Red Wings Piling Up Points — Real Or Fake Progress?

With last night’s win in St. Louis, the Detroit Red Wings are starting to get not their just own fanbase, but countless NHL observers to stand up and take notice.  There are some impressive factors that have led the Wings to snag 12 points in 8 games so far.  How good a start is this based on recent history?  Well, let’s say then can finish the first 10-game segment of this season with 15 points — want to know the last time they did that?

The Red Wings actually had an 8-2-1 start to the 2010-11 season, leading to a 104-point season and a Central Division title, while still in the Western Conference.  They’d lose to San Jose in seven games in the second round of the playoffs, after initially trailing the Sharks 3-0 in games.

Although they did have a 6-2-2 start two seasons ago (Babcock’s final year, in 2014-15), and they needed the early accumulation of points, given they had a couple lengthy losing skids, losing six straight in November (with four shootout losses) and winning only three games in a twelve-game span from late March to early April, which put their playoff standing in jeopardy — they’d qualify by four points over the 9th-place Boston Bruins (100 to 96).

So, despite the fact that almost no playoff forecasts had the Red Wings making the postseason a 26th straight time since the 1990 miss, there is some reason for optimism, even at this quite early juncture.

What’s been working for the Red Wings?

Well, protecting home ice has been a factor — four home games, four regulation wins, and seventeen goals scored in those four games has gotten many to take notice.  They were outshot in two of their four home wins (the Ottawa and Carolina victories) but I always would remind you, score effects play a big role in shots, and given the Red Wings had comfortable leads through the latter half of both those games, shots on goal don’t tell too big a tale in terms of dominance, do they?  

Who needs the shots?  The team trailing on the scoreboard does.  Who can afford to hold onto the puck longer and play varying degrees of “keepaway” from the opponents?  The team leading on the scoreboard can.  It can be as misleading as judging a game by “hits”.  You know who gets credit for “hits” in an NHL game?  The team that doesn’t have the puck, plain and simple.  But if you get me going on “hits” and “faceoff” statistics, we’d be here quite a while.

Is the power-play better than last year?  Well, certainly in small spurts, yes.  Better puck movement and quicker entry into the zone is making a distinct difference, and the coaching change surrounding special teams does appear to have had an impact.  That said, you need bounces on the man-advantage and on two occasions, the Wings have blasted in 3 power-play goals (Tampa loss/Nashville win) and in the other six games, they’re 0-for-20.  Plenty of collective numbers look a little fuzzy early on and won’t hold water once teams get 25-30 games into their seasons.  I mean, the Blue Jackets’ power-play looks improved, yes, but it’s clicking at almost 40 percent — no team succeeded with the man-advantage better than Anaheim last season, and they were at 23.1 percent.  

But there are other positives in the early days:  Thomas Vanek hasn’t scored 30 goals in a season since 2010-11 when he was 27 years old and a Buffalo Sabre.  With four in seven games to start, the potential is there to get within shouting distance of that number.  He scored only 39 in 154 games as a Minnesota Wild member the past two seasons, and no Red Wing has scored 30 since Zetterberg and Datsyuk both did in 2008-09 when Detroit were defending Stanley Cup champions and headed back to the Final (although Tomas Tatar and Johan Franzen registered 29 each in subsequent seasons).

Mike Green’s first-ever career hat-trick (I was shocked to note that given how dominant an offensive defenceman he was from 2007-2010) came and went but he’s been more impressive than he was early last season upon arriving in Detroit, and at both ends of the ice, no less.  

Alexey Marchenko doesn’t look out of place as a Top 4 NHL defender, and both Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet haven’t disappointed either, splitting playing time they simply couldn’t get last year with Kyle Quincey on the roster, and, of course, the injury to Niklas Kronwall has created a lot of questions as to whether the Wings blueline is a bit quicker and smoother without him.  Make no mistake, Kronwall draws back in as soon as he is healthy, but so far, having young depth has been a nice thing for the Red Wings to have.

