When the Detroit Red Wings were still within striking distance of the Boston Bruins in the playoff race, I had a conversation with a team executive with another NHL team.
I mentioned the Red Wings were hanging in there this season, a bit more competitive than they were last season. They were six or eight points out of a playoff spot.
“It’s fool’s gold,” he said. “Because of the schedule, the Bruins haven’t played as many games. They are not really in the race. I would guess Steve Yzerman knows the Red Wings aren’t a playoff team.”
He was right about the fool’s gold. It didn’t take long for the Red Wings to freefall behind the Bruins. Today, the Red Wings are 28 points out of a playoff spot. And maybe he was right about Yzerman. The Detroit GM probably knew his team isn’t yet playoff-worthy.
Some things did go right for the Red Wings. The arrival of Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond gives the franchise reason for optimism. Captain Dylan Larkin came back strong from a major injury. Tyler Bertuzzi was equally consistent offensively. Jakub Vrana is showing he can be a dangerous scorer. Alex Nedeljkovic displayed promise.
But overall this season felt disappointing. It isn’t the 31-40-10 record. That’s what you expect from a rebuilding team that is just now starting to use Steve Yzerman’s draft picks.
The disappointment comes from the lack of commitment they showed on too many nights. Too many games when they gave up too many goals. Fans saw too many games that weren’t worth watching. Too many embarrassing losses, the kind of losses that make the general manager think he needs to change everyone on the roster except Seider and Raymond.
Here are eight reasons why the season was disappointing:
1. No Defensive Commitment
According to naturalstattrick.com, the Detroit Red Wings gave up more high danger scoring chances than any other NHL team. Even when they were winning games earlier in the season, they were giving up too many scoring chances. The coaches knew it.
In 81 games, the Red Wings gave up 873 high danger scoring chances. As the category implies, these aren’t regular scoring chances.
High danger scoring chances are those that occur in the home plate-shape area in front of the net. It includes the slot and extends to the faceoff dots.
Seventy-five percent of goals come on shots from that area. To put this deficiency into perspective, consider that the Red Wings gave up 334 more high danger chances than the division rival Boston Bruins who had a league-low 539 high danger chances against.
This lack of defensive commitment from both forwards and defenseman is why the Red Wings have given up the most goals (309) they have given up since 1989-90.
2. Chronic Special Teams Trouble
How long has this been going on? We have seen a parade of new assistants. Dan Bylsma couldn’t fix the special teams problem. Alex Tanguay hasn’t fixed it. Jeff Blashill has been the head coach for seven seasons. This is on him.
Yes, they showed some improvement. But the bottom line. The Red Wings ranked 26th in the power play (16.4%) and 32nd penalty killing (73.7%). You can’t be competitive with numbers like that.
3. Yzerplan Takes Time
Here’s the truth: Yzerman could have instantly made this team more competitive if that was his ultimate goal. But he is not trying to build a team that just competes hard. Yzerman wants to build a champion. He is a savvy talent evaluator. But he’s in a rebuild mode where he walks a fine line between wanting a team that finishes low enough to draft early and trying to be competitive enough not to be embarrassed.
The Yzerplan will take time. He told everyone that when he became general manager. If you watched Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, you know he knows what he is doing. But the team only has two of his draft picks. Simon Edvinsson is coming next season and we could start to see others.
But right now this team is not there yet.
Reasonably sure Yzerman knew he wouldn’t make the playoffs this season. But we can also be sure that he was furious about some of this season’s embarrassing losses. That’s not who he is. He expects his teams to be competitive. This team wasn’t competitive in multiple games.
4. Blashill Factor
It’s not the team’s record that puts Blashill on the hot seat. It’s the ugliness of their performances on too many nights. There’s a staleness to Detroit’s approach. Players seem too comfortable. The team’s slow starts and the lack of pushback. My colleague Bob Duff lays our five reasons why Blashill needs to be replaced.
5. Do-over for defense
With the addition of respected veteran Nick Leddy, the Red Wings looked like they had the deepest group of defensemen they ever had during Jeff Blashill’s tenure.
But Leddy wasn’t the player he was for the New York Islanders. He had moments, and certainly helped in the development of Moritz Seider. But Leddy didn’t have the anticipated impact. Leddy was -33 when he was traded to St. Louis, where he has played much better.
Maybe more importantly, Filip Hronek took a step backwards. Maybe he had a difficult time adjusting to a new role he played with Seider becoming the No. 1 defenseman. He could be traded this summer.
Also, Danny DeKeyser continued to struggle. He hasn’t been the same since undergoing major back surgery. Gus Lindstrom took a step back in his development.
The defensive performance would have been much worse if not for the fact that Moritz Seider’s performance was just short of unbelievable. Marc Staal worked hard every night.
6. Vrana Injury
Jakub Vrana was expected to be the team’s leading goal scorer, or at least one of their top scorers. But he was injured in his first shift in training camp. He needed surgery and couldn’t return to the lineup until March.
The Red Wings were angry about this situation because he was injured the previous season. The Red Wings wanted him to have surgery but he elected to rehab the injury without surgery.
If you look at his numbers with Detroit (21 goals in 36 games), you can see how much his injury/rehab decision hurt the Red Wings this season. Imagine the team with Vrana replacing Filip Zadina on the second line for the entire season.
7. Team needs size and physical players
Captain Dylan Larkin mentioned a couple of times that the team had trouble against physical teams. For example, they struggled against the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames, two teams that like to hit. This team lacked pushback on too many nights.
It became evident during the season that Pius Suter can be a helpful offensive player. But the Red Wings need a bigger, more forceful No. 2 center. Yzerman will look for one this offseason.
8. Filip Zadina Frustration
The Red Wings were hoping Zadina would blossom into a 20-goal scorer. It just didn’t happen. He had plenty of chances, but couldn’t finish.
The big question now is whether the Red Wings should continue to be patient or trade Zadina because he still has value as a potential scorer. He was drafted sixth overall. That’s the same spot where Yzerman found Moritz Seider. The rebuild would be helped significantly if Zadina can develop into a top six scorer.