Detroit — There were no guarantees from Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, nothing set permanently.
But Blashill was as adamant as he could be, and wanted to make sure his message was getting across to everyone.
Blashill wants to get young defenseman Filip Hronek in the lineup during this upcoming western Canada road trip.
He wants Hronek to play, not sit.
“My expectation is Fil will play on the trip,” said Blashill, who made Hronek a healthy scratch Tuesday in the Red Wings’ victory over Anaheim.
With Danny DeKeyser returning to the lineup Tuesday after missing 20 games after a wrist injury, and none of the remaining five defensemen playing poorly enough to warrant being bumped out, the young Hronek drew the short straw to sit.
Hronek hadn’t been error-free during this most recent stretch of games, but the 21-year-old was also playing with increasing confidence, appeared to be getting incrementally better, and earning points in four of the last five games.
“He’ll be on the trip with us for sure,” said Blashill, effectively squashing the belief Hronek would be sent back to Grand Rapids before next weekend’s NHL All-Star break. “He’s played certainly good enough for him to give me tons of confidence that if I put him in, he can help us win.”
The tricky part is shoehorning Hronek into a defense that is healthy — except for Trevor Daley, out until early February — and playing relatively well.
“Will he supplant somebody (from Tuesday’s lineup)? I don’t know,” said Blashill, who added he generally doesn’t change a winning lineup except for inserting players returning from injuries. “We’ll look at the film again and we’ll make the decision. My expectation is Fil will play on the trip. I’m certainly not making any promises, but that’s my expectation because he deserves to go back in.”
Hronek, 21, has played 21 games with nine points (three goals, six assists) and a minus-4, plus-minus rating, while averaging 18 minutes, 43 seconds of ice time.
Hronek began the regular season with the Wings after four defensemen were hurt during training camp. During this audition, Hronek generally didn’t look NHL ready. He appeared too raw and overwhelmed.
But a successful return to Grand Rapids, where Hronek regained his confidence and swagger, has made this return trip to Detroit much more impressive.
The upcoming trade deadline — and, for sure, next summer — will play a significant role in alleviating the mini-logjam and likely create space for Hronek.
The Wings have two unrestricted free agents on defense: Nick Jensen and Niklas Kronwall.
Jensen, 28, could be of interest for playoff contenders looking for a reliable third-pair, depth defenseman heading into the playoffs — although the Wings, too, might be interested in re-signing Jensen at a moderate cost.
Jensen has had a fine season, and provides the Wings’ depth moving forward.
Kronwall, 38, is likely to retire this summer.
Daley, too, could attract interest on the trade market, with one more season remaining on his contract ($3.178 million salary cap hit).
So, there could be full-time openings developing for Hronek, eventually. Patience is needed.
“I’m happy with where Fil, compared to where he was at the beginning of the year, I’m real happy with his progress,” Blashill said. “It’s great for us long term.
“He just has to hang with it.”
This was by no means a speech for the ages, and nobody is going out of their way to credit veteran forward Thomas Vanek with absolutely willing his teammates to Tuesday’s victory with his oratory skills and motivation.
But the fact Vanek spoke up Tuesday after two periods, and maybe in a small way sparked the team to a third period rally, was noticed.
Younger teammates certainly respect Vanek, who has had a long, productive career.
“Guys have a ton of respect for Thomas because he cares about winning so much,” Blashill said. “For a guy that’s been a real skilled player in the league, he’s so hard on himself. He’s hard on us. He wants us to win and if he says something, it carries weight in the room.”
Forward Dylan Larkin was one teammate who credited Vanek with speaking up.
“He works, he’s a great teammate, and he’s a strong voice in the locker room,” Larkin said. “He’s someone I look up to for sure.”