The departure of veteran center Pavel Datsyuk presents an opportunity for the Detroit Red Wings to inject youth into their top six.
After Datsyuk, 37, announced Saturday he will be leaving the NHL to play in his native Russia, the Red Wings are forced to turn the page. Luckily, they have returning young players and prospects waiting in the wings.
These are large shoes to fill considering Datsyuk led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of his 14 NHL seasons dating to 2001-02. Detroit won two Stanley Cup titles in the span and Datsyuk had a 0.96 career regular-season points-per-game average, second among active players with at least 900 games played since 2001-02 behind Joe Thornton (1.08).
Datsyuk's final season was a bit of a disappointment by his standards; he played 66 games (most in single season since 2011-12) but was limited to 16 goals and 49 points. But even with the dip in point production, Datsyuk finished one point behind Henrik Zetterberg (50) for the Detroit scoring lead despite playing 16 fewer games than his longtime teammate.
Video: DET@TBL, Gm2: Larkin goes five-hole to tie game
Forward Dylan Larkin, one of the most productive rookies of the 2015-16 season, saw much of his even-strength minutes alongside Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader. That line was broken up at times, but was one of the few staples of a lineup constantly juggled by Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill this season.
With Datsyuk no longer in the mix, Larkin will be tasked with a heavier workload next season. He has a chance to earn more first-unit power-play time than he averaged this season (2:02); Datsyuk averaged 2:57 per game with the man-advantage this season. Datsyuk, who was still one of the best two-way centers in the NHL despite his age, averaged 19:39 of total ice time, more than three minutes per game greater than Larkin (16:32). Datsyuk took advantage of his minutes with the extra man, scoring 20 power-play points (41 percent of his scoring this season). Neither played significant shorthanded minutes per game.
It remains to be seen if Larkin, 19, can sniff Datsyuk's efficiency in so many different situations, but his 40 even-strength points exceeded Datsyuk's 29 with lesser usage. Larkin, who was second among rookies in even-strength scoring behind Artemi Panarin (53) of the Chicago Blackhawks, should see an uptick in power-play opportunities, which would make him even more appealing in fantasy keeper formats.
With Datsyuk, the Red Wings finished 23rd with 2.55 goals per game in the regular season. They kept their first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning tight, but were held to eight goals in five games and went 1-for-25 on the power play. They had six players, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Larkin, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Abdelkader, score at least 40 points in the regular season, but, outside of Larkin, the rest took steps back from the previous season and/or their career standard.
The Red Wings need their next wave of talent to have a ripple effect on an otherwise underachieving offense. Datsyuk's decision gives Detroit's young players a chance to prove their worth.
Nyquist and Tatar, breakout stars of the past, regressed considerably, but some of the young options in the Red Wings system could help those forwards bounce back fantasy-wise in 2016-17. Neither spent significant time on a line with Datsyuk this season, rather sticking together most often with rotating centers -- sometimes even on the third line.
Video: TBL@DET, Gm3: Athanasiou opens the scoring in 2nd
Beyond Larkin, the Red Wings have multiple candidates to earn top-six minutes, mainly Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Evgeny Svechnikov. Athanasiou, 21, had the most NHL exposure of the three this season, scoring nine goals on 53 shots on goal in 37 games. He played in all five playoff games for Detroit, but was stuck in a depth-line role. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 3 against Tampa Bay, Detroit's lone victory of the series.
Despite limited usage, Athanasiou ranked third in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes in the regular season (minimum 30 games played) behind Maurice Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin (50 goals) and Art Ross Trophy winner Patrick Kane (46 goals, 106 points). That should lead fantasy owners to believe Athanasiou, who also played for Blashill with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, could be given an opportunity to play in the top nine or even top six for a full season.
Given the Datsyuk news and the strides Larkin made as a rookie, he should be viewed as a fantasy breakout candidate and should be targeted by the late eighth or early ninth round of standard, 12-team drafts. Mantha and Svechnikov join Athanasiou as deep sleepers with fantasy upside, especially with Mantha having 10 games of NHL experience and Svechnikov, a 2015 first-round pick, yet to get even an NHL trial. Unless one emerges in training camp or the preseason, none of the three will be drafted on average and will be mainly waiver wire options.
With Mantha limited to third or fourth line opportunities for much of his NHL stint this season, he struggled defensively and appeared to be overmatched at times, leading to him being reassigned to the AHL prior to the postseason. Svechnikov had 79 points (32 goals, 47 assists) in 50 games with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2015-16 regular season and joined the Griffins for the Calder Cup Playoffs, with one assist and three SOG in two games. Svechnikov has tremendous offensive upside, but is even younger (19) than Mantha (21) and also in the early stages of his development within the organization. It remains to be seen if either will be with the Red Wings to start the 2016-17 season.
At this point, the Red Wings face a ton of lineup questions with the 2016 NHL Draft and free agency on the horizon. Larkin has the most tangible fantasy upside, but don't forget to monitor Detroit's prospect pool as the post-Datsyuk era begins.