Then we get to Andreas Athanasiou.  Still a mystery why the Red Wings and Jeff Blashill seem to be “tolerating” him as a member of the team as opposed to “adoring” him.  A healthy scratch in the opener against Tampa Bay, when they got flattened puck possession-wise, his ice time has fluctuated from a low of 8:18 in the blowout win against Ottawa, to a (early) season-high of 15:10 in the shootout win over the Blues.  Is he getting decent minutes the last couple games because Blashill finally recognizes the value his speed and skill bring, or is both game circumstances, and in last night’s case, the absence of Thomas Vanek.  I think AA should be dressed every night, but if you’re dressing him, utilize him properly.  He should see second power-play unit time, he shouldn’t be playing less frequently with top players than either Justin Abdelkader or Riley Sheahan.

Given he’s been deserving of knocking before, I can’t not make a note of Jimmy Howard starting the season quite strong.  It’s only been two games, but against decent offensive teams in the Rangers and Sharks, he’s made 62 of 63 saves, and the only goal was on the second shot he faced this season.  He’s clearly the #2 choice for Blashill, and he should be, and it’s been a long time since he’s played so infreqently (just 2 of 8 October starts so far — I had him pegged to start between 22-25 games, barring a Mrazek injury), so credit to him for being good when called upon.  I don’t think it changes the conversation about his trade value — I don’t believe he has any, as a centerpiece to a deal, but if you try super-hard and don’t think about his gawdy $5.3M cap hit, he’s a quite-acceptable backup goalie for a team that I still believe will be touch-and-go to make the postseason.  

But I’ve been unfair to not even mention Petr Mrazek yet, and when next April comes, we will revisit the decision by Jeff Blashill to start Jimmy Howard against Tampa the year previous in those first two playoff games, and it’ll be more of a head-shaker than it even was then.  Mrazek has stolen at least four of the twelve points the Red Wings have accumulated so far.  In 5v5 play, the Red Wings have the SECOND-BEST save percentage in the league, sitting at .953 (behind only Montreal’s .960).  Can this goaltending keep up?  No, not by a longshot — highest 5v5 SV% in the league last year was Philadelphia’s .935 — so despite the impressive early offensive results, the Red Wings are simply at this point because they’ve had far better-than-average goaltending.  It may have to stay that way, but if they’re a playoff team, it won’t because of adds like Steve Ott or contributions from Nik Kronwall or Jonathan Ericsson, it’ll be Mrazek ascending to a level of goaltending that probably hasn’t existed in Detroit since Dominik Hasek’s first go-round in 2001-02, to be honest.

The early accumulation of points, though, despite the Red Wings’ doubters, could be paramount to qualifying for the postseason.  Looking at the Eastern Conference standings, no “lock” playoff team is off to a slow start, really — I suppose the only one you could argue that’s disappointing so far are the Islanders with six points in eight games, but there’s nothing significant in how they’re playing in terms of either being out-shot or out-possessed that should be alarming.

Again, it’s easy to get trapped into guessing (educatedly) what your team is at this point of the season.  Right now, 14 NHL teams are scoring at a 3.0 goal/game pace or better, and that simply won’t last, even if league scoring rises slightly.  Only two teams (Stars, Capitals) scored at that pace over the entire season last year.  

Detroit still isn’t going to be a team that seems capable of possessing the puck a lot more than their opponent does.  This morning as I write this, they sit 29th in the league (ahead of Colorado) in CF% at 44.7 (they were 8th in the NHL last year at 51.7%), but as I noted, that statistic and its surrounding information can be as deceptive early in a season as it is helpful.  

Most years though, there is a “surprise” playoff team that protects its leads in games well, has remarkable “puck luck” and at least adequate goaltending and all year, many who preach advanced stats as gospel predict a regression, but it doesn’t come until the next season.  Recent examples are Colorado in 2013-14 (112 points, #1 seed in West, 25th in CF%, fell to 90 points the next year), and Calgary in 2014-15 (97 points, a first-round playoff win, 28th in CF%, down to 77 points last season).  

Bottom line, Detroit’s had some impressive moments in their first eight games — they should be thrilled with 12 points so far, and it makes it more likely than less likely their quick start will obviously help them be a playoff team, but I’m not getting trapped into thinking they’re going to qualify handily, but as we all know, if we flipped the wins and losses around and they were 2-6 through eight games, we wouldn’t be rapping their knuckles thinking it’s a group destined to finish in the bottom five — they are what they are, until a lot more sampling (25-30 games in, usually) can tell us otherwise.