Injuries Forcing Hard Questions About The Wings

It’s been the proverbial tale of two seasons for the Detroit Red Wings so far this season — two notable segments of relative success (6-2-0) and failure (2-6-1), the latter being the most recent stretch, leading to tonight’s game in Washington, a team that’s lost only 10 games in regulation at home in their past 51.

But hockey is often about streaks and runs and hot/cold segments, and the Red Wings, like their Atlantic Division mates, the Toronto Maple Leafs, have been symbolic of that so far.  

But with just one regulation win in their past seven games (and in that win, catching a woeful Vancouver team at the end of a six-game-in-nine-nights-all-Eastern-time-zone swing), there’s cause for concern when it comes to the bigger picture.  Sure, we all knew a 6-2-0 start had some mirage-like qualities to it, but some of the bright spots from mid-to-late October have continued.

We’ll get to those in a bit, but what are the most glaring concerns of a team with just 5 of a possible 18 points in their past 9 games?  Goals are hard to come by — just 17 in the flow of play in their past 9 games.  Take it a step further, Detroit has scored just 9 even-strength goals over the past 10 games, and in 4 of their past 9, haven’t scored any.  

So where are the goals NOT coming from that they should be coming from?  There are some suspects, yes.  I noted in a previous essay that the Red Wings and Maple Leafs were the only NHL teams last season not to have a 25-goal man on their roster — 28 teams did, those two didn’t.  Early days, but so far, no Wing is on pace to do it this year, either, though Dylan Larkin clearly has the potential to do so and has 5 goals in 17 games so far, and impressively 4 of his 5 are at even-strength.

Three Red Wings have four goals this season, but this is where the bad news comes in if you were hoping for a 26th-straight playoff appearance — all four of those players are injured and look to be so for some time.

Andreas Athanasiou has four goals — he won’t play until closer to Thanksgiving, thanks to a knee strain.  His playing time finally started to pick up from the Carolina game (October 25) onward, and as many predicted, results came with it, putting up four goals and an assist in a nine-game stretch.  He’s currently third on the Red Wings in 5v5 points/60 minutes behind only Thomas Vanek and Gustav Nyquist.  

Thomas Vanek has four goals — he won’t play tonight, but is hopeful to do so Sunday against Calgary, and it’s not unfair to point out not only how important he was to the quick start the Red Wings got off to (points in five of his first seven games), but how much he’s been missed in the past several as the goals have been very hard to come by.  

And, Darren Helm has four goals — very unfortunate news that Helm’s shoulder separation will leave him out of action until around Christmas time and possibly early 2017.  Naturally, this will create the debate again as to whether Helm is “injury-prone” given the large span of games he missed from 2011-12 through 2013-14, but this was hardly a pre-existing condition that took Helm out of the lineup, and he has stayed quite healthy and reporting for duty for two full seasons now.  That said, his value isn’t in the offence he contributes, nor should it be expected to be the rest of the season.  It’s still relatively troubling the Red Wings saw fit to give Helm the deal they did so ($19.25M over five seasons, until Helm is 35).  He hadn’t scored a goal in 12 games leading up to his injury, or even a point in the 9 games before it happened.  But his usage on defensive zone faceoffs, the penalty-kill, and as well, in 4v4 scenarios matters, because Jeff Blashill deems it to matter, so his loss for such a long-term period of time is a hurtful one.

I always find individual scoring stats (unless we’re talking about superstars and the pace they break from the gate with) very difficult to assess until about the 30 game mark.  Take Mike Green for example — he had his first-career hat trick this season (vs. Ottawa in the third game of the season), which is rather remarkable given what an astoundingly-skilled and productive defenceman he was for three seasons from 2007-2009 (68 goals, 205 points).  On the surface, it seems impressive he has 11 points in 17 games — that projects out to about a 53-point season for Green.  If that occurs, it’s the highest-point total for him since his 76-point year in Washington in 2009-10.  But hold on, Green hasn’t scored SINCE that Ottawa game — 14 games on from that, he’s put up only four even-strength points.  Like every Red Wing except Dylan Larkin and Ryan Sproul, he’s a minus puck-possession player, all that despite playing over 22 minutes a night in every single game since then.  So are you betting now he’s having a 53-point season?  I can’t go there, and you shouldn’t either.

And Green is far from the biggest issue on the blueline.  Danny DeKeyser has had a considerably awful start to his first season following the big contract extension (2 points in the past 16 games, a 42.4 Corsi).  Niklas Kronwall?  I mean, where do we start.  It LOOKS over.  Not as a Top 4 NHL defenceman, but, his career.  It’s more a relief (and a sad one, at that, given what a valuable career he’s had for Detroit) to see him scratched than it is to see him playing and being so limited and plodding.  He played over 21 minutes in the win over the Canucks, and two nights later, was held to just over 15 minutes in the blowout loss in Montreal.  Just one assist in the five games and a Corsi of 39 (he was over 53 for each of the first six years of his career).  And since you’re now needing to ask yourself, because it does matter, the Red Wings are hooked in to paying Kronwall through the 2018-19 season at a cap hit of $4.75M.  And, as you know, they’ll be paying Johan Franzen not to play until April 2021.  

