The Detroit Red Wings are playing .500 hockey right now, but it's an optimistic .500 - and the franchise certainly seems to be in a much better place than it was last season already.
Thanks to splits with the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets - two teams that should be in the playoffs this season and may even have nice runs in them - the Red Wings are seeing positive outcomes early on and that's key for a team that was crushed during the 2019-20 campaign.
And while everyone knows that Detroit has been rebuilding under GM Steve Yzerman, last season's 17-win campaign was brutal to watch - particularly for a fan base that can still remember Stanley Cup parades in their not-too-distant past.
The Wings made a number of changes in the off-season and while some of the moves weren't universally loved, the influx of veterans such as Marc Staal, Bobby Ryan, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill has made for a less jumpy group in Detroit.
"The fresh faces have helped," said coach Jeff Blashill. "They've helped calm our bench our down a little bit - we don't seem to be nearly as excitable as we've been (in the past). Is that growth in some of our returning guys? Probably. Is that having a lot of new guys not wearing the previous year's losses or struggles? Probably. We just keep playing and that's the approach I like to take. Nothing has bothered us so far."
Ryan has been the best surprise so far. After years of struggle in Ottawa - including the revelation that he had been battling alcoholism - the talented right winger was looking for an opportunity and he got one from Detroit. Early on he has rewarded that faith with four goals in three games.
"Bobby's obviously done an unreal job," said left winger Tyler Bertuzzi. "Stech and Staal and Merrill on the back end have had a big impact. Everyone's buying into the system and doing it the right way. They're all great guys and they're fitting in perfect with us."
For Ryan, getting the chance to show he can still be a big-time scoring threat in the NHL was important. After all, this is a guy who scored more than 30 goals in four straight seasons at the beginning of his career with Anaheim. Now that he's primed himself for success again, the veteran is happy to be making an early contribution to his new squad.
"It means a lot," Ryan said. "For me, this was a proving year, an opportunity for me to take the step that I should have taken years ago but hadn't been able to because of the outside stuff. When you don't get in there right away and score or feel the puck, those things can fester and build up. To make an impact is great and I'm happy I'm contributing."
By no means are the Red Wings ready to compete for a championship yet, but that's really not the point right now: a rebuild is all about finding cornerstones, allowing those players to develop and to establish a culture that leads to, hopefully, playoff glory.
The Red Wings are well on their way to finding their cornerstones thanks to draft picks such as defenseman Moritz Seider, right winger Filip Zadina, left winger Lucas Raymond and others. In captain Dylan Larkin, they have their No. 1 center, while Anthony Mantha is a legit top-line scorer. But as the youngsters get folded into the roster, it's important that they don't grow up in a losing culture. Larkin, 24, has only been to the playoffs once in his NHL career and that was only for five games back in 2016. Neither Mantha or Bertuzzi have played in the post-season at all. Even if Detroit misses the playoffs again this year, at least being in the race for most of the campaign would be huge for the franchise. And the solid start helps.
"We're feeling good," Bertuzzi said. "We have a really good team this year and if we can keep working hard and doing the right things, we'll get rewarded."
Blashill likes a lot of what he has seen from his charges already, though the coach would like to see the team give up fewer rush chances. There's still a long way to go, but the culture seems to be taking shape, too. And that is crucial.
"I've liked their work ethic and I've liked their compete," Blashill said. "Overall that's been either really good or good and that's where it has to be for us. If we don't have that, then we don't move forward."