious contributor for the Red Wings in 2024-25 and beyond.

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