If you’re reading this, you’re probably having a much better time watching the Red Wings than you’ve had in years. They’re playing hard, scoring at a higher pace, and pushing to be better with every outing. There’s a lot to love about this team. From the fresh faces to the development of chemistry, every game, no matter the score, has something exciting going on.
When the going gets tough, hockey fans tend to panic — and Detroit fans are no exception. From calls of “trade Larkin” to “Zadina is a bust” to “burn the whole thing down”, social media becomes a reactionary place when the team underperforms. Last night’s loss against the Dallas Stars was no exception.
The Red Wings are playing better hockey than the last few years — but they are by no means a playoff team. More often than not, the team’s been lucky enough to secure wins against backup goaltenders. In fact, just three of their last 10 games have been against their opponents’ starters. This has played a key role in those exciting multi-goal games, like the one against the Edmonton Oilers last week.
Sure, they scored six goals on Andrei Vasilevskiy. They even put up a good fight against Sergei Bobrovsky. But the fact remains that Detroit is in the Atlantic Division, one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL. Going up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Florida Panthers is sure to invite a few tough losses. This doesn’t even factor in the Montreal Canadiens, who are slowly improving, and the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, who have surprised many with their organized sense of play.
Still, there’s no reason to give up hope. The Red Wings are not the team they were last season, or even the season before. They’re young, hungry, and learning. When things start to get difficult, utilize these little tidbits to feel a little more optimistic:
Better than before by the numbers
I could give you platitudes about competitiveness and heart, but the numbers the Red Wings are putting up this season practically speak for themselves. Through 18 games, the Red Wings have scored 51 goals — that’s nearly three goals-per-game. They are fifth in the league in goal scoring. Last season, the Red Wings scored just 35 goals in 18 games and were 30th in goals with just a single goal more than the worst offense in the league.
The team’s offense isn’t the only thing that’s improved. Defense (and defensive efforts) have improved across the board. Since defensemen are a little tougher to judge with the eye test, I’ve enlisted the help of Evolving Hockey’s outstanding RAPM model (regularized adjusted plus-minus) to help prove my point. Below, you’ll find Gustav Lindstrom’s offensive and defensive metrics from last season.
For the people that aren’t sure what the bars mean, essentially, Lindstrom struggled to produce offense relative to his ice time. His defensive metrics were above replacement-level, but they didn’t translate to much beyond that.
Now, let’s take a look at how Lindstrom’s numbers have changed this season:
On first glimpse, you might notice that there’s a lot of red on the chart — specifically in the defensive zone. We’ll get to that in a moment, but, for now, let’s start with the good. Lindstrom’s ability to maintain puck possession and generate offense has significantly improved this season, giving him a boosted Expected Goals For/60 and some of the best Corsi metrics on the team. While it hasn’t translated to the scoresheet just yet, it’s a sign that Lindstrom is an asset as a depth threat.
His power play metrics are a little less than ideal, though it’s important to note that all of Detroit’s efforts on the power play have been abysmal as of late. As far as his defensive metrics go, Lindstrom has spent a majority of his ice time paired with Marc Staal, who, if you remember, did this to Troy Stecher’s numbers last season. Lindstrom is spending more time covering for Staal, which is cratering his defensive metrics. This may change over the season, but for now, it’s significantly inflating Lindstrom’s defensive hiccups.
A deadline haul is on the horizon
The trade deadline is one of mixed emotions. Excitement for the future and pain for the past lingers with nearly every deadline move. Last season saw Anthony Mantha head to the Washington Capitals for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, and a haul of picks. This season features a slew of would-be trade candidates that Yzerman can consider. Whether they’ll bring back big picks or a few roster players remains to be seen, but change will be in the air come deadline day.
Headlining the trade deadline will be a slew of players on expiring deals. Vladislav Namestnikov is the most likely candidate to be moved. With seven goals, 10 points, and a $2M cap hit, he’s an intriguing deadline get for nearly any playoff contender. Nick Leddy may also invite a series of suitors for his defensive expertise. When he recovers from injury, Troy Stecher, too, should warrant a few calls.
