End of Year 2016-17 Season Review: The Top Six

It’s Christmas time and a New Year is nearly upon us. While the NHL takes a quick break for the holidays at least fans can rejoice in what looks to be another stellar World Junior Championship. Maybe you just need a break from how underwhelming your team has been through the first 30ish games of the year or maybe you won’t even see a single WJC game because you’re a Blue Jackets fan and you’ve earned the right to revel in the early success. Regardless, if you’ve been tuning in to this site or following the Red Wings at all, you’d be saddened to see the grim offseason predictions for this club coming to fruition. 

As it stands on Monday December 26th, The Red Wings currently sit 7th in the division, ahead of only the injury plagued Sabres and behind even the pathetic Maple Leafs. They’re running an atrocious -18 goal differential. They’re 6 points out of a playoff spot in the worst division in hockey and sit at 24th overall in the entire league. They only have 10 ROW through 33 games, they’re 27th in goals for per game, they own the leagues worst power-play, and are 15th on the penalty kill. They’re 26th in shots per game and give up the 10th most shots against. They have one player with 20+ points (Henrik Zetterberg) and no one on pace for 30 goals. They also have the NHL’s highest cap hit. Go ahead, laugh. 

Let’s dive into the forward group first and see how they have fared up to the end of 2016.

TOP LINE

Establishing set lines to even set up this article is quite difficult since they have been blended into a disgusting puree then arranged and rearranged continually. For these purposes let’s roll with what tends to stay the same and go by average time on ice per game. 

Zetterberg

What can we say, he’s been the best player on the score sheet for this team once again. His 23 points leads the Wings and most of that is at 5v5 as he only has 4 PP points on the year. Of forwards having played 100+ minutes, he’s second on the team with a 51% CORSI. Blashill is leaning on him heavily though, his TOI this season is actually 40 minutes more (!!!) than any other forward in the lineup. This was the year the Wings were supposed to be reducing his role and transferring responsibility to the younger forwards but they’ve done exactly the opposite. He’s defying his age as it is already and one injury could take this fragile roster into Vancouver/Arizona depths real fast. The team is getting more shots and scoring chances when he is on the ice and is one of the most dependable players still on this team. While he deserves credit, this is a horrifying reality for Wings fans as Zetterberg is only getting older and the mid-level forwards still can’t keep pace. 

Tatar

‘Not getting bounces’ is generally the excuse you mock when your buddy in the Kadri jersey was constantly crying and babbling last year but damn, when it happens to your guy it hurts. Thanks to his hattrick vs the Ducks his shooting percentage has jumped to a sustainable 9% but Tatar spent the first two months shooting at a 2-4% clip. The kid just couldn’t get the puck to go. He’s putting the shots on net but his 14 points is so incredibly underwhelming despite being given a top line role that you can’t help but be disappointed in what you’ve seen. This is the first time he’s been a negative possession player at 49% and he’s on pace for less than 35 points this year. That’s 11 points less than last season, which everyone considered well under what was expected. This is shaping up to be a disastrous season for a player looking for a new contract by the end of the year.

Mantha

While he may have been the whipping boy of the organization in the past, Mantha has instantly claimed the hearts of depressive Wings fans across the globe. He’s the teams best possession player at dominant 54% even though he’s lining up against other elite lines in the NHL. He leads the team in shots for/against, scorings-chances-for, and expected-goals-per-60. He’s got the size, the hands and all the skill in the world. The 2013 first round pick is finally being given the opportunity to prove his value and he’s stepped up big time. He’s got 11 points (6-5) in 19 games and isn’t shooting crazy off the charts at 13%. In a rather bleak season, this is one of the few bright spots. 

SECOND LINE

This is where things get dicey. Due to injuries, line juggling, Detroit’s backwards mentality towards the kids, it’s quite difficult to actually come out and say definitively, “here’s the second line”. In all honesty who knows at this point? Seems pretty obvious Larkin and Nyquist should be considered top six forwards but with the exception of Ott and Miller, every other forward on the roster is only separated by about two minutes per game. So, we’re going to roll with a second line of the vets that get too much ice time to help really drive home how misusage has hurt this team this year.

