The Wings come out of their post All-Star bye week and return to action on Friday night against Toronto. They begin their final leg of the season sitting in 29th place in points percentage. The bottom of the standings currently consists of a cluster of about six teams or so, taking into account games played.
Outside of a hot streak in late November and December, it’s a place the Wings have found themselves in for most of the season. For those that fully embrace team tank, you have likely been keeping a close eye as the Wings sputter around the various top lottery positions. For those that aren’t fully on board, you are probably watching for the youth development and hoping this team can show signs of turning the corner back towards contention soon.
Whichever camp you are in, the Wings are in an interesting situation the next few weeks as far as their schedule.
The first thing that jumps out is the Wings have a very busy February in front of them. After getting a four day break following this weekend’s back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday, they have 11 games in 20 days. They do, however, have a five game home stand to end the month, which will help ease the burden. The other item to note is their opponents this month. The Wings have a heavy schedule of other teams with lofty lottery chances.
Here’s a breakdown of some of those key games:
Feb 2 - Ottawa Senators - The Wings will travel to Ottawa for the second game of a back-to-back, where they will face the currently last place Senators. In case you forgot, the Sens are doing the legwork for Colorado as their first round pick was dealt to them as part of the Matt Duchene deal.
Ottawa is also dealing with expiring contracts for both Duchene and Mark Stone. Neither player is likely to be dealt before this game though.
The Senators also happen to have, by no coincidence, one of the worst owner and management groups in the league. This is one, win or lose, Wings fans can look at and think "at least we’re not them."
Feb 10 - Chicago Blackhawks - After a pair of games against some better teams in Vegas and Buffalo, the Wings square off with their old rival.
Times have certainly changed quickly in Chicago where the Blackhawks were one of the league’s perennial contenders. Just two seasons ago they finished at the top of the Western Conference. The Blackhawks are currently tied with Detroit in the standings, owning a tie breaker in regulation/overtime wins to slot them just in front.
Given the amount of lengthy and expensive contracts doled out to the core from their glory years, Chicago could be a long way from returning to contention. Does that story sound familiar?
Feb 14 - Ottawa Senators - The Wings get a Valentine’s date with the Senators. Another reminder because it’s fun; the Senators will be desperately clawing to get points to avoid being the dreaded lottery winner who then turns their pick over to someone else. It’s possible by this point Ottawa’s lineup may be even thinner if they deal either of Duchene or Stone in fear that they will not be re-signing this offseason.
So, by the time these games come around, they may not provide the lottery standoff type matchups the other games listed are. But they are being included for now because the Flyers are still just 3 points in front of Detroit.
New GM Chuck Fletcher has declared anybody except Giroux is on the block for Philadelphia, so there could be significant change to their lineup before then as well. Also, it will be anybody’s guess who will be in the Flyers’ net for these games, as they have had quite the carousel between the pipes (5 different goalies have played for the Flyers this season).
Feb 20 - Chicago Blackhawks - This time the Blackhawks come to Detroit for the matchup. The trade deadline (Monday, Feb 25th) will be near by the time we reach this contest, so it’s highly possible both teams have made moves by then. This will also be the last contest between these two this season.
All in all, Detroit faces teams at or near the bottom in 6 of 13 games this month, particularly in the middle of the month. These games have appeal to both “Team Tank” and “Team Don’t Let the Bottom Fall Out.”
There is no better way to improve lottery odds than by losing to these teams and providing them with hard to come by points. On the flip side of that, stringing together some wins against other cellar dwellers can provide a morale boost to the fan base demonstrating that as far as the Wings still have to climb back to relevancy, there are others in worse shape.
This stretch will likely end up being critical in determining lottery positions as the Wings only play two other games through the rest of the season against teams that are also near the bottom of the standings. They play Florida and New Jersey in March, and even Florida is on the edge of being a cut above the bottom teams.
If you don’t fancy all the lottery positioning talk, February will also be a good time for you to watch as much as you can because March and April look to be challenging months for the fan psyche. The Wings will be playing mostly teams in playoff positions or at teams competing for those spots.
These games will also come after the trade deadline when the team has likely jettisoned a couple players for picks and prospects, furthering the gap in competition.
As noted above, the trade deadline is Monday, February 25th. Assuming Ken Holland and Co. are standing by their word as sellers at the deadline, as they should be, they may need to consider the upcoming schedule as well.
If management wants to focus on obtaining a better lottery position, then it may best suit their interest to deal players sooner rather than later.
There are a few reasons for this; the first is recognizing the significance of these games to their lottery odds and positioning their roster accordingly.
In that same vein, the sooner players are moved, the more games the team plays with a depleted roster, which will also provide valuable experience to younger players who will need to be called up from Grand Rapids.
Obviously, if waiting means they net a return much like last year’s coup for Tatar, then that is more important than a few extra lottery balls. But teams are already beginning to position themselves, as demonstrated by LA’s dealing of Jake Muzzin. The Wings would be wise to do the same.