An especially exciting (and out-of-the-box) candidate can be found in Robby Fabbri. The forward’s had an outstanding start to the season and shoots at a much higher rate than the average forward. Fabbri is 25 and an upcoming unrestricted free agent. His $2.95M cap hit can be partially retained for cap-strapped teams looking for middle-six scoring. While some fans may look for a Tyler Bertuzzi trade, it’s hard to imagine a good deal can be made for a player that can’t cross the Canadian border.
The team is young and learning
Right now, the Red Wings are one of the most penalized teams in the NHL. Their power play is abysmal. The team falls apart when Bertuzzi and Larkin are off the ice. Not a single player on the roster has a Corsi For above 50%. If these things seem bad, they absolutely are — but they don’t show the whole picture.
On the surface, the team looks discombobulated. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that they’re also one of the youngest teams in the NHL. With an average age of 26.29, a significant portion of the team has barely played a full NHL season. Adjusting to the rigor and pace of the NHL across an 82-game schedule takes time. The team’s a bit messy right now, but, as the players mature, the discipline should fall into line.
This is the season players can unlearn bad habits and build on successes. For players like Michael Rasmussen, this means using the body and playing smarter with the puck. Others, like Filip Zadina, might use this season to work on shot precision to better round out his game. This is the year where mistakes are okay — as long as they’re used as lessons for improvement.
Jeff Blashill’s “prove it” year
Whether you love him or want him fired, Jeff Blashill has performed very well through 18 games. Over the last few seasons, his most ardent defenders have remarked that Blashill has won at every level of hockey. The only thing that’s held him back is a roster lacking genuine talent. This season’s emergence of Raymond and Seider gives the team some much-needed help in that department. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s model predicts season performances of each player. Here’s how Detroit’s roster stacks up so far:
Seider has broken into the Star level category via Doms GSVA depth charts. https://t.co/TrqvNPIVav pic.twitter.com/hhsH7LBli2— Beer League Chump (@YzermanSZN) November 15, 2021
This year is a “prove it” year for Blashill — and so far, he’s done exactly what he was brought in to do. He’s pulled together some surprising wins against teams like the Washington Capitals and put up quite the fight against teams like Tampa Bay. No matter where you stand regarding Blashill, it’s hard to deny that he hasn’t obtained some results with the team this season. Whether that trend continues or not remains to be seen.
If he can keep it up, his work might warrant an extension. If the team falls apart in a way reminiscent of 2020-21, Yzerman can always look into other candidates. Either way, there’s no denying that Blashill has talent. Whether that talent is at coaching or just coaches’ challenges is up to your interpretation.
Wins and losses don’t matter
At the start of the season, general manager Steve Yzerman did an interview with Ethan Sears of the Red Wings. This is what he had to say regarding the season’s expectations:
“I want Filip Zadina, Jakub Vrana, Michael Rasmussen, any of these you mention, Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider, we’ll add them, to play a bigger role,” Yzerman said. “And does that translate to bigger wins this year? I hope it does but it also may not. But we’re seeing young players come into the team that are hopefully gonna be here for the next 5, 10, 15 years.” - NHL
This season is a season of development. It’s a foundational year of learning and building. Rookies have the flexibility to make mistakes and grow while veterans begin to understand their role on the team. This school of thought allows younger players to succeed and older players to benefit with newfound talent.
For the most part, this formula is working. Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond, and Alex Nedeljkovic are given the ice time and starts they need to properly develop properly. Even Joe Veleno and other up-and-comers are or will receive auditions at the NHL level. For the first time in years, it looks like opportunities are available for young players.
This season has the potential to be the start of something great. Years from now, analysts, writers, and commentators may point at this as the beginning. The team is almost certainly going to struggle, but not in the way they’ve struggled in the past. Every day, they get better, and every day, the team is closer to the next big thing.