Progress is not linear.
This is a philosophy shared by psychologists, fitness professionals, and philosophers of the world. There is no straight path to success. Any fans of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1990s knew this. From the turbulence of the early 90s to the eventual success of 1997 and 1998, there was never a linear path that led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup.
The same can be said about the Wings of today. There’s a lot to like about the rebuild. General manager Steve Yzerman has shed salary across the board and acquired a treasure trove of draft picks. He’s made terrific trades and secured a variety of solid pieces for the future. But, as rebuilds go, both progression and regression are due. There will be strides forward and steps back.
I sat down with the hosts of the Grind Line Podcast to get their thoughts. The podcast, now in its fourth year, has become a big part of the online Red Wings community. Like the Wings themselves, the podcast has had quite the productive offseason. The hosts - Greg, Ryan, and Tyler - have just debuted their Discord server and have plenty planned for offseason listeners.
I was glad to chat with the guys on progression, regression, and realistic expectations for next season:
Who is due for progression?
There are quite a few players that didn’t live up to expectations last season. Injuries and issues with consistency brought many a struggle to the Red Wings. Detroit actually ended the season with the worst Goals per Games Played (G/GP) in the NHL. When you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
Jake: Who’s due for the next big step?
Greg: I’m hoping the scoring comes from Filip Zadina. We saw him take a huge step in his defensive play and his playmaking ability.
Shooting at just a little over six percent, Zadina had incredibly low luck at scoring and generating offense. The talent is there — it’s just up to the 2018 first-rounder to put it together.
Tyler: Dylan Larkin is almost certainly due to take that next step. This is gonna be a big season for Larks. I’m looking for a big step ahead for the Wings in general, but he’s got to lead the way as the captain. You could see how much he was missed during the last 10-12 games of the season.
Between his low shooting percentage, tough minutes, and a frustrating injury from Jamie Benn, Larkin had nothing short of a tough season. Starting 2021-22 with Vrana and Zadina on his wings should serve as an excellent antidote to low offensive numbers.
Ryan: I think Michael Rasmussen has even more to his game than we’ve seen. He just signed a three-year deal and will be fighting his way to the second/third-line role. We know he can be out there defensively without being a liability. He’s going to fight for power play time, too. If he steps up, he’s going to make everyone’s life easier. He’s a big guy and he doesn’t back down. If he follows the same trajectory as guys like Zadina, Larkin, Bertuzzi...he’s got big things coming. No pun intended, of course.
Rasmussen had a pretty neat go of things in 2020-21, putting together 12 points in 40 games. During the last few games of the season, he filled in for Larkin on the first line. Next season, he’ll likely man the third line while filling in on the power play — two areas in which he’s excelled.
What about regression?
On the flip side, there are quite a few players that outperformed their expectations last season. Whether you chalk it up to luck or a high shooting percentage, there are quite a few Red Wings that probably won’t perform the way they did in 2020-21.
J: On the flip side, who do you see taking a step back?
G: In terms of regression, it’s hard to say. Obviously, you don’t want to see anyone regress. If I had to say it’s anyone, my bet would be on Jakub Vrana. I don’t foresee him scoring at a point-per-game pace. He’s still going to be a great player — but you might want to temper your expectations if you think he’s going to score at the clip he did with the Wings last season. He’ll likely be a .75 points-per-game player.
T: Out of all the players bound for regression, the most likely candidate appears to be Marc Staal. He was definitely in over his head during the beginning. The first few games were pretty brutal, but he actually came into his own as one of the better defensive players on the roster as the season went on. After the first few games, though, Staal was pretty consistently alright. I’m not sure what he can put together as a 35-year-old. He’s likely going to be fine, but I don’t foresee a repeat performance of last season.
R: It’s gotta be Adam Erne for me. If he comes out and does it again, I’ll eat my words [laughs]. If Erne gets to 10, 15 goals, I’ll be pleased. There’s no way he’s going to lead the team in goals again. It was surprising enough that he ended the season fourth in team scoring, but to lead in goals shows us how far the Wings still have to go. He shot at a 15.5% pace last season. The average shooting percentage is around 9.46%.
Realistic expectations for 2021-22
J: So, we’ve gone over who you expect to take a step forward and who you think will regress. What are your realistic expectations for 2021-22? Do you see the team finishing in the bottom-five again, or do you believe there’s more to the roster than we expect?
R: I think they’ll be pushing .500. Last season, I guessed they would have landed around that area. Unfortunately, injuries of key players like Ryan, Fabbri, and Larkin forced the team to fall off the wagon. Bernier playing out of his mind obviously helped, too. If Nedeljkovic lives up to expectations, I don’t see this team finishing in the bottom-five. They’ll make a lot more noise than people expect. If everything goes right, I could see a .450 season.
G: We’re not a bottom-five team anymore. Bringing in someone like Pius Suter makes a huge difference. There are people that love to talk down on Detroit, but the additions of guys like Nedeljkovic make a huge difference. The Wings performed very well against Tampa last season. Steve Yzerman stressed patience with the rebuild but also emphasized that he wants a competitive roster. That’s what we have here. Corey Perry might give us some shit in Tampa, though. I have the Wings pegged around 30-ish wins next season. 20th-24th place.
T: The Wings are a team that’s going to be a pain in the you-know-what to play against. If you look at Yzerman’s teams, they always seem to ascend year after year. They were much better this last season than they were in 2019-20. If I were to guess where they’d end up, I think it’ll depend on how the defense and goaltending evolves. Is Moritz Seider a number-one defenseman? That’s a lot to expect out of a player, much less a rookie. Injuries and health will play a huge role as well. If everything goes their way, I’ll say the team winds up six games under .500.