Making Sense of the Red Wings' Roster Management

Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen, Dennis Cholowski, Taro Hirose celebrate a goal
By Jeff Watters

February 23, 2021

With each and every taxi-squad transaction, Red Wings fans overreact (or at times, react appropriately) to Detroit’s young players being yoyo’d between the main roster, the taxi squad, and Grand Rapids. The roster management this season has been questionable at best. Underachieving veterans have remained mainstays in an offensively-challenged Red Wings lineup while younger, more effective prospects have been unable to stick.

Michael Rasmussen, Givani Smith, and Taro Hirose have all spent time in the NHL this season but now find themselves down in Grand Rapids. Evgeny Svechnikov has yet to play an NHL game this season and has been in taxi squad-limbo for the past week.

Heading into the shortened 2021 season, this is something that could’ve easily been predicted (minus the taxi squad wrinkle). The Red Wings have a logjam of bottom-6 forwards all vying for regular ice time, and if there’s anything we’ve learned about Jeff Blashill, it’s that veteran players need to play borderline disastrous hockey to find themselves healthy scratches.

With Frans Nielsen having recently cleared waivers, there is now hope that this opens the door for some of the Wings’ younger players to get some extended looks at the NHL level.

Frans Nielson Detroit Red Wings
Frans Nielsen has been less than stellar this season. | Photo:

Nielsen hasn’t quite been a disaster, but he’s been far from a useful player. The soon-to-be 37-year-old has been a fixture in the Red Wings lineup for far too long and the decision to waive him could not have come sooner. With just 12 points in his last 78 games, it’s fair to say the sun is setting on his underwhelming tenure in Detroit. He should be a regular member of the taxi squad for the remainder of the season.

But will he be? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Why Hasn’t Blashill Stuck With the Prospects?

The Red Wings can’t ice a team full of unestablished big leaguers. We’re not going to see a lineup with Rasmussen, Smith, Hirose, Svechnikov, and Mathias Brome up front and Filip Hronek, Dennis Cholowski, and Gustav Lindstrom on the blueline.

Not going to happen. Everyone gets that.

But the Red Wings have been reluctant to have more than one or two of these players in the lineup for an extended period of time.

Prior to the recent call-up (to the taxi squad) of Evgeny Svechnikov, Mathias Brome was the only one of the above forwards not in Grand Rapids. Hronek has been the only young defender in Detroit.

My best guess as to why? 

Blashill has his system and his veterans are more familiar with the low-event style game he likes his teams to implement. He’s been preaching it for years to a lot of the Red Wings’ aging core. It must’ve sunk in by now.

This roster is not going to score a lot of goals. Blashill wants his team to focus on preventing goals, as a run-and-gun type offense is not a viable option. Detroit simply lacks the firepower. 

Let’s also not forget that Blashill is fighting for his job. Steve Yzerman has given him much (MUCH) more to work with this season, and no progress would mean no job for Jeff next year. He has to win more games in this, the 2nd year of a 2-year extension. It can’t continue to be all about the “process” — the results need to come.

For Blashill, this means risk-free hockey. He wants to stick with what he knows and steer clear of anything that could disrupt his process.

That includes secondary scoring.

Svechnikov, Rasmussen, Hirose
Evgeny Svechnikov (L), Michael Rasmussen (C), and Taro Hirose (R) celebrate a goal for the Griffins. | Photo: Mark Newman/Grand Rapids Griffins

What does that mean for a younger player trying to establish himself as a Detroit Red Wing?

You need to be a) a legitimate, consistent offensive threat and/or b) someone who can fully buy into a defense-first, conservative system. Blashill doesn’t seem to have any interest in bringing in a young player to play a supporting role, no matter how effective they are at generating offense.

Let’s be clear. There’s no one the Red Wings could call up from Grand Rapids that’s going to be a needle-mover. But that’s not the point here.

Blashill has been perfectly content with Frans Nielsen, Valtteri Filppula, Adam Erne, Sam Gagner, and Darren Helm producing a total of 3 goals and 7 assists over a combined 70 games of the season.

In comparison, how have Hirose, Rasmussen, and Smith fared? In a combined 22 NHL games this season, they’ve produced 1 goal and 8 assists. That’s the same production in less than ⅓ of the games.

But let’s play Darren Helm (0 points on the season) on the 1st line and keep Taro Hirose in Grand Rapids.

There’s no “small sample size” argument to be made here. Jeff Blashill is comfortable relying on too many players who provide next to nothing offensively. It’s a dangerous game to play, and with 7 one-goal losses through just 20 games, he’s putting a lot of pressure on guys like Dylan Larkin, Filip Zadina, and Anthony Mantha.

As for Rasmussen, Smith, and Hirose? Apparently, they’ve yet to meet Blashill’s expectations. 

So, If you’re Steve Yzerman, Grand Rapids sure beats the taxi squad. 

Too Much Blame on Blashill?

There’s also the possibility that Steve Yzerman prefers to shelter the Red Wings’ younger, unestablished players from another losing season.