Can you believe how much griping there is to do about the Red Wings defenders, and I’ve yet to mention Jonathan Ericsson?  Strap in, there’s 65 more games to go.  Although the play of Ryan Sproul has been quite encouraging, and Brendan Smith seems to be settling after a surprisingly lousy open to his UFA season.

As for the goaltending, credit where credit is due, backup goalie Jimmy Howard has forced the Red Wings’ hand and earned the stretch of four straight starts before being blown out in Montreal.  Before the Habs loss, he’d surrendered just the seven goals in six starts.  It was his best six-game stretch since December 2014, long before there was any controversy or suggestion Mrazek would or should overtake him as Red Wings’ starter.  

As for the Wings’ goaltending as a whole, don’t get fooled by them being 18th in team goals-against this season, it’s still been notably above-average.  The Montreal loss knocked them down a peg or two, but DRW are still 9th in even-strength save-percentage at .934.  The only NHL team with a worse record than Detroit in the Top 16 in that category (5v5 save percentage — a very good determinant as to how good your team’s goaltending truly is) are the Buffalo Sabres.  

Truthfully, it could be worse for the Red Wings right now.  They’ve been a bottom-five team basically all year in terms of possessing the puck, their penalty-kill is currently 27th of 30 teams, and to reiterate, the early spurt of goals (Vanek early on, Green’s hat-trick) has all but vanished.  

Quite important in the remaining November games to get a healthy Vanek back, somehow get more from Frans Nielsen (I do think better hockey is ahead for him — his goal against Tampa was only his third even-strength point of the season) and somehow leave Steve Ott somewhere in rural Virginia after the Caps game tonight.  

All things considered, the Wings having 17 points through 17 games seems about right.  Their goaltending has been a strength, and were it have been around league average, they’d be an absolute playoff longshot at this juncture, and this league with their bonus points makes it hard to be out of it before mid-December.  Five of Detroit’s next eight games are against teams with more points (and a sixth is against Florida, with an identical record).  It’s going to be fascinating to see where this team goes before Christmas, and as importantly, whether Wings’ management can recognize it for what it actually is.

  • Steampuck

    It’s a strange assemblage of players. So many decent players are under-performing at the same kind of time. It suggests to me that chemistry and/or system are at fault. Even the woeful Canucks, who can’t buy a goal some nights can at least carry play and have managed a few comebacks. The Red Wings don’t seem to have much of a plan or direction.

    Helm’s contract is too long, but I understand why coaches covet these kinds of players, even if the underlying numbers indicate they shouldn’t (especially at that price and term). He’s generally reliable and he’s fast (for now). For better and for worse, he’s one of the more noticeable Wings when he’s on the ice. Term, though. He reminds me of Alex Burrows with the Canucks: a Mr. Everything with some pace. The problem is that speed starts to dissipate and you’re left with a good character player but with very diminished abilities. Burrows is a shell of his former self at 34. The real mystery is why Tatar and Nyquist can’t get going. After a decidedly slow start, Tatar is more visible and seems snakebit. But Nyquist is still generally invisible. Sheahan is an odd duck. Not sure what he brings. I think I like what I’m seeing from Mantha and, to a lesser extent, Bertuzzi. But there’s no question that this team still relies (probably too heavily) on the old guard: Zetterberg, Vanek, Nielsen.

    I’ve never got the hype about Green. I get his offensive abilities, but he’s always seemed a defensive liability. I’d rather have a steadier DeKeyser may be slow-going, but he doesn’t faze me as much as Smith, who’s been having trouble doing much of anything with the puck. DeKeyser had a couple of miserable games, but for the most part he’s been quietly responsible on the backend. I’m willing to accept that Kronwall needs a bit more time to get back to game speed, but the biggest problem is turnover. Sprout needs to learn the NHL game on the ice. He’s not been perfect, but he’s ready and he’s the lone bright spot. I haven’t seen enough of Ouellet.

    So: transition year? The young guys aren’t quite there, but this needs to be their team. Maybe they need more opportunities and responsibilities. But it’s the coaching that might be the issue. The Red Wings play such a north-south game to appear unimaginative on offence. There’s rarely much traffic in front of the oppsition’s goalie, and few situations where the forwards crash the net. There’ve been very few garbage goals, but you have to create your lucky bounces. Zone entries, puck possession in the zone, generating quality chances. These seem to be systemic things that either absolutely aren’t working or they’re not a part of the team’s plan/identity/whatever. The impact is evident in the results, but also in the process. They haven’t even been an entertaining team to watch for the most part…