Everyone knew the 11 game stretch that’s almost complete that featured 10 on the road, including the Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day in Toronto would be a telling one for the Red Wings, and it has been. But maybe not for the reasons originally thought. After last night’s OT loss in Chicago (and it’s hard to be too critical of stealing a point out of Chicago after falling behind 2-0 so early), the Red Wings finished the halfway point of the regular season with 40 points in 41 games.
They’re last place points-wise in the Atlantic Division, and they and the New Jersey Devils (another proud franchise from the mid-90s through the early part of the 21st Century) are the only Eastern Conference clubs with fewer points than games played. It stands to reason that more people should be calling out broadcasters and writers who refer to “.500” or “above .500” teams in the NHL. There really isn’t such a thing anymore, when bonus points are given out and there’s a winner every single night. Last season 22 of the 30 NHL teams finished at a “point per game” pace, and that’s hardly a proud standard now, is it?
So, should the Red Wings even be thinking about the playoffs? Well, it’s hard to blame the coaches and players for continuing to want it — that’s just professional pride, passion, and an athlete’s instinct kicking in. The “tank” is never on the mind of an athlete, though I do believe it is when a season ends, and there’s a reward for a team’s misery. Oilers’ veterans in the summer of 2015 weren’t “disappointed” the team was able to draft Connor McDavid, nor were Maple Leafs’ vets last summer like James van Riemsdyk or Roman Polak that Auston Matthews would be a teammate last fall. If your franchise is going to fall from grace, make certain there’s a reward to it, and that’s something Ken Holland, in concert with Red Wings’ ownership have to consider over the next couple months.
It’s tricky to evaluate a point number that would get the Red Wings into the playoffs unless you use an aggregate number over the past several seasons. Last season alone doesn’t do it — an Eastern team (Boston) missed the postseason with 93 points, while a Western team (Minnesota) squeaked in as an #8 seed with 87 points, and actually gave top-seeded Dallas a bit of a struggle over a 6-game set.
Over the past ten seasons in the East, and we can’t count the short season of 2013, and obviously there was no season at all to reference in 2004-05, the final qualifying team in the playoffs (the #8 seed) has tallied up an average of 92.1 points. Montreal made it with 88 points in an unusual year in 2009, while a 94-point Bruins team made the playoffs in 2008, ahead of 92-point Carolina, and 90-point Buffalo.
So let’s say 92 is the standard for this year’s Red Wings and they need 52 points over the next 41 games — their record needs to look something like 22-11-8, or 23-12-6. Think that’s happening? It probably isn’t, and especially if the team sees fit to build for what isn’t necessary as cloudy a future as it may have seemed last summer when analyzing the roster after Ken Holland’s spending spree on July 1st and soon after when he sold off the Pavel Datsyuk cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes.
Though it was my feeling, and that of educated others at the time that Holland should hold off on spending a lot of that cash on free agents until the Red Wings’ younger players were better in a position to contribute (and as they get closer to that inevitable 2nd contract where the price for players like Larkin and Mantha should rise dramatically), we know what happened, and the Red Wings will be stuck in those 2019-21 years paying an awful lot of players in their mid-30s in older to not play as well as they once did in the Red Wing uniform.
That said, since that game was postponed in Raleigh on December 19th against the Hurricanes, the Red Wings have picked up 8 of a possible 18 points and dug deep to grab a few of those, to be certain. They were down 4-1 in Toronto at BMO Field late in the 3rd period — salvaged a point. 3-1 down to Florida and came back for a shootout win (Jared Coreau’s first as an NHLer), and even last night, what looked like an inevitable and predictable loss in Chicago down 2 goals turned out not to be.
But just because we’d fairly destroy a group of pro athletes if they were quitting in games once the tide was swirling negatively towards them, I’m not sure we need to go overboard in praising them for playing a full 60 minutes, because that’s what they’re supposed to do. I’ve written it all season, and it just isn’t arguable. The Red Wings are a team with a crumbling infrastructure with lots of problems — some of which were avoidable with more sensible and practical management and, yes, coaching decisions.
