What’s going on with Michael Rasmussen?

Find out what’s channeling the 2017 first-rounder’s shaky start.

After last season’s showing, all eyes were on Michael Rasmussen to start 2021-22.

The 2017 first-round pick ended last year with 12 points in 40 games. He showed great two-way work and a touch of scoring on a remarkably stagnant Red Wings offense. If last season was any indication, it was that Rasmussen was poised for a stronger showing.

So far, he has yet to live up to that expectation.

Rasmussen has been virtually invisible through 12 games. He’s often seen losing important puck battles, coughing up the puck, and anxiously passing the puck away moments after receiving it. Through the first leg of the season, he has four points, all of which are assists. While these numbers may appear promising on paper, the vast majority of them either came from secondary assists or goals where Rasmussen was a near non-factor.

No matter what happens to Rasmussen, he’ll forever be haunted by his draft number. The center was selected ninth overall when players like Martin Necas, Nick Suzuki, and Josh Norris were all available. Still, is his play this season indicative of a slow start, or something bigger and more troublesome?

Let’s take a closer look.

Rasmussen last season

First, we should start with last season’s efforts.

Rasmussen’s 12 points in 40 games put him on pace for a 25-point season in an 82-game schedule. While those numbers aren’t very impressive for a top-10 draft pick, at this point, it’s important to temper expectations. In all likelihood, he’ll never play up to that level. Choosing Rasmussen was a huge overreach by Ken Holland and set the rebuild back with its selection.

Rasmussen by the eye test

Still, his efforts relative to his competition don’t make him a bust. His play in 2020-21 indicated that he’s got the tools needed to be an effective third-line center. He just needs the right tools to succeed. Take a look at his game against the Carolina Hurricanes last season. In one of the best highlights of his career, Rasmussen sent a wrap-around assist to Adam Erne for a huge goal against James Reimer:

This is what made Rasmussen such a standout player last season. His aggression on the forecheck, his ability to outmuscle defensemen, and his passing creativity made him a standout depth threat. He was, by all accounts, one of the Red Wings’ most creative players last season.

Rasmussen by the numbers

While the eye test showcased a lot of potential as a depth threat, the advanced analytics paint a much muddier picture.

Evolving Hockey’s model above confirms what the eye test showcased. According to the chart, Rasmussen scored above the level of a replacement-level player but failed to generate offense relative to his ice time. His defensive metrics were also less-than-stellar. When Rasmussen was on the ice, his team saw more shots and goals against the team than they did with him on the bench. Rasmussen played exactly like a depth player; his results were relative to the ice time he was granted.

If the low offensive metrics seem concerning, it’s important to note that every player on the 2020-21 Red Wings failed to generate solid offense. Their points leader, Filip Hronek, managed just 26 points in 56 games. They ended that year with just 2.2 goals per game, tying the Anaheim Ducks for the worst offense in the NHL. It’s hard to place the blame squarely on Rasmussen when injuries and inconsistencies plagued the entire team.

The verdict: A solid start

The eye test and analytics together showcase a player that generated offense despite the struggles of his team. While he wasn’t quite to the level Detroit hoped for when they drafted him, he still put up a solid effort. This season was meant to be a season of learning for many players — and the lessons Rasmussen gained here could conceivably play a part in the coming years.

His efforts were met with success; he signed a three-year contract this previous offseason with an average annual value of $1.46 million. The deal has Rasmussen locked up until he turns 25, where he’ll still have a year of restricted free agency left. It’s a low-risk, high-reward deal for the Red Wings and a great chance for Rasmussen to show that the 2020-21 season was a fluke.

Now that the stage is set, let’s discuss his efforts this season.

How his 2021-22 season has fared

The Michael Rasmussen of 2021-22 and the Michael Rasmussen of 2020-21 seem like completely different players. Where 2020-21 Rasmussen used his body to knock his competition aside, 21-22 Rasmussen looks nervous and hesitant, second-guessing himself at every outcome. The creativity and engaged attitude of 2020-21 appear to be gone.

It isn’t for lack of trying by the offense, either. In fact, the Red Wings’ scoring efforts are stronger than they’ve been in years. Through 11 games, Detroit has scored 30 goals. Last season, Detroit had 20 goals in their first 11 games. Rasmussen’s linemate Vladislav Namestnikov and Adam Erne have six goals and 11 points between the two of them. Rasmussen makes up less than a third of his line’s offensive point totals — and the gap only appears to be further widening as the season continues.

