When the Detroit Red Wings were still within striking distance of the Boston Bruins in the playoff run, I had a chat with an executive from another NHL team.
I mentioned that the Red Wings have been holding their own this season, a little more competitive than they were last season. They were six or eight points from 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 guess Steve Yzerman knows the Red Wings are not a playoff team.
He was right about fool’s gold. It didn’t take long for the Red Wings to fall behind the Bruins. Today, the Red Wings are 28 points from a playoff spot. And maybe he was right about Yzerman. Detroit’s general manager probably knew his team wasn’t playoff-worthy yet.
Some things have gone well for the Red Wings. The arrival of Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond gives the franchise reason for optimism. Captain Dylan Larkin has come back strong from a serious injury. Tyler Bertuzzi was equally consistent offensively. Jakub Vrana shows he can be a dangerous goalscorer. Alex Nedeljkovic showed promise.
But overall, this season has been disappointing. This is not the 31-40-10 record. That’s what you’d expect from a rebuilding team that’s just starting to use Steve Yzerman’s draft picks.
The disappointment comes from the lack of commitment they have shown for too many nights. Too many games when they allowed too many goals. Fans have seen too many games that weren’t worth watching. Too many embarrassing losses, the kind of losses that make the GM 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 engagement
According to naturalstattrick.com, the Detroit Red Wings gave up more high-risk scoring chances than any other NHL team. Even when they were winning games earlier in the season, they were giving up too many scoring opportunities. The coaches knew it.
In 81 games, the Red Wings allowed 873 high-risk scoring chances. As the category suggests, these are not regular scoring chances.
The chances of scoring a high hazard are those that occur in the marble-shaped area in front of the net. It includes the slot and extends to face-off points.
Seventy-five percent of goals are scored by shots from this area. To put that shortcoming in perspective, consider that the Red Wings gave up 334 higher danger chances than their division rival, the Boston Bruins, who had 539 danger chances against the league’s lowest.
This lack of defensive commitment from forwards and defenseman is why the Red Wings have allowed the most goals (309) since 1989-90.
2. Special Teams Chronic Problem
How long has this been going on? We saw a parade of new assistants. Dan Bylsma couldn’t solve the special teams problem. Alex Tanguay did not fix it. Jeff Blashill was the head coach for seven seasons. It’s on him.
Yes, they have shown some improvement. But the bottom line. The Red Wings ranked 26th in powerplay (16.4%) and 32nd in shorthandedness (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’s 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 rebuilding mode where he’s walking 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 when he became general manager. If you’ve watched Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, you know he knows what he’s doing. But the team only has two of its draft picks. Simon Edvinsson arrives next season and we could start to see others.
But for the moment, this team is not there yet.
Reasonably sure, Yzerman knew he wouldn’t make the playoffs this season. But we can also be sure he was furious at some of the embarrassing losses this season. It’s not who he is. He expects his teams to be competitive. This team has not been competitive in several games.
4. Blashill Factor
It’s not the team record that puts Blashill on the spot. It’s the ugliness of their performances on too many nights. There is a certain obsolescence in Detroit’s approach. The players seem too comfortable. The team’s slow starts and lack of perspective. My colleague Bob Duff poses 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 appeared to have the deepest field of defensemen they had 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 contributed to the development of Moritz Seider. But Leddy did not have the expected impact. Leddy was -33 when he was traded to St. Louis, where he played much better.
Perhaps more importantly, Filip Hronek took a step back. Perhaps he had a hard time adjusting to a new role he took on as Seider became the number one defender. He could be traded this summer.
Additionally, Danny DeKeyser continued to struggle. He hasn’t been the same since he underwent major back surgery. Gus Lindstrom taken a step back in its development.
The defensive performance would have been much worse if it weren’t for the fact that Moritz Seider’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Marc Staal worked hard every night.
6. Vrana’s Wound
Jakub Vrana had to be the team’s top scorer, or at least one of their top scorers. But he was injured on his first shift in training camp. He needed surgery and wasn’t able to return to the roster until March.
The Red Wings were unhappy with this situation as he had been injured the previous season. The Red Wings wanted him to have surgery, but he opted to treat 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 has hurt the Red Wings this season. Imagine the team with Vrana replacing Filip Zadina on the second row for the whole season.
7. The team needs size and physical players
Captain Dylan Larkin mentioned a few times that the team had issues against physical teams. For example, they battled the Nashville Predators and the Calgary Flames, two teams that like to hit. This team has lacked perspective for too many nights.
It has become apparent over the season that Pius Suter can be a useful attacking player. But the Red Wings need a bigger, more powerful No. 2 center. Yzerman will be looking for one this offseason.
8. Frustration of Filip Zadina
The Red Wings hoped Zadina would become a 20-goal scorer. It just didn’t happen. He had a lot of chances, but couldn’t finish.
The big question now is whether the Red Wings should continue to be patient or trade Zadina as he still has value as a potential goalscorer. He was drafted sixth overall. This is the same place where Yzerman found Moritz Seider. The reconstruction would be significantly helped if Zadina could become one of the top six scorers.
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