I can tell you the Wings still have a woefully inept power play (worst in the league at 11.1%), but you could fairly point out defending that ineptness, that injuries have played a crucial role in denying them the proper personnel to make that power play better. Thomas Vanek has missed 11 games, Mike Green has missed 8, and only because Jeff Blashill insists on using him in those circumstances, it also does matter that Justin Abdelkader has missed 18 games. Although not impacting the man advantage issues the Red Wings have, it goes without saying that the Jimmy Howard injury happened at a terrible time, when his game was finding a definite renaissance after two seasons of very inconsistent play.
And though there are a lot of fans looking for answers or accountability from Ken Holland, Holland and his scouts can claim a definitive victory in the drafting of both Anthony Mantha in 2013 and Dylan Larkin in 2014. The argument has been for years that the Red Wings can’t build though the Draft without sneaking up closer to the Top 10 (their last Top 10 pick was Martin Lapointe in 1991), and they especially can’t when trading first-round picks — admittedly trading a 1st-rounder for Kyle Quincey instead of a Matthew Schneider or a Chris Chelios isn’t advised, but you win some and you lose some, right?
So when looking at core players under the age of 23 — Detroit isn’t where, let’s say, Toronto now is (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, and Jeremy Bracco potentially on the way), but who in the NHL is? In fact, I’d argue the five most important players going forward in the Red Wings organization are ALL 23 or younger (Mantha, Larkin, Athanasiou, Ryan Sproul, and Xavier Ouelett).
Now, it’s nice to say that you have five players like that who you’re looking at growing old together and building around — what isn’t ideal is that the rest of your team is either aging veterans on fat contracts well past their prime (and often injury-riddled, much as Nik Kronwall looks to be) or rather unspectactular players in their late 20s and early 30s who contribute little offensively.
And Blashill and Holland can hardly be immune from criticism when it comes to player personnel. The same heat-seaking missiles pointed at Holland for leaving Tomas Tatar in Grand Rapids in the 2013 playoff run, and Gustav Nyquist down in the AHL for the first 25 games of the 2013-14 season, deserve to be pointed at an organization that somehow deemed Joakim Andersson and Riley Sheahan more worthy of playoff hockey than Anthony Mantha was nine months ago.
I mean, Mantha could have been named to the NHL All-Star Game yesterday instead of a far-less deserving Frans Nielsen, and no one would have blinked. Or it would have been too embarrassing for a Red Wings team that decided he wasn’t good enough to play for a team with “bottom ten” talent in the NHL until November 12th in Montreal, when injuries necessitated his call-up? You decide. I already know what I think. Mantha’s had a point in 12 of the Red Wings’ 30 goals (40%) dating back to December 17th. Not bad at all, I would argue.
To bottom line it, I think the Red Wings are actually in a better place than I thought they’d be at the halfway point, and not in terms of the standings or their playoff potential, but simply knowing what their assets are. You’d always rather know than not know. There aren’t many young players who have been disappointing them, and if anything, they’re more NHL-ready than the organization thought. Thomas Vanek has been a great contributor and proven he has lots of goals left in that stick, despite lots of criticism of two not-terrible seasons (52 and 41 points) in Minnesota. Vanek should bring the team back at least a 2nd-round pick for a contender if he keeps up the consistency. Though I still think Jimmy Howard has virtually no trade value with two more years after this one left on his contract, him getting healthy and returning to form would be a bright signal going forward, even as Petr Mrazek fights off his struggles, knowing he has a team in front of him that’s one of most inconsistent scoring teams in the entire league. Continuing to give regular minutes to Riley Sheahan and Steve Ott, while they’re having horrible seasons by any possible statistical measure of hockey will do that.
I don’t like seeing a situation like last week where Andreas Athanasiou is a healthy scratch as he was against Anaheim (oh, what a surprise, the team didn’t score any goals in that game), but I’m somewhat willing to accept (but not fully) that there’s always a reason behind decision-making like that. After being grilled and seared constantly over his lineup deployment in the playoffs (no Mrazek or Smith at the start of the series, period-long benchings of Athanasiou in one-goal games, lots of Brad Richards on the power-play), there’s little room for accepting similar oddities in what Blashill does the rest of the season. That said, it’s real doubtful there will be Red Wings’ playoff games for him to write up lineups for anyway this April.