It would appear that the glory days of the Detroit Red Wings are behind them. The Red Wings now sit seventh in the Atlantic Division, a full seven spots out of the last Wild Card position. They are also 26th in the league in points.
The 2016-17 season has not been kind to this Motor City team. The franchise has managed to scrape together an atrocious 16-17-5 record, posting a worrying 4-6-2 in the month of December. The new year hasn’t been much kinder as they’ve gone 0-1-1 so far.
On January 1 at the Centennial Classic, the Wings lost in spectacular fashion outdoors in overtime to the Toronto Maples Leafs. On January 3, they dropped a 2-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center.
In short, the Detroit Red Wings have grown stagnant. What’s wrong with the Red Wings?
In June of 2016, Pavel Datsyuk announced that he was leaving the NHL to play in Russia; reportedly to be closer to his family. With a year left on his contract, the Red Wings managed to trade away the Russian center’s NHL rights to the Arizona Coyotes in return for a few picks and prospect Joe Vitale. Then quietly, Datsyuk returned to Russia in the offseason and now plays for SKA Saint Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
In this post-Datsyuk era, the Detroit Red Wings are among the league’s worst at putting pucks in the back of the net. They are currently 27th in goals for. Not surprisingly, their power play is lacking as well. Operating at an abysmal 11.5 percent, the Wings are 30th in the league when it comes to the man advantage.
Without “The Magic Man” Pavel Datsyuk, general manager Ken Holland was forced to look outside the organization to fill the void. Holland made waves when he signed high profile unrestricted free agents Thomas Vanek, Frans Nielsen, and Steve Ott.
The New Guys
Thomas Vanek, for the most part, has surpassed expectations. Vanek signed a one-year contract worth $2.6 million with the Wings this season. After a lack-luster couple of years in Minnesota, the veteran left winger made an immediate impact with his new club. The honeymoon was cut short after a lower-body injury suffered in October sidelined the 32-year-old winger for most of November. In 27 games played, Vanek has managed to tally seven goals and 14 assists.
When Holland landed Frans Nielsen this offseason in a blockbuster six-year $31.5 million deal, the hearts of New York Islanders fans everywhere were broken. The veteran center was acquired in a highly publicized free agent signing which saw Nielsen leave New York, whom he had played the last 10 years with. In 38 games with the Detroit Red Wings, Nielsen has put up eight goals and 11 assists. Coupled with a minus-16 rating, things are not looking good for the newly acquired Dane who is under contract through the 2021-22 season.
There’s not much to say about the 34-year-old NHL journeyman Steve Ott. His 14-year career has included stints with the Dallas Stars, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, and now the Detroit Red Wings. Ott signed a one-year deal worth $800,000 with the Red Wings this offseason. For the most part, Ott has done what he was signed to do. He is a gritty, in-your-face, character player who is known to get under the skin of his opponents. He’s racked up 56 penalty minutes in 34 games this season, notching two goals and two assists in the process.
With what ultimately amounts to a group of underwhelming offseason additions, and the steady decline of the Detroit Red Wings, Holland has come under an increasing amount of scrutiny and criticism.
Holland has been with the Red Wings for a long time.
He has been the general manager since 1998. Before that he worked various roles including director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager. He has won four Stanley Cups with the team (1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008), but has failed to build a team capable of taking home the cup for a long time now.
The problem with Holland, as far as the fans are concerned, is that he lacks the ability to make big trades and sign high-profile players. That is not necessarily true, but this perception still prevails. It is unlikely for Holland to change that perception this year. The Detroit Red Wings have no available cap space and will need to unload some considerable salaries in order to add any new pieces to his team.
For Holland and the Red Wings, not making those big trades or signing the high-profile players hasn’t really been an issue until relatively recently. By and large, Detroit’s talent has been primarily home-grown. The Grand Rapid Griffins, Detroit’s farm team, have produced a wealth of talent over the years.
Consider the 2015-16 season a test run for this year’s campaign. Head coach Mike Babcock had moved on to Toronto and a slew of injuries found the Red Wings with a bench full of Griffins. Jeff Blashill, former Grand Rapid Griffins Head Coach, took the reins and coached the Wings to their 24th consecutive playoff appearance.
Has the well run dry? The young guns have cooled off considerably.
The Young Guns
After an incredible rookie campaign, Dylan Larkin’s sophomore season is anything but. Larkin saw great success centering the team’s top line last year. Now Larkin finds himself centering the third line alongside Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening. Larkin has managed a respectable 11 goals and four assists so far this campaign. The trio combined have a team worst minus-33 rating.
The 2016-17 season has finally provided Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou their opportunity to shine. Each of these young forwards have exhibited moments of true talent. But with 21 points between the two of them, their impact on the scoreboard has been negligible at best.
The Red Wings guns have struggled on the blue line too.
A Deteriorating Defensive Core
Since injuries have sidelined Detroit’s top blue liners, Coach Blashill has been forced to rely on a young and inexperienced defensive core. Mike Green and Niklas Kronwall are ailing from an upper body and knee injury. The torch has been passed rather ingloriously to Detroit’s next generation of defensemen.
With an average age of 25, you would be hard pressed to find a less seasoned defensive core anywhere in the league. To put it lightly, the Red Wings’ blue line needs some work.
Guys Who Need to Step Up
Obviously there are a lot of moving pieces here. Guys are brought up, sent back down, get injured, and sometimes just have off days.
As elite as Henrik Zetterberg might be, he can’t carry the whole team. There needs to be some consistency from the team’s core players, or the character guys. One of them is Gustav Nyquist.
Nyquist’s production has significantly decreased since his breakout 2014-15 season. That year he potted 27 goals, 27 assists, and 54 points. After signing a lucrative four-year $19 million deal in 2015, Nyquist has failed to live up to expectations. So far this season he has managed a mere four goals and 14 assists.
With little point production, Detroit’s goalies are having a hard time helping their team win games.
Detroit’s goaltending problems run deeper than simply stopping pucks.
Petr Mrazek, who saw the lion’s share of starts for the Wings after last year’s all-star break, was sure to be the team’s number one tender in 2016-17. Mrazek got off to a rough start though.
Predictably, Mrazek was replaced by (former) starter Jimmy Howard. Howard has since been sidelined with a sprained MCL and Mrazek now finds himself competing for starts against rookie Jared Coreau.
Coreau, with some controversy, was given the nod by Blashill and started in net for the Wings for the outdoor Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day.
To make matters worse, Howard has essentially become a $5.3 million human paperweight. He is now injured and unable to play. Moving him to another team (without retaining at least some of his salary) seems very unlikely. Not to mention the modified no-trade clause built into his contract until the end of the 2017-18 season.
There’s not much Ken Holland or Jeff Blashill can do about their current goal tending predicament. Even if they could find an NHL caliber starting goalie, there is simply no room in the cap to sign them.
The Detroit Red Wings’ woes are real. They are severe. They are not going anywhere anytime soon. With nearly $9 million tied up on the long-term injured reserve list, the Detroit Red Wings might have to bow out of the playoffs this year. This would mean the end of a historic streak.
For the past 24 years, the Detroit Red Wings have managed to make the playoffs. Barring an incredible second half of the season, that streak appears to have run its course.
“From Our Haus to Yours”