Defensive lapses: Microcosm, or part of a bigger problem?

To start, let’s take a look at Nick Suzuki’s goal for the Montreal Canadiens. Rasmussen’s defensive play here, while a small one, is indicative of a larger problem on the forward’s part.

An overskating miscue from Rasmussen causes him to get tangled up with Pius Suter. After separating himself, he glided in Suzuki’s wake as the flashy forward sent a goal home. While this might seem like a minor hiccup, it was the sign of something bigger during the game. Nate Brown at Octopus Thrower did a Film Focus on Rasmussen’s shifts, highlighting just where the towering forward went wrong. In his analysis, he regarded the center’s efforts as strong, but lacking any tangible results.

“It’s obvious he’s still growing into his frame and trying to use that at the NHL level. But on several attempts close to the net, Rasmussen was unable to control the puck or put quality chances on net. Worse, on the final shift of the period, he flung a puck around the boards and out of the zone, killing another offensive opportunity for Detroit.” - Nate Brown, Octopus Thrower

If you’re of the opinion that this is just an isolated incident, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In both games against the Habs, Rasmussen did little to stand up for himself. He was frequently pushed around by David Savard, who stands a full half-foot shorter than the Red Wing.

He was also the recipient of quite a few brutal hits from the Tampa Bay Lightning, one in particular from Ondrej Palat, who stands at 5’11”. While the hit itself was incredibly questionable, it’s up to Rasmussen to use his huge frame to intimidate his opponents into ever thinking of making a move like that again.

An analytical perspective

Rasmussen has looked worse in almost every conceivable way with the eye test — but how has he performed analytically? As far as possession metrics go, Rasmussen has a Corsi For percentage of 38.6%. Last season, he managed a 45.7% Corsi For. For reference, an average NHL player’s Corsi lands anywhere between 45-55%. Rasmussen has among the worst puck possession metrics on the Red Wings. He frequently coughs up the puck to the opposition and loses it more often than he maintains possession.

To make matters worse, his offensive metrics are worse at nearly every level.

Quite a few conclusions can be drawn from the graph above. While Rasmussen’s slightly tightened things up on the offensive and defensive end, his poor possession numbers make him detrimental nearly every time he sets foot on the ice. In addition, his work on the power play and penalty kill hurts the team more than it helps. The Red Wings completely collapse offensively when Rasmussen takes on the power play. They’re more likely to give up the puck, creating scary shorthanded breakaways for their opposition.

The glass half-full mentality

Still, there’s a bit of optimism to be gleaned from this. According to MoneyPuck, Rasmussen has a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of five-to-one. He’s five times more likely to steal the puck than he is to give it away. In addition, he’s one of the most disciplined members of an otherwise rowdy Red Wings corps. He has a -8 PIM differential; the Red Wings are less likely to be penalized when he’s on the ice.

Left Wing Lock shows that Rasmussen has been challenged against above-average competition and, more than often, starts his shifts on the fly. This quality of competition was evident when Rasmussen was sent out as the shutdown guy against Alex Ovechkin in the team’s 3-2 overtime win against the Washington Capitals. It’s no wonder his numbers are taking such a hit — the team’s relying on him to be the shutdown player in some very tough situations.

Conclusions: A fluke, or a sign of something larger?

Based on the numbers and the eye test, it’s more than obvious that Rasmussen is off to a shaky start. Having said that, it’s hard to tell whether this is indicative of a long-term problem just yet; after all, his last season showcased a lot of promise. Realistically, it reveals to us that Rasmussen is, at best, a third-line center.

How he continues to pan out will entirely depend on how he approaches the adversity of these first 11 games. Sure, he’s been above-average defensively; but his poor outings in the offensive end and head-scratching possession metrics show that he’s got to focus on his fundamentals to improve his game.

If he takes the lessons into consideration, there’s a chance he can right the ship and round out into a decent depth center. If the trend skews in the other direction, he may find himself relegated to fourth-line duties — or worse. A fire needs to be lit under Rasmussen in order to see him succeed. As of right now, that fire comes in the form of Mitchell Stephens. The fourth-line center has shown more offensive promise than Rasmussen and might stand to benefit from a little additional ice time.

Right now, Rasmussen is in a rough patch. With 71 games left in the season, he’s got plenty of time to shape up — but if he doesn’t pick it up soon, he might find himself a member of the Healthy Scratch Squad.