Last summer I wrote a bit about the myth of "playing the kids" as it pertains to the Red Wings lineup. I said at the time that defense, where Detroit's prospect pool is shallow, is where the most opportunity for a young player to step in. Without injuries to the forward corp, there simply wouldn't be room for players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson or Riley Sheahan.
Well, injuries have happened. With Tatar already up (and Nyquist having been given a shot in the third game of the season), Andersson has gotten the call after it was revealed that Todd Bertuzzi would miss (at least) this weekend's games with a bad back. The kids, it would seem, are getting their shot.
So why does this sit wrong with me?
Lets start by jumping back to Nyquist's call-up on January 22. With Mikael Samuellson out of the lineup, a top-six forward spot opened up. The Red Wings had previously said that was exactly the type of opportunity that would be given to Nyquist and Tatar, as they're skill players who are better served on Grand Rapids' top line than Detroit's bottom two lines. Nyquist got the call in this case, practiced on the second line with Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen, and began the game there. After two periods of what would be a 2-1 loss, though, head coach Mike Babcock juggled the lines and dropped Nyquist to the third line with Justin Abdelkader and Drew Miller, Daniel Cleary having been bumped up to the second line. The next day, Nyquist was back in Grand Rapids, his shot in the Detroit top six having lasted forty minutes.
Bertuzzi, who had been expected to start the season on the third line, returned from the flu to take over the open spot in the top six in the Wings' next game, with Cleary back down with Abdelkader and the also-returning Darren Helm. He held onto it until Tatar was called up for the February 5 game against Calgary. Like Nyquist before him, Tatar practiced on the second line (now consisting of Filppula and Pavel Datsyuk) and started the game there. Unlike Nyquist, Tatar lasted only 20 minutes in the top six before he and Bertuzzi swapped places. Also unlike Nyquist, Tatar got to stick around for a second game (and soon, a third), which he played entirely on the third line.
My problem is the disconnect between what we've been told about the team's strategy and what we've actually seen. Mike Babcock and Ken Holland tell us that Nyquist and Tatar are ready for the NHL but that their games are suited for top-line play, so they'll stay in the AHL until the opportunity arises. When said opportunity presents itself, they're given less than a game to take advantage of it.
Some will say that they just need to take advantage of whatever opportunity they're given. To a certain extent, that's true. If these guys are scorers, however, you're limiting their potential by having them play a bottom-six role. Nyquist or Tatar while centered by Datsyuk will be a vastly different player than while centered by Abdelkader, much as Datsyuk himself would be more limited on a line with Abdelkader and Miller rather than one with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
Now Bertuzzi is out of the lineup and Andersson gets the call. It's early so we don't know how Andersson fits into the Wings' plans for tomorrow against Edmonton. If Tatar is back on the second line and Andersson slots in on the third line, I'll actually have no problem with the move. My issue, though, is that Cleary practiced on the second line today, seemingly indicating that he'll be bumped up and Tatar will remain on the third line.
For eight games there has been a hole on the second line, an opportunity that is seemingly made for Nyquist or Tatar. Combined, the pair has had one game to take advantage of that opportunity. That rubs me the wrong way.
For the record, I don't believe that roster space is the reason not to have had Nyquist or Tatar up the entire time, as the team had no problem making Patrick Eaves a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Blues.
Talking to one of my co-workers the other day, he brought up an interesting point. Why do we talk in terms of a top six and a bottom six? If Nyquist and Tatar and Andersson are all so good and so ready, bring them up as a unit and think of it as a top nine and bottom three.
Yeah, it's difficult because the Wings are absolutely overloaded at forward, especially "bottom six" forwards, so it's not going to happen. It is interesting to think about, though, because it shows how much our thinking about the forward units has changed in the last ten years. Some of that is the salary cap but when did it become that both the third and fourth lines had to be checking lines?
Looking ahead to next season, this logjam at forward won't get any better. Lets say next year will be the year that Nyquist and Tatar finally jump to the top six in Detroit. Barring a trade or a buyout and assuming everyone is healthy, the only way there's even the roster space for that to happen is if Filppula and Damien Brunner don't return next year.
Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Samuelsson are all under contract for next year. Filppula and Brunner are unrestricted free agents.
If you want to enable the top nine / bottom three idea next year, that's not much easier. Of the current bottom six, only Cleary, Miller, and the currently-injured Jan Mursak are free agents.
Counting only from the 15 forwards who started the season with the Red Wings (in other words, excluding Nyquist, Tatar and Andersson), ten are already under contract for next year. There will only be room for opportunity if the team opts to let people walk.
Credit: Clark Rasmussen