Krupa: Wings’ youth movement shows promising signs

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dylan Larkin leads the Red Wings in points (38) and assists (30).

Detroit — It is fairly bleak, for certain.

Late January, the All-Star weekend, and the Red Wings looking forward not to the playoffs, but to the intrigues of the trade deadline.

For a second season, a roster of stars too old, and prospective ones either developing or not, is failing to add up to postseason play.

The contracts up and down the roster suggest this could go on for a while.

That their performance in the last game before the break sputtered and coughed like too many before, in a season when a team that vowed to play with chip firmly on shoulder has sometimes skated and played docilely.

There are, however, reasons for Red Wings fans to be optimistic.

Some fans recoil from the assertion, but good things are happening for the Red Wings.

They are certainly less compelling than playing and winning in late May and June. But to regain that glory, the Wings must emerge from the decline.

Passing the torch

At 21, Dylan Larkin is asked to play a major role in leading the way.

A significant development through 46 games is Larkin handling a good portion of the part.

It is Larkin (19:56) among the forwards, not Henrik Zetterberg (19:38), who leads in time on ice at the break.

It is Larkin (38) who leads the team in points, not Zetterberg (32).

It is Larkin (30) who leads the team in assists, not Zetterberg (26).

While the two top offensive performers are struggling for goals, the trend is the same there, too: Larkin has eight, Zetterberg six.

The torch will need to be passed. Zetterberg is 37 and talks about playing at least one more season.

More: Red Wings’ Green strikes twice in All-Star Game

But the time is coming, and something to be happy about is a young guy from the heart of Oakland County, and a product of the internationally-competitive youth hockey programs in Metro Detroit, the National Team Development Program in Plymouth and Red Berenson’s great program at UM, taking some effective steps into the breach.

Like Larkin, the Wings’ leading scorer is either a star in training, or he is not.

Anthony Mantha’s 16 goals have him on pace for 28 or 29.

On a team that lacks for finish, Mantha, 23, with 116 career games played, tallies like a player of significant value. He is also better defensively and without the puck.

Shift-by-shift, does he affect the game? No. Game-by-game? Not yet.

Part of the evidence of underperformance is four goals since Dec. 1.

Red Wings right wing Anthony Mantha has just four goals since Dec. 1, but remains a critical part of the franchise’s youth movement.

But evidence of something quite different has included six goals and four assists in seven games beginning Halloween and ending with two goals, an assist and 25 penalty minutes against the Flames, Nov. 15.

Sometimes in the NHL big men of skill and brawn, but primarily skill, require frequent reminders to remain assertive even absent a scoring chance. Instructive on the topic would be a dialogue between Brendan Shanahan and Scotty Bowman, 16 years later.

But Shanahan scored 22 goals at age 19 and, at 20, at the pace of a point-per-game.

Mantha, 23, has progressed significantly in his three-and-a-half seasons since junior hockey. If he advances further, the Red Wings may have a scoring star who understands the rough stuff is occasionally required.

Considerable contributions

Andreas Athanasiou has played less than 19:24 in a game only three times in a month.

He is better without the puck, defensively, and in the shift-by-shift effectiveness, even absent scoring, the Wings are seeking from each of the trio of young players.

Athanasiou’s scoring pace would yield a 22-goal season, in his fourth professional season. And his shooting percentage is down by more than a third from his previous two seasons in the NHL.

With his previous accuracy and a full season, Athanasiou, 23, would be on a pace for about 30.

That he showed up for work after contractual machinations not just prepared, not just game ready, but playing pretty well from the start, speaks of a player who respects the game and seeks his place.

Tyler Bertuzzi is unlikely to score as much as his uncle, especially at Todd’s pace from 1999-2006. But Tyler might play well enough otherwise that his contribution is considerable.

On his resume is a generally high ratio of shifts on which he is effective.

His awareness is keen. Bertuzzi appears capable of sustained, outstanding fore-checking.

Martin Frk is determinedly a diamond in the rough, who seems to require repeated rediscovery.

Zetterberg, a veritable lion in winter, climbs up the list of all-time Red Wings performers, while addressing every loss and letting his hard-working followers talk about the wins.

Jimmy Howard’s performance has been about the best of his career.

Absent the two games against the Canadiens and Thursday against the Blackhawks and Howard’s numbers prove the point.

Presiding is a young coach who, though not yet improving the standing of his team in his third season, has remained unflappable in the face of frequent frustrating failure.

Coach Jeff Blashill is proving incapable of marshalling the necessary upgrades to put the Wings in the playoffs, and their identity is fleeting.

Under Blashill, some players are developing. His focus might have darkened, but it still seems clear.