SAN JOSE -– If the Sharks need a blueprint for their plan of incorporating younger players into the lineup while remaining competitive, the Detroit Red Wings should be able to provide one.
The Red Wings, still driven by stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, are now also relying on such up-and-comers as Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser. Currently in third place in the Atlantic Division with a 33-15-11 mark, they are virtually assured of making the postseason for a 24th straight season and another Stanley Cup run is not out of the question.
What’s been the key to that successful transition?
“Our whole mantra here is we’ve got real good people and we expect them to do things right every day,” head coach Mike Babcock said on Thursday morning at SAP Center. “We hold them accountable to that, and we expect when you put a Red Wing uniform on, that’s enough to be a playoff team.”
The Sharks (30-23-8, 68 points) are in a precarious position in terms of the postseason. They enter Thursday’s game with Detroit two points out of the final playoff spot.
The biggest culprit in terms of their inconsistent play has been their own younger players not producing as expected. That includes sophomores Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Alex Stalock, but also rookies Chris Tierney, Mirco Mueller and Barclay Goodrow, who have shown flashes of competent play but haven’t been able to have a nightly impact.
“They have incorporated a number of younger players into their lineup,” Todd McLellan said of the Red Wings. “When I look at the contribution levels of some of them, they seem to be at a little bit of a higher level. But, they might be further along.”
The biggest difference with Detroit’s younger players is that many of them had plenty of seasoning in the minors. Tatar played 265 games in the American Hockey League, Nyquist 137 and Sheahan 110.
Hertl, Nieto, Tierney, Mueller and Goodrow have a combined 43 games of AHL experience. Tierney has played 26 of those, while Mueller isn’t eligible to compete there due to his age (19). In contrast, Melker Karlsson –- the Sharks’ most successful young player this season -– is 24, and played three years in the Swedish Elite League before starting this season with Worcester.
Hertl and Nieto, in particular, have both had discouraging seasons after strong rookie years. They’ve combined for just 14 goals, 10 by Hertl, in 112 games.
“They’ve got guys here on this team who scored last year and suddenly they are back for the second year and aren’t scoring,” Babcock said.
That’s not to say the Sharks are rushing their young players –- time will tell if that’s the case. But, it’s still a bit of a different approach, and it may be out of necessity. When it was mentioned to Babcock that the Red Wings’ young core spent plenty of time in the AHL, he said: “It’s also because you have good players up top. You don’t have good players up top, you rush your players. That’s just the facts.
“It’s easy to say ‘we’re going to do it like the Red Wings,’ but if the guy in the minors is better than the guy in the NHL, you play the guy in the minors. It’s real simple. We’ve had enough players that we haven’t had to do that. Ideally, we’re going to do that again so we can keep them down there a little longer.”
McLellan also recognized that minor league aspect.
“They got a lot of seasoning,” McLellan said. “They won the Calder Cup [with Grand Rapids in 2013], and now they’re going. We’re a little bit ahead of that with some of our young guys. Not as much seasoning, and into the lineup. But, we have tremendous players that will be good as they develop.”