Perhaps he’s made it clear to Jeff Blashill that he will not be afforded the opportunity to work with the likes of Smith, Hirose, Rasmussen, Cholowski, and Lindstrom provided everyone on the NHL roster remains healthy.

None of these guys are ever going to be game-breakers. Maybe Yzerman simply doesn’t see the benefit of having them play under Jeff Blashill’s current system. There could be reason to believe he wants a fresh start with a new coach in 2021-22 and he’s decided to stick with the veteran players currently in the NHL and on the taxi squad.

I mean, what does Yzerman care if Nielsen, Helm, Filppula, and Gagner play Jeff Blashill’s brand of hockey? They are not long for Detroit and this roster will ensure the Red Wings lock in another top pick in the 2021 draft (not that any roster shuffling is going to prevent that from happening).

Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings General Manager
Is Steve Yzerman fully on board with Jeff Blashill’s system? | Photo: Carlos Osorio, AP

On the flip side, what if Yzerman and Blashill are on the same page entirely? What if Yzerman fully buys into his coach’s system and agrees it’s in the franchise’s best interest to implement a Barry Trotzian style of shut-down hockey?

Well, either way, this makes my head spin when it comes to lineup decisions.

I’m all for further developing and not rushing your prospects, but the fact is that some of these young players are running out of time. We’re not talking about 19 and 20 year-olds here.

Some of these guys are 23-24 years old and are on the brink of losing prospect eligibility — no matter what your definition of that looks like. Most of these players are who they are going to be. There’s not much more development once you’ve reached this age, and for some, it can be detrimental to remain in the AHL for too long.

Therefore, it’s time. Play the kids. 

If you want the team to fully buy into Blashill’s system — play the kids and let them figure it out.

If you’re not crazy about the job Blashill’s doing — play the kids and give him more talent to work with.

If you’re tired of a bottom-6 that brings absolutely nothing to the table offensively — Play. The. Kids.

We’re not going to see a significant uptick in wins and the team won’t suddenly become dramatically better, but we’ll see what we’ve got in some guys who may or may not factor into the team’s long-term future.

Which Prospects Should Be in the Red Wings Lineup?

Let’s start with the forward prospects I believe should be in Grand Rapids (of the players mentioned above):

  • Michael Rasmussen
  • End of list

There’s an argument to be made in favor of calling up Rasmussen, but I don’t buy it — not yet. Currently, he’s a 4th liner who can man the net-front on the power play — and that’s not enough.

Michael Rasmussen site in bench Grand Rapids Griffins
There’s no need to rush Michael Rasmussen. | Photo: Chris DuMond/Detroit News

The Red Wings need more from Rasmussen. Keeping him in Detroit to play 10 minutes/game is going to do nothing for his development or his confidence. If there’s any hope of Rasmussen becoming your future 3rd line centre (I still believe he’s likely a winger) he’s going to need to play big minutes and continue to develop. That means playing 18-20 minutes every night in Grand Rapids.

This season, Rasmussen has looked faster, he’s been more physical, and he’s been effective on the power play. These are all good signs, but he’s not where he needs to be long-term. Remember, Rasmussen won’t even be 22 until April. There’s no need to rush him and have him thrust into a system that almost encourages him to continue playing line a 4th liner.

Rasmussen’s unique path to the NHL has been well-documented. It certainly wasn’t ideal to have him playing in the NHL as a 19-year-old, but Rasmussen can now make up for lost time in the AHL. 

2021 Stats: 

8 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS (NHL)/5 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 PTS (Grand Rapids Griffins, AHL)

Now onto the rest:

Givani Smith
2021 Stats:
8 GP, 1 G, 3 A, 4 PTS (NHL)/2 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 PT (Grand Rapids, AHL)

I think Givani Smith should be at the top of the list of prospects who should be NHL regulars at this point.

No, this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to his Gordie Howe Hat Trick earlier this month.

Smith has consistently shown the ability to play up and down the Wings’ lineup and brings a blend of physicality and skill that few on the Red Wings provide.

Is he a top-6 forward? No. But he has held his own while playing with skilled players. 

Smith’s long-term outlook is as a 4th line winger on a contending team — hopefully, the Red Wings. He’s a guy who can provide energy, dish out big hits, and not be a black hole offensively. Basically, he’s your anti-Frans Nielsen.

Taro Hirose
2021 Stats:
6 GP, 0G, 2A, 2 PTS (NHL)/2 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS (Grand Rapids, AHL)

Heading into this season, I was pretty bearish on the former Michigan State standout. I appreciate Hirose’s creativity and playmaking ability, but I always felt he lacked the pace to be a consistent 5v5 threat in the NHL. 

Well, this season he’s looked like one of the Red Wings’ better forwards. 

I still maintain Hirose is probably a depth forward on a good team — but on the 2021 Detroit Red Wings, he’s a middle-6 winger who can contribute on the power play. Regardless of his defensive shortcomings, Hirose should be in the lineup. 

