Well, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey has finally concluded. It actually didn’t take that long — 13 days between when pool play started on September 17th and last night’s September 29th conclusion. The perception is it took so long because one team faced little drama in romping to six straight wins and the trophy, and because of how late it started, which was a strategic mistake by the NHL and its players.
Either way, star players from the majority of NHL teams (and a few star coaches from Canada, to boot) will return to NHL training camps with just over 1 1/2 weeks to prep for the first games of the season.
In Detroit, the last season of home games at Joe Louis Arena starts considerably later than usual given the season’s mid-October beginning and their campaign beginning in Florida, specifically the scene of the crime in last year’s first round, the Amalie Arena in Tampa where the Wings lost all three games and scored only four goals in 180 minutes of play.
But two reasons jump out as to why the Red Wings will benefit from circumstances surrounding the World Cup in a season where nearly all impartial observers feel the Red Wings will be a “bubble” playoff team coming out of the Atlantic Division and will be in the playoffs by a few points, or will miss for the first season since 1989-90 by those same few points:
1) It’s callous but frank — Henrik Zetterberg didn’t play in the tournament and, thus, didn’t injure or fatigue himself further. At the very start of the month and a couple weeks before Team Sweden would have gathered, played a few exhibition games, and then shuttled off to Toronto, Zetterberg pulled the plug on his first international hockey tourney since he had to pull out of the Sochi Olympics with a back injury after Sweden’s tournament opener.
While it’s always great for key players on a “club” team to play internationally, and valuable experience was gained in this tournament by Team North America’s Dylan Larkin, and obviously, Europe’s Tomas Tatar, far better for the Red Wings that Zetterberg didn’t see a minute of ice at the pace the tourney was played at. Of course, Sweden could have used him, especially for a team that was stifled offensively more than could have been predicted (small sample size be damned, but Sweden scored just the nine goals in four games before Europe eliminated them in the semis), but how he’d feel physically after a regular season where he’s already admitted he somewhat ran out of gas — well, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
There isn’t even a true rush for Zetterberg to play in the first few regular season games, because when he does suit up, he’ll need to be much more effective, if possible, than he was in last year’s playoffs, or the last several weeks of frenetic play leading to the Red Wings barely clinching their playoff spot.
Zetterberg played an average of 19:25 in his 2016-17 full season, and, no, missing games hasn’t been an issue for Zetterberg since 2013-14 (the Sochi season, we’ll call it) — he’s suited up 159 times out of 164 in the regular season since October 2014, but it’s how effective he’s been in late season games.
Between February 20th and April 9th, a span of 22 games, Zetterberg scored just one goal, while adding eight assists. Productivity fell off the map while ice time certainly did not.
Ideally in my mind, Zetterberg isn’t playing too many games back-to-back this season, and is very well-rested for games in March and April. Yes, the points mean the same in October and November, but perceptions can get skewed and the season is so long that levels of urgency will certainly alter themselves accordingly from 60 games on in, that’s unavoidable.
2) Meanwhile, have expectations changed for Tomas Tatar after an excellent showing in Toronto at the World Cup? I’d argue they have. It’s truly time now for the handover from veterans to younger players on this Red Wings team. Of course, with Pavel Datsyuk following through on the worst-kept sports secret in Motown — that he was never planning on seeing through his full contract, and bolting to the KHL, that process can accelerate even further.
I’m careful judging head coach Jeff Blashill’s comments, because unlike Mike Babcock the last couple seasons in Detroit, he isn’t about to throw his team’s roster composition into the fire and be even subtly critical of the job Ken Holland has done. But Blashill seems, at least, to be more open to the idea that key responsibilities — 3 on 3 OT play, 1st-unit power-plays, and offensive zone faceoffs, have to be transitioned far more often to players like Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, and certainly Tatar.
Tatar played fewer minutes in the Game 5 loss in Tampa than any of Brad Richards, Justin Abdelkader, and fourth-liner Luke Glendening (yes, several of those minutes were on the PK), but despite all the criticism of under-playing Andreas Athanasiou, and even playing Joakim Andersson at all, it went too under-the-radar how too-tight a leash Tatar played under almost all season.
Red Wings brass pointed out his goals and assists numbers both dropped, going from 29-27-56 to 21-24-45 — yes! Of course that happened! He played nearly two minutes per game fewer than the prior season! Imagine being asked to IMPROVE upon your numbers at age 25 when you play approximately 160 fewer minutes of hockey than you did the season before, and at times, with less-skilled teammates and in less high-leverage situations.
The one surprise is his power-play time didn’t drop significantly — from 2014-15 when he played on the man advantage an average of 2:44/game, to last year’s 2:35. Power play goals dropped from nine to seven, but the point is he should be playing more on the PP, and not less this season. Though Frans Nielsen and, to some extent, Thomas Vanek merit looks in 5v4 and 5v3 play, Tatar has to be used more often in those scenarios — he spent a good chunk of World Cup time on Team Europe’s top unit doing just that — there’s little excuse to do so in Detroit this season.
With one of the weaker bluelines in the entire NHL, and certainly the Atlantic Division, goals will matter tons to the Red Wings — and I expect them to score more than the 23rd-best 2.55 they posted last season, but only if Blashill trusts a player like Tatar implicitly and lets him play through slumps, which he showed he was willing last year to do to veteran players who were diminishing assets.
The Red Wings and Maple Leafs were the only teams not to have either a 25-goal scorer or a player scoring more than 50 points (Zetterberg scored exactly 50). The Leafs should have at least two players reach those totals this season, and the Red Wings could as well if roster deployment on game nights goes as it should — Tatar needs to unchained and played a lot, it’s the only way to know who he is and what he can provide in some transitional years for the Red Wings.