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The “What Ifs” That Could Have Led the Wings to the Playoffs

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Welcome to Bizarro World, where the Red Wings are a playoff team.

Detroit Red Wings v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Now that enough time has passed that the sting of missing the playoffs has numbed, it is time to rip that scar right off and start the bleeding anew while howling “what if???” to the heavens, desperate for answers. As the Stanley Cup Final looms, the time is right to look at some what-if scenarios that could have landed the Wings a spot in the playoffs and, potentially, a shot at the Cup.

For these scenarios I am going to avoid going off the board with wildly intangible premises. So this article will not be exploring anything like “What if Detroit traded for Kevin Shattenkirk?” because there is no way to effectively evaluate how that would have worked out. Instead, this article will focus on goals. Broadly, what if Detroit was better at putting pucks into the other guys’ net and keeping them out of their own? Before we get started, let’s look at some goal counters.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 207

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 244

Alright, so that is 37 goals the Wings need to make up just to break even. Let’s put on our imagination caps and see where they end up.

What if Anthony Mantha was in Detroit all year?

Anthony Mantha started the season in Grand Rapids, much to the chagrin of many Wings fans and, presumably, Mantha himself. When he finally got the call-up 15 games into the season, he proved what a mistake it was to send him to the Griffins in the first place. In 60 games throughout the rest of the season, Mantha was good for 17 goals. In an offense-choked league, 17 goal scorers can’t be left buried in the minors.

But what if Big Tony spent the whole season with the Red Wings? To figure out how that is even possible, the team needs to go back in time to the off season and say farewell to Steve Ott. (Let’s all take a moment of silence.)

Okay! So the Wings would lose Ott’s three goals he accumulated with the Wings, but by taking Mantha’s shots-per-game average (2.22) and multiplying it by the number of games he’d have played had he been up all year (75), Mantha would have fired 166 shots during the 2016-17 campaign. At his shooting percentage of 12.8% on the season, he would have tallied a total of four more goals for a total of 21. After Ott’s three goals are subtracted from the team total it’s nearly a wash. But then again, there were so many times this season when the Wings were desperate for a goal from anywhere, that one extra goal would be worth its weight in gold.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 208

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 244

What if Riley Sheahan’s shooting percentage was insanely normal instead of insanely bad?

It was kind of fascinating the way Riley Sheahan could not score to save his life this past season. But what if it hadn’t been so hard? Sheahan was plagued with an absolutely terrible shooting percentage of 1.8%; the average shooting percentage of all NHL players is 9.11%. What if Riley Sheahan was not extremely unlucky whenever he released the puck off his stick?

Well, the result isn’t exactly a Christmas miracle, but it’s still nothing to snub. Sheahan took 109 shots this season, and if he was shooting at 9.11% he would have scored a total of 10 goals, eight more than in reality. On the one hand, fans would have still been disappointed in only ten goals from Sheahan, but on the other hand his eight additional goals would have been a tremendous boon to the Wings’ offense.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 216

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 244

What if Nyquist, Larkin, and Abdelkader combined for ten more goals?

This is sort of the fuzzy catch-all what if, a kind of “what if the Wings were magically better” hypothetical. Still, it is not unreasonable to imagine the trio of Gustav Nyquist, Dylan Larkin, and Justin Abdelkader collecting ten cumulative goals between the three of them. These three players were supposed to be heavy lifters offensively this year, but each of them struggled to find the back of the net.

One way to cut it is four more goals a piece for Nyquist and Larkin, and two more for Abdelkader. I don’t think that is too much to ask, considering Abdelkader alone scored 12 more goals last year than he did this year. This added nudge reflects a Wings team that is running a tighter ship without pushing the scenario too far outside the realm of possibility in regards to the kind of seasons these players were already having.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 226

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 244

What if Petr Mrazek matched his career average save percentage?

Petr Mrazek cast a shadow over his status as the bonafide starter in Detroit with some shaky performances this year, ending with a sub-par .901 save percentage. He let in 30 more goals this season than last year in about 100 fewer minutes. To his credit, he faced even more shots this season than last in that time frame, so I’m not trying to dump on Petr or anything; there were lots of systemic team issues at the heart of his lapse in save percentage.

Prior to this season, his save percentage was .920. If he maintained that save percentage against the 1462 shots he faced in 2016-17, he would have stopped about 28 more goals against this season. That is tremendous. Granted, if Petr was playing this well he would have started more games, but the scope of this article isn’t going to delve into how many more games Blashill would have felt like starting Mrazek had he stopped 92% of all shots faced.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 226

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 216

What if Detroit didn’t trade Thomas Vanek?

If these other what ifs came to pass, then this one would be the result. Detroit would have been firmly in the playoff mix at the deadline and Ken Holland would have absolutely zero desire to part ways with Thomas Vanek. He would have remained a fixture on the third line and as a net front presence, and WiiM’s top story the day after the deadline would probably have been “Should we have traded Thomas Vanek???” (Or maybe, in this bizarro Steve Ott-less universe, the Wings pick him up at the deadline.)

Vanek took 99 shots in 48 games, about 2 per game. After the deadline, Detroit played in 21 games. So, that means Vanek shoots 42 more shots in the season’s remainder, and at his 15.8 (wildly unsustainable) shooting percentage, he pots 6 more goals for the Wings. That makes him a third 20 goal scorer for the Wings, alongside Tatar and Mantha.

Red Wings 2016-17 GF: 232

Red Wings 2016-17 GA: 216

The End Result:

If all of this had come to pass, Detroit would have scored 232 goals on the season, while only letting in 216. That would have resulted somewhere in the ballpark of 8-10 more wins, and around 16-20 more points. The Wings would have bumped the Leafs from the post-season and have finished anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the Atlantic, depending which games/teams these points were exacted from. This could mean a first round match up against the Capitals or Bruins, but most likely results in a clash against the Senators.

A month ago I would have said the Wings actually have a solid chance advancing against Ottawa, but given the way Ottawa managed to destroy Boston and New York’s transition game, the Wings’ relatively poor transition game would have been exploited for a series loss that probably doesn't go beyond six games. That means the last game at Joe Louis Arena could be a loss, or maybe it is a win and the team loses the series on the road. Either way, it would be a very unfitting way to say farewell. Furthermore, instead of looking at the first steps of a rebuild, Detroit would continue its ways, searching this off-season for a way to stretch the streak to 27. The conversations right now would be the exact same they were a year ago, except everyone would be one year older and the Red Wings would be one year further away from the rebuild they desperately need.

So sometimes it’s good when the what ifs don’t come to pass, however enticing they may seem in the moment.