By: Will Burchfield
Pavel Datsyuk is gone. Henrik Zetterberg is on the decline. The stars are waning in Hockeytown and Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is looking to the team’s young players to light the sky.
In particular, he mentioned Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyqvist and Tomas Tatar.
“We have young guys who have the potential to become elite players in the league,” Blashill told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket on Friday morning. “Who can step in and become that elite, go-to player on a nightly basis? We need some of these young guys to become that for us to have the success that we want.”
The Red Wings opened training camp on Friday in Traverse City, with their first preseason game scheduled for Tuesday. They are coming off a 93-point season in which they squeezed into the playoffs but were bounced in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the team to improve on last year’s performance, Blashill knows it will take a group effort.
“We’re going to have to win as a team, we’re not going to win relying on one or two players,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a great job throughout our lineup of becoming, one, a real close team, and two, having contributions on different nights from different players.”
Much was made last season about the struggles of Nyquist and Tatar. Both of them regressed in terms of point production in a year when the Wings were counting on them to do just the opposite. But Blashill pointed out their diminished numbers were partly due to circumstance.
“Part of the disappointing season was they had their ice time cut a little bit,” he said, pointing to Larkin’s emergence as a reason why. “Really points per minute both guys scored on the same basis, they just didn’t get as many minutes.”
Blashill said that will change this season.
“I think all in all we need them to be a little better but they need to get the opportunity from me. They’re going to get that and then they have to come out and be elite,” he said.
Along with the young players already on the Wings’ roster, there are a number of promising prospects in the pipeline. In discussing the likes of Anthony Mantha, Xavier Ouellet and Tyler Bertuzzi, Blashill said he issued them a common challenge.
“I said to our players yesterday in our meeting: don’t be good enough to make our team, be good enough to make our team better. If you’re good enough to make our team better, you’ll be on the hockey team and you’ll get those types of opportunities,” said Blashill.
One player seemingly between the AHL and the NHL at the moment is Andreas Athanasiou, the 22-year-old forward who was called up in the second half of last season and performed well down the stretch. Athanasiou’s biggest asset is his speed, which translates well in an ever-quickening league.
“He’s probably the fastest guy on the team,” Blashill said.
But the coach was careful to temper expectations.
“What needs to be remembered is he hadn’t yet been an elite player in the (AHL). Nyquist had, Tatar had, (Athanasiou) hadn’t reached that status yet. It is a little bit hard sometimes to think that all of a sudden a guy is going to go from not being elite at the lower level to being elite at the higher level,” Blashill said.
“I think anytime you see little flashes of players you can get real excited about the potential,” he added. “Let’s continue to watch him over the course of this season and see if he continues to show that and takes those flashes and makes them bigger and bigger and bigger.”
That seems to be the goal for a number of Wings this season, with one wave of stars on its way out and the next one beginning to build.