Monday, January 14, 2013

Who Will Fit on the Detroit Red Wings' Fourth Line?

Now that the National Hockey League is back, it's time to get down to business here at the Wizard of Osgood. The Detroit Red Wings are back to training, and with training camp comes a litany of questions that should be answered before the puck drops. What will the line combinations be? What will the defensive pairings be? Are the players ready? Who is injured? Some of these questions are tackled in Episode 31 of Winging it in Motown Radio, featuring yours truly making some wildly silly proposals about sending Johan Franzen out of town while he still has value. It might have been the sugar from the hot chocolate talking, but I think there's a valid point to offloading Franzen somewhere in exchange for a solid top tier defenseman, especially considering the number of forwards Detroit currently has signed. With that said, I fully acknowledge that it isn't a good idea to just deal Franzen for the sake of getting rid of that albatross of a contract. Especially not knowing how good Damien Brunner is going to be lining up with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Perhaps this is a preview of what is to come:


I doubt many NHL teams will exhibit defense as poorly as EHC Biel does in this game, but that kind of chemistry is leaving a certain "puck patriarch" analyst intrigued.

The question on my mind last night and today is the situation with the Detroit Red Wings' fourth line. As it stands now, it appears that the top three lines are going to look like this:




Those three lines are as good as any iteration of the same nine or ten forwards Detroit has fielded since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. Brunner is obviously a question mark as no one has ever seen him compete in an NHL environment before. Brunner isn't big but he's a skilled forward who was among the elite talents in European hockey leagues. It's another one of those Ville Leino/Fabian Brunnstrom experiments that could go either way. Obviously, the previous two didn't work out in Detroit, but the offense survived and chugged along with the usual top 10 in goals scored. The Bertuzzi/Helm/Cleary combination is as strong as any third line the NHL and Helm is still improving as a third line checking center. Bertuzzi has proven time and time again that despite previous transgressions, he still has what it takes to play and he still has great hands. Dan Cleary had a great season in 2010-11 with 26 goals, but played injured the next year and barely finished with 33 points before being invisible in the playoffs against Nashville. He will want to bounce back with a solid effort in the shortened season, knowing he is on the final year of a 2.8 million dollar contract that any number of young Red Wings prospects could be deserving of in the next couple of seasons.

So that brings us to the fourth line. And boy, what a log-jam of talented players there are. In no particular order you have Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak, Jordan Tootoo, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and possibly Mike Knuble. That's nine guys competing for three positions. I'll make the obvious known now to get it out of the way: Justin Abdelkader will be the fourth line center, with Jordan Tootoo pissing everyone in the world off at right wing. That leaves seven able-bodied forwards competing for one job. Drew Miller seems like the easy choice at left wing, but where do Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton go if not to Detroit? Nyquist can go back to Grand Rapids on his entry level contract, as can Tomas Tatar, but would Mike Knuble agree to a two-way deal at 40, knowing his career could either be over in the NHL? And what about Patrick Eaves, a player who is beloved by the Red Wings faithful and continues to fight through a bad concussion? There's way too many forwards clogging up the bottom six in Detroit, and the fact is that not everybody is going to be around come January 19th in St. Louis.

The painful reality of this situation is that several players are going to lose their jobs. The time is going to come for the Nyquists, the Tatars, the Ferraros, the Sheahans, the Jurcos, and later the Frks of the Red Wings system. They may have to accept that their time in Grand Rapids is not over. There is already some speculation that Tatar is growing restless in Grand Rapids and Gustav Nyquist is absolutely NHL ready, but the Brunner experiment and the signing of Samuelsson all but squashed the roster slots "Goose" should be filling. When Nyquist and Tatar return to Grand Rapids, that leaves Emmerton, Mursak, Miller, Eaves, and Knuble to compete for the final slot. As much as I've love to see number 17 back on the ice this season, Eaves was just cleared for contact and the season is five days away. Mike Knuble could be the Dallas Drake of 2013, so I am unsure if ruling out his potential veteran presence is wise. Miller played 80 games last season and potted 14 goals and 25 points. Those numbers are good enough to sell him as the top choice for the left wing position. That leaves Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton as the odd men out.

So what happens to them?

The simple solution is to send both of them back to Grand Rapids, which must be frustrating and disappointing to both players. Emmerton played 71 games with Detroit last season, and Mursak 25 games. They both have NHL experience, but neither demonstrated an offensive flair during their time with the team. Both are 24 years old and are too old to be considered "prospects" if there are young players like Thomas Jurco and Marty Frk at 20 and 19. Should they accept the demotion? It may just be time for both to consider other teams that could use their skills. Even if some of the regulars get injured in the regular season (hopefully not), is it satisfying enough to take the scraps from the table? Probably not.

In conclusion, I believe things will play out as follows. Knuble will be offered a two way deal and he will either retire or enjoy the role as depth replacement should a serious injury occur. Patrick Eaves...will most likely miss another NHL season. Sucks to even type that but given the amount of forwards already fighting for a job, there's no reason to rush his return. The kids, Nyquist and Tatar, will remain in Grand Rapids for the season, unless Nyquist somehow proves to Babcock and company that he's better than Drew Miller's best. Drew Miller will be the fourth line left wing, where he will play his ass off for another contract. This leaves Jan Mursak and/or Cory Emmerton en route to a demotion, healthy scratch, or another city.

With Valtteri Filppula, Damien Brunner, Drew Miller, and Dan Cleary all in contract seasons, there's no doubt that there is a fire underneath (and maybe inside?) all of them to compete hard in the shortened season to prove their worth. There are enough forward prospects in the system to replaces all of them over the course of five years. Filppula is going to be a major piece of the future in Detroit, with Brunner being a potential boom or bust. Drew Miller and Dan Cleary have this season to justify another contract. If not, Nyquist and Tatar will get their chances next season on the team. Provided they aren't packaged in some zany deal to get a new number one defensemen.

One final post-edit comment: if you don't already know about Winging it in Motown or the radio show, please go look at their stuff. I am the Padawan to their Red Wing mastery. Thanks to JJ, Jeff, Graham, and Tyler for having my dopey ass on the show again. I love doing it and can't wait to do it again some time.

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