Now 24, Hirose has likely reached his ceiling and playing him in GR isn’t going to do anything but make the AHL team more competitive. There’s not really any untapped potential to his game and I see no reason why he shouldn’t be given every opportunity to prove he’s an NHLer.

It seems the organization isn’t very high on Hirose and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him non-tendered at the end of the 2021 season. 

Evgeny Svechnikov
2021 Stats:
3 GP, 1 G, 1 A, 2 PTS (Grand Rapids, AHL)

I’m still a big Svechnikov fan, but even I concede the clock is ticking on the 2015 1st round pick.

Evgeny Svechnikov celebrates goal Detroit Red Wings
A healthy Evgeny Svechnikov should not be a healthy scratch for the 2021 Detroit Red Wings. | Photo: David Guralnick, Detroit News

It’s hard to believe, but the Russian winger has played in just 20 NHL games. His 51-point rookie season with the Griffins seems like a lifetime ago as injuries have derailed a once-promising career.

Still, when healthy, Svechnikov has looked like an effective bottom-6 winger. He has more skill than a Givani Smith but plays a similar high-tempo, physical game. Svechnikov could also be given a shot on the Red Wings 2nd power play unit. 

His recent reassignment to the taxi squad should indicate the Wings are prepared to give him another shot at the NHL level — though I’ve given up making any assumptions with all the shuffling that’s gone on this season.

All indications are his surgically repaired right knee is as good as it’s going to get. It’s time to give him his shot.

It’s now or never. 

Dennis Cholowski
2021 Stats:
5 GP, 2 G, 3 A, 5 PTS (Grand Rapids, AHL)
Gustav Lindstrom
2021 Stats:
3 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS (Grand Rapids, AHL)

Cholowski and Lindstrom are two very different players, but I believe both would benefit from more time in the AHL.

Admittedly, I go back and forth on this with Cholowski. On the one hand, there’s no doubting he could be a valuable puck mover for the Red Wings right now. He’s 23 years old and he’s shown the ability to activate in the offensive zone and create at the NHL level.

But I keep coming back to the overall game, and his defensive deficiencies really need to be ironed out in Grand Rapids where he can play 20 minutes every night. Like Rasmussen, he’s not going to develop in the NHL in a limited role. Leave him in GR for the entire season and give him a shot next year if he’s not taken by the Kraken in the upcoming expansion draft. Cholowski could be a trade candidate as well.

As for Lindstrom, I just don’t see him having a future in Detroit. Consider the Red Wings’ right side next season:

Troy Stecher
Moritz Seider
Filip Hronek

Could Lindstrom be a serviceable 7th defenseman at some point? Sure, but there’s no need to call him up this year.

Final Thoughts

The NHL is not a development league. There is no reason to play top prospects before they’re absolutely ready to contribute at a high level.

However, not all prospects are top prospects who need to be played in top 6 or top 4 roles, and at a certain point they start to lose some of their value if not given the opportunity to play in the NHL.

Every prospect is different. This means different development paths, mental makeup, roles, floors, and ceilings. 

This is why it’s reasonable to insist that players like Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski (non-linear development, higher ceilings) should remain in the AHL, while Givani Smith, Taro Hirose, and Evgeny Svechnikov (higher floors, lower ceilings, running out of time) should be given every opportunity to succeed at the NHL level today.

When you consider who these players are competing with for ice time in Detroit, it’s almost a no-brainer. When you don’t allow Smith (turns 23 later this month), Hirose (24), or Svechnikov (24) to crack one of the worst lineups in the NHL, you’re not doing yourself any favors. It’s simply poor asset management. 

Why let some of these guys impress over a handful of games only to reward them with a demotion? 

If they factor into your future, are you going to wait until they’re 25-26 years-old to give them a shot at a full-time job? If you don’t plan on keeping them around, wouldn’t you want to showcase them at the very least?

Jeff Blashill has his system and he’s clearly very particular about who he deploys to execute it. The Red Wings have played better of late, but have still struggled mightily to produce offense at 5-on-5 and on the power play (currently 0 for their last 36). If Smith and Hirose/Svechnikov replaced Nielsen and Filppula would everything fall apart? The offense can’t be any worse. Does Blashill expect his defense-first system to crumble if he scratches a couple of veterans?

As for Steve Yzerman, we know he’s unapologetically objective when assessing the performances of the Red Wings’ vets. 

Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley were all obvious choices to let walk last season. 

But Justin Abdelkader? Boldly bought out.

Danny Dekeyser? Waived.

Now Frans Nielsen has cleared waivers as well.

How many of Helm, Filppula, Gagner, Nemeth, and Staal will be back next season? Would Yzerman consider buying out the final year of Nielsen’s contract to open up another roster spot?

Yzerman shows no loyalty to these guys, and rightfully so. But is he fully on board with Blashill’s decision to play them over younger, objectively better players? 

We’ll have to assume he is until a coaching change is made.

Featured Image: Mike Mulholland/MLive

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