After the 2015-2016 season, the Red Wings were in a state of uncertainty. They had qualified for the playoffs for a 25th consecutive season but also were eliminated in the first round for a third straight year. After losing to the Lightning in 5 games, many fans were calling for a full rebuild, citing an aging core and disappointing postseasons as their reasons. The offseason was not pleasing for these fans as GM Ken Holland re-signed players like Darren Helm, Luke Glendening, and Danny Dekeyser to long-term deals. On top of this, roster spots that could have been filled by younger players were instead filled by Drew Miller and Steve Ott. The big signing of the offseason was inking Frans Nielsen to a 6 year $31.5 million contract in an attempt to alleviate the loss of Pavel Datsyuk to the KHL. Holland seemed to be trying to sign veteran players to salvage a playoff streak rather than trying to hand the reigns of the team to younger players like Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou. The following season would show if Holland’s “rebuild on the fly” method was moving the wings forwards or backwards. This article will take a look at the first 20 games of the season.
Goals – Dylan Larkin (5)
Assists – Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist (9)
Points – Gustav Nyquist (13)
Wins – Jimmy Howard (5)
The Red Wings opened the 2016-2017 “Farewell to the Joe” season with the expectation that they would compete for a spot in the playoffs, continuing the streak. Many, however, were skeptical that the Wings had the core that could lead them to the playoffs, let alone a Stanley Cup. Their opening night roster had some question marks: Anthony Mantha in Grand Rapids and Andreas Athanasiou as a healthy scratch.
The Wings started the season with two straight road losses to the Lightning and Panthers in Florida. They then returned to Detroit for the final opening night at the Joe against the Senators. A special night ended in a 5-1 Red Wings win with Mike Green scoring a hat trick in the process. This kickstarted a 6-game winning streak that included wins over the Rangers, Predators, Sharks, Hurricanes, and Blues. Over this stretch, the Wings looked to be a team that was finding its stride and would challenge for a playoff spot. Their forechecking was effective, offseason acquisitions Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen were contributing, and their goaltending was strong (especially Howard). They followed the 6-game winning streak with a 5-game losing streak with losses to the Bruins, Panthers, Flyers, Jets, and Oilers. The Wings looked like a completely different team during this slide. They couldn’t score (Vanek was missing due to an injury), their defense was inept, and they spent way too much time in their own zone. The Wings concluded their first 20 games with an up and down finish. They beat the Flyers and Canucks, lost to the Canadiens, Lightning, and Capitals, then finished with a shootout victory over the Sabres. Over the course of these 20 games, Athanasiou seemed to establish a spot as a regular in the Wings top 9 and Anthony Mantha was recalled from Grand Rapids and showed flashes of offensive brilliance.
Overall, the first 20 games would prove to serve as a microcosm of the entire season. The Wings showed that they were a team that would flirt with a .500 record but would be hard-pressed to make the playoffs. Their offense was streaky and unreliable, their defense showed that it was made up of middle and bottom pair defensemen, and their goaltending had the ability to keep them in games (Howard) but was inconsistent (Mrazek).
Players that Impressed:
After being bought out by the Minnesota Wild, Vanek was signed by the Red Wings during the 2016 offseason to a low risk one-year deal worth $2.6 million. He was billed as an offensive player who sometimes did not give his full effort. From the first game, Vanek showed his offensive class while dispelling rumors of a low work rate. He scored goals, set players up, and overall made players around him better. He played on the Wings’ third line with Darren Helm and Gustav Nyquist, the Wings most effective during this stretch. He was among the team leaders in goals (4) and points (9) despite playing only 9 games due to injury.
The former Capitals defenseman showed strides of improvement from his first season in Detroit. He flashed the offensive skill that produced back-to-back 70-point seasons in Washington from 2008-2010. He also seemed to be cutting back on mistakes in his own zone and was the most active Red Wings defenseman in joining the rush. He made effective breakout passes and was the Wings best defenseman during this stretch. He finished with 3 goals and 12 points and was on pace for nearly a 50 point season.
The highly scrutinized Red Wings defenseman started the 2016-2017 season playing his best hockey in years. He was using his size effectively and was a useful penalty killer. He was slotted correctly as a bottom pairing defenseman and proved to be very solid defensively, although turnovers still sometimes plagued him. Although he was still overpaid for his services, if Ericsson could keep this play up over the course of the year, he would find himself much more endeared by fans and would prove a helpful piece to the Wings’ back end.
The veteran goaltender started the year as the backup to Petr Mrazek. His first start of the season was a 32 save 2-1 win over the Rangers where he kept the wings in the game all night and he kept up this level of play. During this stretch he was among the league leaders in save percentage and goals against average. He won 5 games, one more than Mrazek, and was the Wings’ best player. Without Howard’s brilliance, the Wings may have dug themselves into an even bigger hole to start the season.
Players that Disappointed:
Defenseman Danny Dekeyser was awarded a 6-year $30 million contract in the offseason due to strong shutdown capabilities and perceived offensive potential. He struggled from the start of the season and showed he did not have the ability to play top-pairing minutes. His skating was a glaring weakness, as he could not keep up with the increasing speed of the NHL. He did not show offensive ability and took a step backwards in his own zone. He rarely was effective stepping up in the rush, although was still effective as a penalty killer. He showed he is best in a middle-pairing role.
The Michigan-made forward struggled to start the season after a fantastic rookie season that saw him score 23 goals and 45 points. He seemed to miss playing on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and struggled at the center position. Other teams were adjusting to his speed and keeping him to the outside. Frequently he would fly into the offensive zone, circle behind the net, then throw the puck to the front where it was often intercepted and started the other way. He still did seem to be an effective finisher, leading the Wings with 5 goals during this span. The hype train began to pump its brakes a bit after this start. Adjusting to being a go to guy will be a challenge that he must overcome going forward.
Mrazek started the season as the number one goalie in Detroit after splitting time with Howard for most of the 2015-2016 season. The Wings further showed their commitment to Mrazek by hiring his old AHL goalie coach Jeff Salajko to replace the long-tenured Jim Bedard. He was outstanding in the Wings’ first round loss to the Lightning after he replaced Howard. The big knock on Mrazek was his inconsistency and that proved to plague him during the start to the 2016-2017 season. He gave up 4 or more goals in 5 of his 11 games during this stretch. His rebound control was not good and he gave up weak goals far too frequently. By the end of the stretch, Howard was the Wings’ new starting goaltender.
Considering the Wings’ personnel, they started out the season about as expected and continued trends from the previous year. Players seemed to be taking steps backwards under coach Jeff Blashill and the team was far too reliant on outstanding goaltending to win games.
Panic Level (1-10)
The results of the first 20 games did little to quell the fears of the fans that were calling for a rebuild. They seemed to firmly be a mediocre team with a lack of roster spots to use to develop young players and long-term contracts that would hamper them for years to come.