Here’s what the Detroit Red Wings can learn from four decades of NHL’s worst teams

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
| Detroit Free Press

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By almost every standard, the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings were dreadful. Their 17 wins were the fewest in the league, by eight (Ottawa Senators). Their 49 losses in regulation were the most in the league, by 13 (San Jose Sharks). (Though at least they got it over with quickly; their five OT losses tied for the NHL’s fewest, well off the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 15 OT disappointments.) The 38 points were 25 fewer than the next-worst team (the Senators).

Those numbers weren’t flukes, either, as the Wings scored the fewest goals (145, 33 less than the No. 30 Kings) and allowed the most (267, 24 more than the Senators), counting the goals awarded via shootout wins and losses. Indeed, that minus-122 goal differential was 12th worst over the past 40 seasons, dating back to the 1979-80 season, when the NHL added four WHA teams to swell from 17 to 21 teams. (And remember, the Wings only played 71 games; finishing out all 82 could have pushed them into the top 10.)

But hey, you probably already knew the Wings were bad. In the hopes of a helping hand from the history books, we took a look at those 11 teams with a worse goal differential over the past 40 seasons to see what they did the next year, and what the Wings might be able to learn.

1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 16-58-6. Goal differential: Minus-136.

The next season: The ’84-85 Pens trimmed their goals allowed by five and upping their goals scored by 22. Still, that was only enough to go from 38 points to 53, and from last in the league to next-to-last. Baby steps, right?

What the Wings can learn: Even though the Pens didn’t improve a ton, they gained some serious hope for the future, thanks to their leading scorer: Some 19-year-old named Mario Lemieux. The No. 1 overall pick in 1984 put up 100 points (43 goals) in 73 games. The Wings won’t have their top pick from 2020 this season as Lucas Raymond (No. 4 overall) is set to spend the entire season in Sweden. But perhaps another last-place finish will pay off with the top pick — finally — and the Wings will have a dynamic duo ready for the start of the 2021-22 season.

1982-83 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 18-53-9. Goal differential: Minus-137.

The next season: As noted above, the Penguins did not improve in ’83-84. Despite finishing with the NHL’s worst record, the Pens picked 15th in the 1983 draft. Why? Early in the ’82-83 season, they bundled their future first-rounder with George Ferguson in a deal with Minnesota that brought back Anders Hakansson, Ron Meighan and the North Stars’ first-rounder. The North Stars made the playoffs AND used the Penguins’ No. 1 overall pick on high schooler Brian Lawton. The Penguins, meanwhile, ended up taking Bob Errey — who played 15 NHL seasons, including 10 with the Penguins — at No. 15, but they could have had Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine or Cam Neely with that No. 1 spot.

What the Wings can learn: We’re pretty sure Yzerman — now the Wings’ GM — is good on this point, but, uh … don’t trade your first-round pick if you’re not locked into a playoff spot. And maybe not even then.

1991-92 San Jose Sharks

Record: 17-58-5. Goal differential: Minus-140.

The next season: Things got way worse, as the expansion squad went from finishing 22nd in goals for and against in a 22-team league to 23rd and 24th, respectively, while dropping their goal differential to minus-136 in a 24-team league. Why? Rather than building off the No. 1 overall pick, the Sharks were forced to draft behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (who took defenseman Roman Hamrlik) and the Ottawa Senators (forward Alexei Yashin), the two expansion squads. It wasn’t a particularly deep draft, either — Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty rank 11th and 12th in goals from the Class of 1992.

What the Wings can learn: Don’t get stuck behind an expansion franchise in the draft. Most years, this wouldn’t be a problem. But the Seattle Kraken are set to join the league for the 2021-22 season, with the No. 3 spot in the lottery for 2021’s draft.

1982-83 Hartford Whalers

Record: 19-54-7. Goal differential: Minus-142.

