The last two seasons have seen the Detroit Red Wings dumped out of the playoffs in the first round, losing to Boston and Tampa Bay in 2014 and 2015, respectively. For a team that, barring collapse, should make their 25th straight playoff appearance this season, fans have seen highly talented teams fall short at the first hurdle. However, contributions from the next generation of Red Wings could finally push the team over the first round hump.
So, we may as well get this goal out of the way.
Andreas Athanasiou is just 21 years old. He may have only seven points in 19 games, but along with rookie sensation Dylan Larkin, he has added an exciting element of speed and skill to the drought-ridden Wings.
Athanasiou may not be as much of a sleeper prospect as Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, but he went through three rounds of the 2012 NHL draft before the Wings picked him in the fourth. This is Athanasiou’s first extended NHL stretch of games, as he was called up in the first week of February in place of center Joakim Andersson. In November, he played six games after Landon Ferraro’s injury and scored just one goal in limited ice time.
With Athanasiou on the ice, the Wings can look very dangerous on offense. His speed and creativity adds even more youth to the current third line of Brad Richards, Athanasiou and Larkin. If “Double A” can add a few more highlight reel goals to his game down the stretch and in the playoffs, he may be a valuable asset in the late stages of the season.
The other rookie who will likely play a major role in a playoff run for the Wings will be Larkin. The 19-year-old rookie has been nothing short of a revelation for Jeff Blashill’s team. Larkin leads the team with 19 goals, in addition to adding 20 assists in 62 games through March 2, giving him the second-most points on the Wings thus far. Larkin is currently running through one of his biggest slumps of the season, notching just one point in his last ten games. However, Larkin’s hot start to the season can’t be forgotten. A goal and an assist in his first NHL game against Toronto led to nine points from his first 13 games in the league.
Larkin was the cornerstone piece of the 2014 draft for the Wings, and so far seems to be one of the best value picks in that entire draft, despite being picked at 15th overall. After a successful single season at Michigan, Larkin has added an element of excitement to this year’s Wings team that had been missing in the past two seasons. For many, the Red Wings are must-see TV this year, which is a hopeful sign for the organization with a new arena coming in 2017.
There are plenty of other players 26 or younger already stepping up and playing major roles for Detroit. While the Wings are technically older than the league average, players such as Tomas Jurco (23) and Riley Sheahan (24) have made a case for major ice time. Sheahan has moved into a spot centering the second line, and Jurco is now in his second full season in the NHL. Gustav Nyquist (26) has also become better defensively while still hovering near the 30 goals per season mark. Danny DeKeyser (25) is still coming into his own in the league, Tomas Tatar (25) is second on the team in goals with 17, and Luke Glendening (25) adds defensive qualities that are vital on a team that plays as offensively as the Wings do.
Petr Mrazek is also just 23 years old and currently holds the fifth best goals against average and save percentage in the league. Through Jimmy Howard’s inconsistencies, Mrazek has emerged as the number one option in net for Jeff Blashill, and he deserves it, based off of the numerous points he’s saved the Wings this season. While he has been prone to occasional bad games, such as against Boston on February 14 or against Chicago on Wednesday, for the most part he has been consistent in his first season as the number one starter.
While the established names of Datsyuk and Zetterberg have produced at times this season, their age has definitely changed their roles on the team. The “Eurotwins” are no longer able to win games single-handedly, the way they might have during the Stanley Cup run in 2008. That has meant that players like Larkin and Mrazek may have to step up in a big way during the last month and a half of this season. Mrazek especially has proven on multiple nights this season that he can win games on his own, with four shutouts this season. If Mrazek turns into the hot goalie that every team needs in the playoffs, players like Tatar, Larkin, and Nyquist should be able to provide the scoring needed to beat the top seeds in the Eastern Conference in a seven game series.
If the season ended on March 2, the Wings would be the first wild card team, facing off with Florida, the top seed in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers feature no real superstars but are very consistent, and as Jaromir Jagr turns back the clock at age 44, the Panthers would definitely give the Wings trouble in a seven game series. However, if the young stars of the Wings contribute in the playoffs as much as they have in the regular season, Detroit could break out of the first round and make a run in this year’s playoffs.