Most Detroit Red Wings fans will look back and their 2016-17 season and remember it as a miserable one. The team missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons, had the 26th (2.41 GF/GP) ranked offense in the league and the 27th (15.1 PP%) ranked power play.
While there’s plenty of blame to pass around, some players struggled more than others. It’s safe to assume that a 36-year-old Niklas Kronwall with severe knee issues is not going to rebound after last season. However, there are players on the team – some more likely than others – who have the potential to put together solid bounce-back seasons in 2017-18.
If any player on this list deserves a “pass” of any kind, it’s Dylan Larkin. As a rookie, the 21-year-old forward was able to notch 45 points through 80 games with the Red Wings. He came back down to Earth last season, scoring just 32 points while playing the same number of games throughout the season. While some may point to the “sophomore slump”, other factors more likely contributed to his struggles last season.
For one, the young forward had a tough time finding familiarity with his linemates last season, and for good reason. According to Dobber Hockey, Larkin spent 45.69% of his ice team at even strength skating along Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader in 2015-16. Last season, his most frequent partners at even strength were Abdelkader and Andreas Athanasiou (8.7%), Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar (7.73%) and Frans Nielsen and Gustav Nyquist (7.4%).
One reason the 21-year-old forward bounced around so much is that general manager Ken Holland ultimately envisions him as a center. Larkin played in that role early last season, and when he continued to struggle offensively, head coach Jeff Blashill moved him back to the wing. The Wings’ bench boss continued to experiment with the speedy forward’s throughout the season, not giving him any real chance to develop chemistry or familiarity with one set of linemates. Jack Han wrote an article for The Athletic where he discusses how the Red Wings can best use Larkin, and makes a compelling argument for keeping him on the wing. It’s understandable why the team wants him to develop into a center, but placing him in a situation that plays to his strengths will likely result in a bounce-back campaign for Larkin.
In less than a year, Petr Mrazek went from the Red Wings’ presumed starter to finding himself on the Red Wings’ list of exposed players for the NHL’s Expansion Draft. The move came as a shock to most within the hockey world, let’s face it – the Red Wings’ goaltending situation is less than stellar, and they had to expose someone. It’s fair to say that most expected to see Jimmy Howard on that list, and not the 25-year-old netminder who once carried the “future No. 1 goaltender” tag.
The reality is Howard had a stronger 2016-17 season than Mrazek. Though limited to just 26 games due to a knee injury, Howard posted a 2.10 GAA and .927 save percentage. Meanwhile, Mrazek was given every opportunity to reclaim his role as the team’s starter, yet he faltered. He wound up playing in 50 games, while posting a 3.01 GAA and .901 save percentage.
Yet, it was odd to see the Red Wings expose Mrazek over Howard. Then news came out that the 25-year-old goaltender rubbed management the wrong way on a few occasions. According to MLive’s Ansar Khan, “Mrazek was not happy the Red Wings were unable to trade Howard in the off-season and let the club know in less-than-tactful terms.” He goes on to discuss Mrazek’s swagger and confidence, how it has helped him on the ice, but not necessarily off it.
Undoubtedly, Mrazek is facing an uphill battle, as goalie coach Jeff Salajko expects Howard to start 50-55 games during the upcoming season. It’s very clear who the Wings’ brass envision as their No. 1 goaltender at the moment. As last season (and others prior to last season), anything can happen and opportunities open up. Mrazek can view his poor season and the Wings’ decision to expose him as a slap in the face, or he can use the experience as a wake-up call and make a real push to reclaim his role as the team’s starting goaltender.
Statistics from NHL.com, unless otherwise indicated