The next season: The Whalers picked up 23 points and eight wins in ‘83-84 thanks to a defense that went from allowing 403 goals (21 of 21 teams) to 320 (13th). How? Step 1: Forward Doug Sulliman went from a minus-59 (while scoring 22 goals) to a minus-10 (with six goals). Step 2: Center Ron Francis went from a minus-26 as a 19-year-old (with 31 goals) to a minus-12 at age 20 (with 23 goals). Step 3: First-round pick Sylvain Turgeon (taken No. 2 in that 1983 draft) had a solid rookie season, with 72 points and a minus-11 as a 19-year-old.

What the Wings can learn: Yzerman has already parted ways with one plus/minus drag, sending Andreas Athanasiou (minus-45 in 46 games with the Wings) to the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline. Three other Wings had plus/minuses of -30 or worse: Mike Green (minus-32) is retired, but Filip Hronek (minus-38) and Valtteri Filppula (-42) are still here. Hronek should be better, considering the young defenseman had a minus-10 as a rookie in 2018-19. Likewise, the 36-year-old Filppula was a plus-19 in 2018-19.

1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers

Record: 14-57-7-4. Goal differential: Minus-143.

The next season: The Thrashers picked up nine wins (23-45-12-2) and 23 points thanks almost entirely to an offense that went from 170 goals (28th of 28 teams) to 211 (20th of 30). Nearly every Thrasher improved in the franchise’s second season, from former No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan — who went from five goals to 10; still a bust, but a double-digit scoring bust! — to journeyman Andrew Brunette, who scored a career-high 32 goals in 64 games before the Thrashers dealt him to Buffalo at the trade deadline.

What the Wings can learn: Atlanta got 22-year-old Kamil Piros from the Sabres in that deal. He was hardly a franchise savior— the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg a decade ago — but they had the right idea: Move your overperforming journeymen while you can. For the Wings, goalie Jonathan Bernier — in the final year of his contract — could be a trade chip at the deadline.

1985-86 Detroit Red Wings

Record: 17-57-6. Goal differential: Minus-149.

The next season: A two-season playoff streak slammed to a halt in ’85-86 under head coaches Harry Neale, who lasted just 35 games, and Brad Park, who’d been on the roster in 1984-85. Thus, Mike Ilitch changed coaches again, snatching Jacques Demers, the NHL coach of the year runner-up away from St. Louis. Good call. Demers and the Wings gained 17 wins and 34 points (and dropped to a minus-14 differential) en route to the conference finals.

What the Wings can learn: Demers whipped the Wings into shape, but he was also helped by a return to form from 21-year-old Yzerman — whom Demers named captain in October 1986. Yzerman had just 42 points in 51 games in ’86-87; he put up 90 in 80 games in Demers’ first season. Likewise, 23-year-old Gerard Gallant went from 39 points in 52 games to 72 points in 80 games. For 2021, similar leaps from 23-year-old Dylan Larkin (who may get the captain nod this month) and 25-year-old Anthony Mantha (who had 38 points in only 43 games last season) would go a long way toward lifting the Wings out of the NHL’s cellar.

1980-81 Winnipeg Jets

Record: 9-57-14. Goal differential: Minus-167.

The next season: The Jets added 24 wins and 48 points while going from last in goals and goals allowed to 10th best in each. Under new head coach Tom Watt, they made the playoffs for the first time since winning the WHA in 1978-79, that league’s final season.

What the Wings can learn: It’s tough to pin everything on one draft, but the selection of Dale Hawerchuk No. 1 overall in 1981 is a good start. As an 18-year-old rookie, Hawerchuk had 45 goals and 58 assists — ranking 12th and 19th in the NHL, respective — while winning the Calder and finishing fifth in the MVP vote. (He played 16 seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.) A similar 12th/19th result in goals and assists from Raymond when he debuts — 2021-22? — would put him around 75 points, a mark no Wing has hit since Henrik Zetterberg in 2010-11.

1989-90 Quebec Nordiques

Record: 12-61-7. Goal differential: Minus-167.

