Detroit — A better perspective on the Red Wings' likely performance this difficult season emerged during the weekend, when they skated against the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs.
The games, especially the 6-2 loss in Toronto on Friday, provided significant evidence of who is likely to make the regular-season roster. Some answers will become clear as soon as Sunday, when the Wings open their dressing room after an 11 a.m. practice.
On Friday, in the recently renamed Scotiabank Arena, errors of inexperience deprived the Wings of any opportunity for victory, despite some fine play by developing prospects against most of the top NHL talent from Toronto.
The 5-1 win Saturday at Little Caesars Arena proved less informative, with both teams skating more players destined for their AHL teams.
In Toronto, Dennis Cholowski’s rush up ice and nifty feed to Gustav Nyquist for the first goal, and his ability to close quickly on Mitch Marner to erase a promising foray by the Leafs, were welcome signs of hope for a defensive corps increasingly hard-pressed for six seasons.
Filip Hronek stopped a charging Austin Matthews in his tracks about 15 feet from the Wings goal.
And, when the Maple Leafs’ anointed one deftly passed to a linemate with a rapier flip of his stick, Hronek knocked the puck towards a teammate, who secured the transition.
Joe Hicketts had a team high 21:14 on ice, hit many things that moved and did not seemed overmatched amid several of the large, talented forwards.
Libor Sulak’s size, 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, helped him do the same. Sulak has played well for much of the preseason and registered six hits in 20:20 of playing time on Friday.
Michael Rasmussen looked as though he belonged, and it is good tidings to see the big man initiate contact.
Filip Zadina played another responsible, low-profile game.
After spotting the Maple Leafs a goal, the mostly-young Red Wings reasserted the initiative.
Cholowski and Nyquist’s ministrations produced a tie.
Then, the Wings seemed to turn the game against the host Torontonians, a team some Leafs’ fans expect to make a run at the Stanley Cup this season.
But a bad penalty by Tyler Bertuzzi, a bad penalty call by a referee, an unfortunate error by Hicketts on a clearing attempt and a bad goal allowed by Jimmy Howard, who mostly struggled valiantly against the onslaught, resulted in four consecutive Leafs goals.
The Red Wings never recovered the initiative. But they showed some promise along the way, in the lead-up to what is likely a season of rebuilding.
While a few details about the emerging roster for the 2018-19 regular season are likely to be clear, some moves seem obvious.
Others are closer calls. But, they should be made to further the cause of rebuilding.
With the 20-year-old Cholowski and the 19-year-old Rasmussen not playing Saturday, a reliable presumption is they have made the roster for opening night.
The theory is the Wings had their look, liked what they saw and required no further examination.
Zadina, the 18-year-old sixth pick in the 2018 draft, has played solidly. His defensive instincts and intentions already seem at NHL levels.
But, other than opening the scoring a week ago against the Bruins, and scoring the winning goal in overtime against them Wednesday, Zadina has not provided a significant impact, including both games against the Maple Leafs.
While it certainly is not the sort of pop from a promising prospect for which the Wings had hoped, management should let a responsible young player with enormous finishing potential cut his teeth with the big club, even if the first half of Zadina’s first season proceeds in fits and starts.
Given the Red Wings’ track record, however, one can easily see the decision going the other way.
That would be unfortunate.
The temptation to put Zadina in Grand Rapids, fostered by years of conservative development that affected players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, who sustained longer-than-necessary apprenticeships in the AHL, might well overwhelm Ken Holland and his team.
Holland has spoken of his fear of young prospects billed for stardom, whose early games in the league are so unsuccessful they stifle a promising career.
But Zadina does not seem like that sort of man, or player.
His heart-on-his-sleeve chagrin at falling from the top few picks in the draft speaks of no small amount of assuredness. His general presence and demeanor does, too.
The overall sense is that the young Czech can take an emotional lick or two and keep on ticking.
His matter-of-fact description of his first NHL preseason game, as unlike any hockey he had experienced before, demonstrated an ego amenable to instruction, whether by coaches or experiencing the new hockey he must now play.
And, Zadina seems smart enough to have few illusions about what is going on, and what is required.
Part of his problem, according to Jeff Blashill, is anticipating how the play is unfolding, given the speed of the game and the level of skill, and where to find some space to operate, offensively.
Zadina’s passes have sometimes failed to click when he thought he had more — or less — time with the puck than he did. He has also misjudged the shot-or-pass dilemma a few times.
But he would not be the first young, top draft choice, to learn those lessons during a few dozen games in the NHL.
It seems pointless to send him to Grand Rapids when the NHL conditions he must conquer are in Detroit.
Jeff Blashill hit on that point,
“I would say it’s continuing to understand when he’s got time and when he doesn’t have time. And that’s just an adjustment, and there’s no way to make that adjustment in juniors until you get to the level where you find that you have to,” Blashill said.
That level is the NHL, not the AHL. And, it is where Zadina should start.
Detroit-Grand Rapids shuttle
The Wings are unlikely to contend for the playoffs. Regardless, rebuilding is paramount.
Zadina can provide solid defense while continuing to look for room to operate in the NHL, in transition from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Meanwhile, with Henrik Zetterberg and Tatar gone from last season's roster, which was already challenged offensively, the Red Wings need goals.
Zadina will eventually provide them.
Among the defensive prospects, Sulak has given Hicketts a hard enough push for the second opening on defense, now that Mike Green is out for a while with an illness, that both players deserve a look at the NHL level.
Hicketts should start the season with the Wings, and with Trevor Daley questionable for the opener, Sulak should remain on the roster, too.
Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi, who scored the Wings' first goal Saturday, played a fine first period and has generally looked good throughout the season, deserve playing time in Detroit during this season, too.
And, management can make that happen.
In fact, Blashill is anticipating the possibility. On Saturday, after the last morning skate of the preseason, the coach said that whatever moves are made in the short term to keep some prospects in Detroit and move others to Grand Rapids, that can always change throughout the season.
The Red Wings have not established a bit of a rotation between the NHL and AHL in recent seasons.
But rebuilding is an entirely different process.
The back-and-forth can nurture development, provide motivation and allow some players to correct bad habits during tutorial stints in the AHL, with the hope of returning soon.
“The one thing that’s important to keep in mind is, it’s a fluid roster,” Blashill said. “We have injuries. … There’s a lot of things that we’ll continue to monitor.
“I think it’s going to be a fluid roster for a while. It’s as fluid a roster as we have had here, since I can remember. And, we’ll just continue to take things day-by-day.”
In addition to starting the season with at least Cholowski, Hicketts, Rasmussen, Sulak and Zadina, the Wings can easily plot a course to provide ample NHL experience for several prospects throughout the season.
I had the pleasure of doing a French-language radio talk show out of Shawinigan, Quebec Saturday morning. The host asked me if rebuilding is “scary.”
Perhaps it is, for some.
But, when it comes to integrating prospects into the lineup in this season of reconstruction, the best advice for Red Wings management is: Be not afraid!