Nielsen

It’s going to be difficult for anyone to try and fill the void left by Datsyuk but that was at least somewhat the idea (from the defensive end mostly) when Holland signed Frans Nielsen this summer. He had a brutal start yet managed to fly under the radar and avoid criticism. He has picked up as of late, sliding up to a four-way tie for 2nd in team scoring at 18 points and he leads the Wings in PP points with 7. He’s been good in the dot and a valuable asset on a penalty kill that really struggled last year. But he’s still a negative possession guy at 48% and giving up a lot of shots. He is on the positive side of generating scoring chances at 5v5 but in terms of fancy stats, that’s really the only one going his way. He’s sliding into that safe yet underachieving cast of those before him, much like a Val Filppula 2.0. Again, like Zetterberg he’s been one of the best players on the team but that’s not necessarily a great thing seeing as he’s only on pace for a 40 point campaign and less than 20 goals. 

Abdelkader

This is Abby’s first year off a fresh new 7-year, $4.25M contract and sadly he’s performed exactly how critics of the extension thought he would. He’s been bit by the injury bug to be fair, but that’s nothing new as he’s only played 75+ games twice in his last seven seasons. Even still he has just 8 points (4-4) in 22 games this season despite getting 16+ minutes a night. He gets heavy rotation in the top six (much too) frequently and capped out at less than 45 points last year despite being a staple on the top line. He’s a bad possession player at 46% CORSI and teams are getting many more scorings chances and shots when he’s on the ice. Plain and simple, he has just been bad this year and his injuries have allowed players like Athanasiou and Mantha draw into the lineup which has actually led many to question who they really want to see on the ice every night for this team. His negative effects combined with the positives his replacements are yielding really leave you scratching your head as to his recent extension and actual value to this team. I don’t enjoy ripping on the guy, I think he has some legitimate value on the third line and killing penalties for this club but when you dish out those dollars and inflate your own signings in the media, they’re held to that standard now and Abdelkader just isn’t there. 

Larkin

After a successful rookie campaign where his top line winger roll was seemingly solidified, we’re left in awe as he is being thrown up and down the line up, from centre to wing and back to centre again seemingly shift to shift. He’s got 13 points in 34 games so far, 10 of those being goals but has just 3 PP points. He’s just under 49% in possession and the shots and scoring chances are going against the Wings when he’s on the ice. He spent a bunch of time at centre to start the year and it just didn’t seem to be working. There’s really no excuse for him not to be a staple in this top six yet he’s only playing 60 seconds more a night than far less skilled players like Darren Helm. He saw success with Zetterberg and the stability of his role through the last season and instead of building on that success the staff has juggled him and rarely given him a moment to find his footing. Especially after bringing in Frans Nielsen for the expressed purpose of filling that 2C role, why was Larkin even put in the middle to begin with? Yes, it may have been his natural position in college, but the NHL is a different beast and he seemed to crack the code on the wing last year. Why mess with one of your best goal scorers when you have a team that struggles to fill the net? Is he having a great year? No, but it isn’t that bad either. Much of the blame needs to be focused on his misuse and a coaching staff not able to develop a power play that gets this guy the puck enough. 

HOW WE LOOKIN?

Not good, that’s for sure. Goal scoring has been an issue for years now and we’re looking at a season where nearly every forward is on pace to regress even further than the awful seasons they put together last year. The only bright spots are exactly where anyone who has followed the Red Wings at all would guess without hesitation: the youth. Most people see this as a positive. With the game getting younger and faster this should be good for the Wings. But in reality, their blind loyalty to veterans, their overpayment of aging players and their misuse of young skilled players is just a recipe for wasting talent and mediocre results. This top six is hard evidence of that.

The fact that Atahansiou and Nyquist aren’t undoubtedly top six forwards is enough to show there’s an issue here. Instead of simply not being legitimate contenders in years, the streak looks like it’s basically over 30 games in and with all the terrible contracts on the books, there isn’t much hope for real improvement anywhere on the horizon. The next few years could see the loss of some legitimate top talent due to space occupied by contracts signed over the last three seasons. 

IT’S X-MAS, GIMME SOMETHING GOOD

Alright, here’s some highlights this season from some of these guys.

Zetterberg finding his shootout hands has led to a few game deciding goals:

Tatar with the mitts for the hatty:

Martha’s snipe:

Nielsen with the wrap around fake out short handed:

Abdlekader with probably the save of the year for the Wings:

Larkin to Mantha. I can get used to that:

And just a bonus:

Next up we’ll tackle the bottom six and see if they have fared any better.