Young and talented forwards keying Red Wings' rebuild
Detroit — They are the hope, the beacon of light as the Red Wings dwell in this current rebuild.
Young forwards Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are the foundation the Wings are building around.
All four had career-best offensive seasons, and gradually began taking over leadership of the team.
If the Wings are headed anywhere this season, or in the near future, this is the core that will likely take them there.
“Can they carry a hockey team to wins? That’s a big question they’ll answer on a nightly basis next year,” coach Jeff Blashill said late last season. “It’s a heck of a responsibility. I don’t think there’s very many young players in the league that are able to carry their team.
“We’re going to ask that group of four up front to be a huge piece to carrying this team.”
No other position group on the Wings has as much skill and potential as the forwards.
After the core four, there are potentially big pieces who could be significant parts of the Wings’ roster.
Recent draft picks and free-agent signings such as Filip Zadina, Michael Rasmussen, Evgeny Svechnikov, Taro Hirose and Joe Veleno give the Wings a deep pool of young talent.
At least two, maybe three, of those prospects are expected to begin the year with the Wings this season.
Zadina, a 2018 first-round pick, could become a prolific goal-scorer in the estimation of many scouts.
General manager Steve Yzerman, in his introductory press conference in April, highlighted the Wings’ depth up front.
“We’re off to a tremendous start if you watched the team this year,” Yzerman said. “With the likes of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, (defenseman) Filip Hronek, we have the foundation for a core there.
“We have prospects that we saw play in the American Hockey League this year with Filip Zadina. We have young Rasmussen who played in Detroit this year. There is an exciting group of young players, young prospects and a lot of draft picks.
“It’s going to take some time but I believe there’s a foundation there for this team to be successful.”
Larkin is likely to be the key piece now, and later, with his on- and off-ice presence.
Larkin, 23, took a major step forward in his career last season with a career-high 32 goals and 73 points, while also serving as an assistant captain.
With Henrik Zetterberg retiring due to back issues, Larkin took a greater leadership role and is expected to be named captain this season.
“Larkin is going to lead the way, bringing this franchise back to where we all want it to be,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said at season’s end.
Larkin felt he developed into more of a two-way, complete hockey player last season, largely through Zetterberg’s influence.
“I understood that I had to put some of that responsibility of what he meant on the ice, doing it right, winning big faceoffs and playing against other team’s best players,” Larkin said. “It’s tough but I feel I took a step doing that, and a huge step in my career.”
Blashill also saw growth from Larkin, both on and off the ice.
"I’ve seen him grow the last couple years that way,” Blashill said. “He’s held himself to a pretty high standard and he’s worked. He was more comfortable (last) year — maybe it was the letter — of speaking up when he needed to, without speaking up at the wrong time.”
Justin Abdelkader: Looking to rebound from career-low offensive season.
Andreas Athanasiou: Notched 30 goals. Now, can he go higher?
Tyler Bertuzzi: Found a great niche and role playing with Larkin and Mantha.
Jacob de la Rose: Season was cut short by a heart issue. If healthy, can fill a role on the fourth line.
Christoffer Ehn: Quick, smart player made the Opening Night roster but will have much more competition this time around.
Adam Erne: Acquired Wednesday from Tampa, supplies Wings with grit and some offensive ability to bottom-nine forwards.
Valtteri Filppula: Versatile, veteran free-agent addition returns to Wings and deepens center position.
Luke Glendening: Does a lot of dirty work in a variety of roles for Wings.
Darren Helm: Veteran is still an effective penalty killer and checker, but could be a trade piece going forward.
Taro Hirose: Free-agent pickup from Michigan State impressed in March with his smarts and instincts.
Ryan Kuffner: College free agent will need seasoning in Grand Rapids.
Dylan Larkin: Evolving into one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards and likely next Wings’ captain.
Anthony Mantha: Was late season and world championship performance a sign of big season ahead?
Frans Nielsen: Veteran has been a true leader in locker room but production has dwindled on the ice.
Michael Rasmussen: Had a lot of growing pains in rookie NHL season. Grand Rapids wasn’t an option last year but might be this time around.
Evgeny Svechnikov: Knee surgery wiped out all of 2018-19. Has to show some promise and potential this season.
Joe Veleno: Organization excited about the two-way potential of this speedster.
Filip Zadina: It’ll be interesting to see how lessons learned last season and this summer translate to September training camp.