(Charles Leclaire-USA Today Sports)
We saw a little bit of something we hadn’t seen in a long time from the organization at this trade deadline: honesty. First of all, the team seemed to be honest with the fans. When Ken Holland went on TSN and said things like, “it became pretty obvious we were going to be a seller not a buyer,” or “my goal going into this trade deadline was to get a lot of picks,” we finally heard for the first time that the rebuild had officially started. Secondly, I think the organization was finally honest with themselves. This previous summer was brutal for the Wings. The DeKeyser and Abdelkader extensions alone will set this rebuild back a few years and I’m not sure the Nielsen signing looks so great from either side now given the circumstances. But it looks like the streak is dead and while that’s disappointing it finally allows this team to move forward and rebuild towards something other than first round playoff exits and overall mediocrity.
The biggest positive from all this is that the Red Wings managed to give themselves a little space. They got Brendan Smith off the books enabling them to relieve that clog on the back end and most importantly, not lose Sproul, Ouellet or Jensen to waivers. Only Sproul had worse possession numbers and gave up more shots while on the ice than Smith. Jensen and Ouellet had Smith beat also in Expected Goals For Percentage, Scoring Chances For and Goals For. Those three combined barely cost the team as much as Smith did. I know there’s a lot of love for Brendan Smith but I think he had incredibly easy deployment in the past and when faced with tougher assignments he couldn’t handle it. Open his roster spot, let the kids play and avoid making a mistake by trying to sign him in the summer.
While I personally think Holland botched the timing of the Vanek deal thus way underselling, the fact that he opened up three forward spots this deadline was crucial. He finally set Jurco free and gave him the chance to play somewhere and opened up good ice time by moving Vanek. Ott’s work can be done by multiple players in Grand Rapids for the same price. The Vanek move though means someone is due for some substantial power-play time to close out the season and maybe Larkin can finally get some decent minutes down the stretch.
The cap problems were only accentuated by and overabundance of dead weight. While we can all rejoice that Miller and Ott are out, they never should have been there to begin with. The more breathing room this team can create in the lineup, the better.
THE PENALTY KILL
Finally, we can dispel the myth of the role/depths players and attempt to reshape the penalty kill down the stretch. Miller and Ott were touted as the go to guys on the penalty kill. Well, that penalty kill was 15th in the league and sat 26th at only two short-handed goals all year. Now is short-handed goals a good metric to judge a penalty kill by? No. But hear me out. The Hurricanes who have the top PK unit use Jordan Staal nightly. The 2nd ranked Bruins use Bergeron, Marchand and Chara on their top unit. The Panthers use Trocheck and Barkov. My point here is that using quality players on the PK isn’t a waste of talent, in fact maybe it all really boils down to this simple idea: play your best players.
Are roll players actually even role players if they’re not as good at their role as other players?
Ideally, the PK units deployed by Detroit should be based exclusively on speed and chaos. So much of defending against a Pittsburgh power-play isn’t blocking shots, it’s much more important to not even let them get set up. Barkov and Trocheck are the perfect example of this. It’s pursuit of the puck and the shooter constantly, it’s pressure, it’s never allowing a slow pass for a one timer. Force every pass to be crisp and quick and watch the attacking team make mistakes.
The top unit forwards should be Nielsen and Abdelkader. Nielsen is the dependable face-off man, dangerous if he gets a clean break and has the puck handling skills to kill the clock. Abdelkader is getting paid the big money now and he has to earn it somehow. He can keep up the shot blocking, still has some decent foot speed and is reliable in his own end. His deployment in a checking role is exactly what this team needs from him.
The second unit is where things should shake up. Ideally this is Helm and Athanasiou. At this point, any excuse to get Athanasiou on the ice is a good one. Both players can take the draws, both have incredible speed and both understand the responsibilities of the defensive game. Most importantly, both can wreak havoc on the kill once they get their feet going and apply pressure. Rotate in Larkin if either guy is having an off night. All three can take draws and all three need more ice time. While the handedness of Glendening seems like a positive, it’s essentially his only positive quality on the kill. He blocks shots but Abdelkader can do that while also being able to finish or contribute to an attacking style PK that Glendening cannot. There is no danger to the power-play when Glendening is out there past the face-off. The Wings don’t have anything to lose at this point, why not switch up their approach and see how an attacking/high pressure PK does for their team. Ideally, these are the types of players coming up in their system and a jump on things now may make for an easier, cohesive approach to teach the next generation.
The excitement of 3v3 OT is starting to get coached out of the game. While Zetterberg has been having an incredible season, depending on him in OT on top of his 20+ minutes a game in regulation can’t continue much past this year. OT is about man-to-man coverage and speed. Both those things can be taught and both those things can be done better by all the Wings forwards than their defencemen with the exception of maybe Mike Green.
Deploying three forwards isn’t a radical new idea. Blashill has in fact done this a few times himself already this year. My problem is he has yet to fully commit to it. Having a unit of Zetterberg-Mantha-Green is a great opening unit. Beyond that though you can’t honestly think DeKeyser is better to have on the ice than Tatar, Nyquist, Athanasiou, Larkin, Nielsen or Helm. Not only does three quick forwards like Larkin-Athanasiou-Nyquist allow for the fastest attack possible, it also forces the opposing team (likely deploying a defenceman) to have to really focus on their matchups when they can’t easily identify who is playing in which position. Just like cycling is intended for someone to lose their man in the attacking zone, cycling through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone without players in designated positions could work as a greater method for piling on the confusion.
As the league trends towards structure and over-coaching, 3v3 OT has been a huge focus for coaches across the league. As those teams strive for structure in overtime the Wings have the roster to inject chaos into it. Detroit goes to OT and shootout A LOT so having only 4 OT wins means there’s not a whole lot left to lose by at least experimenting with this approach to close out the season.
CHANGE IS COMING
The main positive to take from all of this is that there is finally room for change. The burden of the streak has essentially been lifted, the organization has admitted a rebuild is underway and it has been acknowledged that moves have to be made this summer. They’re doing what they used to do best and working from the draft up. There’s a freedom to tinker with the lineup, rework and rethink the old approach and start experimenting with a younger team. Instead of trying to patch up the holes they need to focus on playing to the strengths they do have. This year was a coming out party for Mantha and Athanasiou and its been acknowledged both in the media and by lineup decisions that the team was really squandering the immense talent of Tatar and Nyquist.
It’s the first time where the future feels like the focus and the organization has abandoned their blind devotion to mediocrity.