A quick glance at the standings may not be enough to show it, but the Detroit Red Wings are in serious trouble.
Through 31 games, the Red Wings are nine points out of a playoff spot with a 13-14-4 record and 30 points. They’re tied with the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders with a minus-13 goal differential. A usually solid possession team, Detroit is currently the fifth-worst team in the league in terms of 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage under coach Jeff Blashill. And if there was any hope that this was just a run of bad luck, it won’t rest anyone’s hearts that the Red Wings’ PDO is sitting right where it should be, at an even 100, meaning the Red Wings haven’t been especially lucky or unlucky to be sitting where they are.
And for as bad as that all looks, it’s tougher then to realize that things have been at their worst over the past seven weeks, a stretch in which the Red Wings have won just seven of 23 games, with a mere three victories coming in regulation.
Detroit’s play over the better part of the past two months has been nothing short of abysmal. The team has mustered a league-worst 43 goals over the past seven weeks, their minus-20 goal differential is better than only that of the lowly Colorado Avalanche and the power play has been powerless. It’s clipping along at a paltry 10.9 percent since Oct. 28, yet another league-worst.
The issues go deeper when you consider how few true offensive threats the Red Wings have had this season. Thomas Vanek, who has played 11 fewer games than most of his mates, is only five points off the team scoring lead with five goals and 10 points. He might be the biggest threat the Red Wings have had. The scoring leader is Henrik Zetterberg with just six goals and 20 points, and that’s a lower point total than the leading scorer on all but four other teams.
One of the lone bright spots this season has been the unexpectedly great play of Jimmy Howard. An afterthought believed to be best served as trade bait or expansion draft fodder, Howard has far outplayed counterpart Petr Mrazek. In nearly 650 minutes of 5-on-5 action, Howard has the 10th-best save percentage, .937, among goaltenders to play at least 500 minutes. Mrazek ranks 25th of the 40 500-minute goaltenders at .921.
But even with the goaltending Howard has given Detroit, the issues with the power play, scoring, possession metrics and overall ability to actually win a game in regulation have the Red Wings in position to really, truly miss the post-season for the first time in 25 years, a streak that dates back to 1990-91.
Here’s the kicker, though: missing the post-season — and finishing among the league’s worst teams — might not actually be the worst thing in the long run for the Red Wings.
As unfortunate as an end to the streak would be in Hockeytown, it could be the impetus for the franchise to change its mindset. Over the past few seasons, the streak has been something that has hung over the Red Wings. Say what you will for making the playoffs, but the interest in keeping the streak alive hasn’t done a whole lot in terms of Detroit building for their future. And when those three post-season appearances result in a grand total of five playoff wins, was keeping the streak alive really all that worth it?
An end to the streak could allow the Red Wings to go all in on a youth movement, something the team could sorely use with an aging core and several young players seemingly ready to take the next step.
Dylan Larkin, for instance, is the best hope the Red Wings have for a member of their future core. Impressive in his rookie season, the 20-year-old has taken a slight step back this season, but all the tools are there for him to continue a solid progression into a true top-line player. In Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha, Detroit has another two strong offensive talents. One, Athanasiou, embodies the speed-kills mentality that is starting to take over the game, and the other, Mantha, has already proven in his short stay in the NHL that he has a big-league shot and goal-scorers mentality.
The secondary pieces of their youth movement are there, as well. The likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Tomas Nosek and Mitch Callahan are all candidates to slot into the bottom-six in the next one or two years, with a young, skilled forward like Evgeny Svechnikov as a potential impact player in a couple of seasons’ time.
If the streak ends, maybe GM Ken Holland loses interest in plugging the holes these young players could fill with veteran players instead. Signings the likes of Steve Ott and Vanek, despite his success this season, weren’t exactly necessary moves for Detroit this past summer, and avoiding signings of that ilk in the future could allow minutes for the fresher faces, especially those with some AHL success already under their belt, to learn the NHL game.
There’s also a necessity to using young players to fill those holes, and one that goes beyond the on-ice, game-to-game product. The Red Wings have, unfortunately, made somewhat of a mess of their cap situation with long-term deals for veteran players who’re starting to show their age. While Zetterberg can still go, he has another four years left on his deal. Niklas Kronwall, who has been rested in back-to-back scenarios, has two more years left on his contract. The ugly deal for Jonathan Ericsson has been the bane of some Red Wings fans’ existence, while long-term deals for Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm aren’t going to look so great in the near future.
Using young players on entry-level deals or low-cost contracts helps alleviate the cap situation, and what might be seen as some in Detroit as a necessary evil could be the very thing that helps the team take a step forward.
None of this is to mention that the streak crashing to an end this season with a near bottom-of-the-league finish would give the Red Wings something they haven’t had in ages: a top-10 pick. The last time Detroit selected a player in the top-10 was in 1991 when they took Martin Lapointe with the 10th overall selection. The next time they had a pick in the top 15, they landed Dylan Larkin. That was 2014. And the only other top-20 picks in the past 10 years have been Jakub Kindl and Svechnikov.
By failing to make the post-season, the Red Wings could be able to once again start the same draft and develop process that has made them so successful for the bulk of the past 20 years. And with the way the league has changed, Detroit could make the conscious effort to start allowing the 18-, 19- and 20-year-old players who could benefit from some NHL time to start permeating their lineup. Who knows where that could take them in two, three or four years’ time.
Sometimes you need to take a step back to take a step forward, and the end of the streak might be just the recipe for future success that Detroit so sorely needs.
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