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Play of youth forcing Red Wings to face tough roster choices

Red Wings
Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire

The Detroit Red Wings have had a challenging 2016-17 season to this point. They aren’t winning many hockey games–only the Arizona Coyotes have fewer regulation-plus-overtime wins–and can’t seem to stay healthy. According to ManGamesLost.com, no team has lost more games to injury than Detroit’s 252 (subscription required).

Entering play on Jan. 3, the Red Wings had a whopping 40 more games lost to injury than the second-place Edmonton Oilers. While this needs to be taken with a grain of salt because there’s a good chance Joe Vitale and Johan Franzen will never play again and their missed games count against that total. It’s still a staggering number to have reached in early January, though.

It’s going to take a few weeks, but (barring further injuries) the Red Wings could be mostly healthy by the end of the month. Dana Wakiji of the team’s official website recently reported several updates on key injured personnel. And if current roster players stay off the IR as skaters return, it’s going to create some serious headaches in Detroit.

Alexey Marchenko could play as early as Thursday against the L.A. Kings. Since the Red Wings only have 22 healthy players on their roster right now, they won’t need to make any moves to accommodate him. He’d become their eighth defender and no one would need to be demoted or waived.

Mike Green and Justin Abdelkader have been skating with the team but won’t join the Red Wings on their current road trip. That means that neither player will be playing until Jan. 14 at the earliest, when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Joe Louis Arena.

Green becoming available will be important to the Red Wings, and it will likely result in Nick Jensen being demoted back to the Grand Rapids Griffins. He cleared waivers earlier this season but hasn’t been on the NHL roster long enough to require clearing once again.

Assuming that no one else gets hurt between now and the middle of the month, getting Abdelkader back in the lineup would force the Red Wings to make a brutal choice. They’d already be at the 23-man roster limit and the only waiver exempt skaters at the NHL level are Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou.

Darren Helm, who has missed the team’s last 21 games, could also return in two weeks or so, which would further complicate matters. He’s been on LTIR, which means that his cap hit has been off the books for the duration of his injury. When he’s ready to return–and, again, assuming no one else gets hurt–the Red Wings would need to create both roster and cap space.

The too-many-forwards problem that was evident this summer has only been compounded by how well Mantha has played since his call-up. He should have been on Detroit’s opening-night roster in the first place, but was in the AHL so the Red Wings could roll out the likes of Steve Ott and Drew Miller.

There’s virtually no chance that Mantha will be sent back to Grand Rapids after how outstanding he’s been lately. It’d be an inexcusable mishandling of a confident goal scorer for a team that straight up doesn’t score enough goals.

And as haphazardly as the Red Wings have been managed over the last two years, there’s no reason to believe Ken Holland would demote Larkin to the minors. That would be a new level of absurdity. Which, unfortunately, would leave Athanasiou as the odd man out at the NHL level.

Sigh.

The logjam isn’t at the top of the lineup for Detroit. It’s the glut of bottom-six plugs that could force Athanasiou to the minor leagues. Holland could address this issue by trading away an affordable veteran ahead of the deadline –something that we outlined in detail a few days ago — and the coming wave of healthy bodies only applies more pressure to the management team.

We’re about to learn a lot about who Holland values inside of the organization, and whether or not he realizes that this isn’t a playoff caliber team. The Red Wings should be icing players like the 22-year-old Athanasiou over Ott or Miller. It remains to be seen whether or not the team can make that a reality, or if that’s a route Detroit is even willing to take.

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