The next season: The Nordiques still finished in last in 1990-91, but they lost 11 fewer games, mostly thanks to a defense that went from allowing 407 goals to 354, moving from 21st to … still 21st. Still, the last-place NHL finish gave the Nordiques the No. 1 pick for the third straight year (after taking Mats Sundin in 1989 and Owen Nolan in 1990). Surely, the player they took would become a franchise icon, right?

What the Wings can learn: He did not. The Nordiques selected Eric Lindros No. 1 in 1991, and he held out for the entire following season before forcing a trade, which was its own disaster. We’re not getting into it here, but when your trade from a team merits its own entry on Wikipedia, and it is not short, you’ve really done something. Still, the return Quebec eventually received from Philadelphia (and other teams down the road) — think Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci and Patrick Roy — set up the franchise for glory a few years later in Denver. The Wings aren’t likely to worry about a generational talent holding out on them — they’d have to win the draft lottery, first — but the Nordiques’ road to becoming the fearsome Avalanche is a reminder that teams shouldn’t count on one player to change everything. (Unless that player is Dale Hawerchuk.)

1992-93 Ottawa Senators

Record: 10-70-4. Goal differential: Minus-193.

The next season: The expansion Sens had nowhere to go but up, which they did — technically, we suppose — by adding four wins and five ties. Then again, they also scored one less goal and allowed two more, for a minus-196 differential and the No. 1 overall pick, just a year removed from picking No. 2.

What the Wings can learn: Sometimes greatness takes time. The Senators’ points percentage in their first four seasons: .143, .220, .240 and .250. Finally, in Year 5 — after five straight top-3 picks — the Sens made the playoffs, starting a streak of 11 seasons with postseason appearances. The Wings haven’t even had their first top-3 pick of this rebuild.

1992-93 San Jose Sharks

Record: 11-71-2. Goal differential: Minus-196.

The next season: Then again, sometimes success hits quickly. After two seasons that rank among the worst in NHL history, the Sharks leapt into the playoffs, with a defense that improved by 139 goals allowed, going 24th among 24 teams to 14th among 26. The secret: 26-year-old goalie Arturs Irbe, who had a 2.84 GAA in 74 games a season after posting a 4.11 GAA in 36 appearances. (Red Wings fans probably remember Irbe from the Sharks’ first-round playoff upset in 1994, or from the 2002 Cup Final vs. the Hurricanes.)

What the Wings can learn: The Latvian was an unlikely star; a 10th round pick by Minnesota, he joined the Sharks as part of that franchise’s ownership split from Minnesota (a delayed result of the Minnesota/Cleveland franchise merger in 1978, and, uh, we’re off the beaten path here). But the Sharks had planned on building around 23-year-old goalie Jeff Hackett, taken from the New York Islanders with their first pick in the expansion draft. Hackett flopped in San Jose, though, with a 4.51 GAA over two seasons. The Wings’ current goalie tandem of Bernier and Thomas Greiss is a bit older than those Sharks’, but it’s good to remember that long-term goalie plans have a way of changing rapidly.

1993-94 Ottawa Senators

Record: 14-61-9. Goal differential: Minus-196.

The next season: Wait, didn’t we just cover this franchise? Indeed, the Senators avoided losing 60 games for the third consecutive season only because the league played a 48-game schedule once it returned in 1995 from a lockout. Instead, they went 9-34-5 with a minus-57 differential. (That equates to a minus-92 in an 82-game schedule.)

What the Wings can learn: Sometimes the schedule — or just its brevity — is your friend. They’ll be hard-pressed to top last season’s 54 losses in regulation and overtime, regardless of talent, when the season is only 56 games long.

Oh, and one more thing: The coach for those brutal Senators teams, fired just before they finally made the playoffs? That was Rick Bowness, who 14 years later was coaching the Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. Remember that in 2034 when Jeff Blashill is leading the Mexico City Coyotes against the Red Wings for the Cup.

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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