Yes. You read the title correctly.
The Detroit Red Wings have spent a quarter-century straight in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it’s gotten to the point where the franchise has now commemorated the number and feat of just getting into the dance with a big fat silver logo at center ice, replacing the memorable “Hockeytown” logo for the 2016 Tournament. The team, naturally, was eliminated in the first round for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
But let’s look past that. Let’s look at the wonderful tradition that the team has now with the hallowed gates of Joe Louis Arena closing this April. They’ve won four Cups during the streak, captured six Western Conference Championships, six Presidents’ Trophies, and an astounding 14 division championships from the Norris to the Central. Some of the all-time greats, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Pavel Datsyuk, The Grind Line, and the 2002 all-millenium team provided so many memorable moments on such a historic sheet of ice that’s housed countless classics over the past two decades plus.
Herein lies the problem. None of those players are on the team anymore. The salary cap exists now. The last Cup came in 2008. The last division crown came in 2011. The celebration of tradition and success of past years is well deserved and always nice to reminisce, but the effort to keep the last trace of tradition of those days left with this streak is like blink-182 and Green Day trying to recapture their golden years with “California” and “Revolution Radio.” It’s stale and repetitive. The last three finishes to the season for Detroit have exemplified those two terms.
The Red Wings Will Not, and Should Not, Make the Playoffs
The 2016-17 edition of the club may be the biggest red flag in this stretch since Lidstrom’s retirement where the Wings have been fighting to get in in the last week or on multiple occasions, the last day. It may be easy to say that in a 3-8-1 stretch since a 6-2 start, but in many ways, this has been a long time coming and it is pouring heavily now. Here are the worrisome traits of this year’s team that should bring about a spirit for change, and unfortunately, some pain to
They Can’t Compete in the Atlantic
To get past the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you obviously have to match up and overtake the best in your division with the 2013-14 realignment creating inter-division clashes come spring. The Red Wings since the new divisions were created have been average at best with two third place finishes and wild card spot equating to a 44-30-16 record over the three seasons. Each one has ended in a first round defeat, twice in five games. This season, if the previous three years ending in an overall under .500 record was telling about the playoff defeats, this year the team is 2-6 to start against Atlantic Division opponents. It hasn’t even been close either.
The Wings have been outscored 27-16 putting up a pathetic 46.7% Corsi-for percentage in those eight contests. This has the team currently tied for last place in the division and tied for 5th-worst in the league. What’s more, the two supposed “next ones” in Detroit, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, have one combined goal and six combined points against interdivisional opponents with the former striking in Buffalo on Wednesday. To get the glory, you have to beat your division. This team can’t score more than one goal against the team tied with them in the basement, so is there any reason to believe a seven-game playoff series against Tampa’s Ben Bishop, Florida’s Roberto Luongo, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson or Montreal’s Carey Price will be much different?
Nyquist and Tatar Aren’t Accepting the Torch Like Their Predecessors
You probably had an inkling that these two would get more than one mention. There was a sense of similarity coming out of the draft for these two with their Euro Twins before them. Both were drafted higher than Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg with Tatar in the second round and Nyquist in the fourth, but on the ice, right out of the gate they seemed to be the next wave that would take this Red Wing team back to glory. Nyquist posted back-to-back 25+ goal seasons from ’13-15 and Tatar nearly scored 30 in 2014-15 topping out at 29. Both were trending upward going into a new, more offensively focused system under Jeff Blashill. However, last season comes. Both were docked nearly two minutes of ice time each and saw those goal and point totals fall.
Nyquist scored ten less goals and 11 less points while Tatar scored eight less markers and also 11 less points. Their Corsi numbers were not a problem, as each combined for 54%, but each saw a tremendous dip in shots on goal with Tatar dropping 46 down and the 27-year old Nyquist dropping 34 attempts on net from the previous season. This year, with significantly more ice time (+1:51 for Nyquist, +3:00 for Tatar), both have failed to solve their offensive woes, and frankly, have been worse.
The 25-year old Slovak had five games in October in which he had four-plus shots in a ten game stretch. The last ten games, he’s had just one potting just three goals all year and ten goals his past 51 regular season games. The Halmstad, Sweden native has had just three four-plus shot games all season and has scored ten goals his past 70 regular season games. As mentioned before, they have not risen to the occasion in big games that the team must match up in, either. When Yzerman was in his last year, it was Datsyuk and Zetterberg’s team. Zetterberg is 36 and it is still his team, averaging 19:24 of ice time per contest. By February, those miles will add up on account of surgeries in the recent past and the speed of today’s game.
Reliance on Netminders and Failure to Reward Them
This season, the Wings have been blessed with the rejuvenation of Jimmy Howard and his ability to be a top-ten goaltender in the league, taking over the starting spot with a 1.76 goals against average and .943 save percentage ranking seventh and sixth among all tenders. Goaltending coach Jeff Salajko has been one of the more under the radar additions to the coaching staff and has done a tremendous job getting Howard back to his old form, as he’s allowed one goal or less seven times in eight starts. Only problem: he’s received 1.5 goals of support per appearance which is the least amount of support in the league, and his team has scored three goals just once for him in ten starts. The defense in front of him or Petr Mrazek has not done much better, as in the latter’s case he’s had to face 30+ shots eight times in his ten starts and his 3.16 goals against average and .901 save percentage have him sitting on the bench these days. With the team already not winning with the superb goaltending they are getting at the moment, what happens when Howard falls off a bit like Mrazek did last season? If last year was any indication, it will get ugly.
Atrocious Puck Possession
Detroit already ranks last in terms of shots on goal per game with 27.6, and allows 31.6 per contest to rank 25th, and that leaves their once gleaming puck possession game down to a 45.37% Corsi-for percentage, which ranks dead last. The Red Wings since 2010 have always been among the league’s best, ranking in the top three three times and top ten every season. Twice in the span, the last overall team in terms of puck possession has made the playoffs but suffered a first round exit both times (Anaheim, 2011, 44.28% & Toronto, 2013, 44.10%). Toronto’s appearance was in a shortened season as well. Their showing against Buffalo on Wednesday, who came into the game just three slots ahead of Detroit with a team-wide 47.53% Corsi-for percentage, was already their fourth game of 40% or less puck possession. They had ten such games last season. Their inability to drive possession consistently has lead to their inability to get shots on goal, and of course, you need some of those to score.
Too Many Disappointments On Defense
The Red Wings blueline brigade was a known weakness coming into this season, having no true number one to direct the core and little to no offense combining for 32 goals and 140 points with only two players above 25 points in Niklas Kronwall (26) and Mike Green (35) last season. The six regulars who played 60 games or more combined for an average 52% Corsi-for percentage. On the power play, each combined for 34 power play points out of the core’s grand total of 35 (!!!). Green was the only one to pass 100 shots with 124, which ranked 51st in the NHL. This season, it’s no coincidence that the regression in the defense is a factor in the ability to create some offense.
Through 20, the regular seven in the rotation has amassed a 45% possession rating. One knows there’s a problem when Jonathan Ericsson (who’s looked really solid this season), ranks first on the team with a 48.9% rating among defenders who have played at least 15 games currently holding zero goals and four assists to his name. The rise of Ryan Sproul in his nine-game stint has been promising, but in his short sample he sadly leads the team as a rookie with a 49.10% mark potting a solid goal and five points. The top pairing has been a disaster up front in the transition game with Danny Dekeyser and Green constantly getting pinned in their own zone. Green since his hot start has just four assists his last 15 games, and Dekeyser has just 13 shots in his 20 games played going into his first year of a six-year, $30 million contract and just does not get the job done up top, setting a bad precedent for the next two pairings with a dreadful 41.72% Corsi-for percentage.
Niklas Kronwall‘s return has been more of a detriment than a positive, as Brendan Smith averaged a 48.1% Corsi-for mark before being paired with Kronwall in his last seven games. Since, he’s ranked dead last on the team with a 37.30% mark and Kronwall in his eight-game stint has managed a 40.1% performance to currently rank last overall on the Red Wing defense. Each have combined for two goals and five points with Smith netting all three power play points between the two. With the inability of the forwards to cover for a subpar defense, the Wings’ goaltenders are facing the brunt of it and the team has suffered in consequence.
We all want the Red Wings to succeed and have at least a chance to win the Cup evidenced by the desire to extend the historic streak. However, the ingredients just aren’t there for this team to make a run and really have not been there since the departure of Lidstrom. The lack of superstars to rely on each and every night to be a bedrock up front and on defense really kill the consistency of this team, and players like Jonathan Toews, Mark Scheifele, Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar and Erik Karlsson do not grow on trees and aren’t guaranteed to hit the market any time soon. These players are acquired through pain, but have brought reward to their teams in the forms of Conference Championships, Norris Trophies, scoring titles, promise, and Stanley Cups, more than what the Red Wings can say of themselves since 2009.
Management will obviously be hesitant to start the process of rebuilding, especially with Little Caesar’s Arena on the horizon and Joe’s tradition being celebrated as it is with the “T” word being so important to an Original Six franchise.
However, the focus on keeping the tradition of years past alive with the last aspect being the streak has hindered any progress to retool and be a legitimate contender again to create a new winning tradition.
The Wings do have some pieces in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Sproul up with the big club in addition to guys like Joe Hicketts, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Villi Saarijarvi in the system, but need those bonafide ready talents to help these players become even better and provide some sort of excitement to build around. It also may be a weaker draft this season according to many pundits, but the process has to start sooner rather than later so they can even have a chance at the prospective talent available. There are also still 62 games yet to be played this season and the Wings are missing a couple important players in the lineup in Darren Helm and Athanasiou, but overall, this team has shown nothing to convince that they will turn a corner sometime soon.
It’s time. For the future of “Hockeytown,” it’s time for Ken Holland to realize changes need to be made at the expense of celebration of past glory.
The “R” word can no longer be taboo. Rebuild.