Why the Detroit Red Wings, in mid-rebuild, shouldn’t be nearly as bad as last year

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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The 2021 season will be unique for several reasons. It is cast against a pandemic that has demanded changes to how the NHL is divided, and forced a contracted schedule against a limited number of opponents.

Within that framework, the Detroit Red Wings are poised to scrape themselves off the pavement and build towards a better future. The regular beatings that came to define last season took a physical and emotional toll, and then COVID-19 delayed a shot at redemption for 10 months.

[ Wings predictions: Even in shortened season, steps forward in rebuild are vital ]

Now it’s a new year, and with that comes renewed hope. The Wings look different enough to instill optimism that they can be competitive when they open the season Thursday.

“Everyone is super excited to be back and the camp has been high intensity,” Anthony Mantha said. “Hopefully we win a couple games off the bat and then our confidence is high and we just keep rolling.”

Internal changes

Last season’s Wings were 17-49-5 when the NHL paused the season on March 10, a merciful end for the only team to have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and which had secured a last-place finish with a loss two days earlier.

In a span of two weeks in autumn, general manager Steve Yzerman added fresh faces in goaltender Thomas Greiss, defensemen Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill, and forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan. All figure to have enough impact to at least boost the Wings past 20 victories.

[ Wings doing all they can to fight COVID-19: ‘The life we live in right now’ ]

“All of them have the opportunity to help our team be a better hockey team,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “They all have good hockey in them. They are a group that in their own different ways can give us good, good minutes, which is what you need. I know they will have an impact because they are going to have enough important minutes.”

The moves showed what a savvy strategist Yzerman is, because he improved the current squad without comprising the team’s future flexibility to make splashier signings. No newcomer received longer than a two-year contract.

Most significantly, Yzerman used free agency to address a critical need in goal. Greiss was brought in to replace Jimmy Howard, who struggled so much last season he only won twice in 27 games. Greiss spent the past five seasons with the New York Islanders, recording a save percentage at .913 or above in four of those years. If Jonathan Bernier can maintain how well he played last season from mid-December on (.915 save percentage in 25 games), the Wings project to have two goaltenders who will give them a chance to win.

Yzerman addressed a need for more scoring with Namestnikov, is a smart, versatile two-way forward, and Ryan, a former 30-goal scorer trying to reboot his career.

“Namestnikov and Bobby are two guys that like to control the puck,” Mantha said. “I think that’s a little bit what we were lacking last year — we were giving the puck away a little bit too easy and if they can slow down the play and make good plays, we’ll play with the puck more often.”

[ ‘No way I was coming out here without her’: How new Red Wings are adjusting ]

Yzerman strengthened the defense, too, bringing in veteran Staal via a trade with the New York Rangers that also added a 2021 second-round pick. Then Yzerman used free agency to add Merrill and Stecher. Essentially, those three replace departed veterans Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson. On top of that, Danny DeKeyser is back after missing all but eight games because of back surgery in 2019-20.

It’s not a top-10 defense, but it’s a stark improvement over the last season’s patchwork unit.

External forces

The pandemic necessitated the NHL redistribute teams into divisions based on geography. The Wings landed in the Central along with the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Those are the only opponents the Wings will play during a 56-game schedule that divides into eight games against each team, two at a time.

“I think it’s the right way to do it,” Bernier said. “It’s going to create a lot of rivalries between teams. I think it’s going to be good for fans, and it saves us travel.”

[ Mantha has a new special teams job: Stopping goals ]

The Wings open the season with a pair of home games against the Carolina Hurricanes, followed by a pair against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The schedule then calls for two games at Chicago and two games at Dallas.

“I played at college and every weekend in college, you played a team Friday-Saturday,” Stecher, the North Dakota product said. “I think we can bring that kind of style into our locker room, where if you lose one game, it’s not the end of the world. You just have to find a way to rebound the next game. You never want to get swept in a series.”

The Wings tried to simulate a game-like atmosphere with their first scrimmage, which was held on the main ice at Little Caesars Arena. Some of the newcomers got a taste of what it is like to play without fans in the stands during the NHL’s playoff bubble last summer.

“Between the whistles, you’re playing and the intensity of the game takes over,” said Merrill, who played for Vegas last season. “But when it’s those TV timeouts, you look around and it’s definitely weird.”

Namestnikov sounded a stoic note, saying, “it’s what the world has become right now. We have to make the best of it.”

Staal described the difference between missing fans when at home — and maybe not so much when on the road.

“You can have a glorious chance and normally the crowd would either go nuts or quiet,” he said. “And there’s no reaction, so momentum swings aren’t quite the same.

“You have to stay mentally tough and sharp, for sure.”

Encouraging expectations

The Wings have looked sharp in camp, making do with scrimmages in the absence of exhibition games. For a team that has not played a game since last March, this week of practices, and the promise of what’s ahead, has been encouraging.

“The new guys have made a great impression on a lot of us,” Dylan Larkin said. “We seem to be jelling as a team. It’s hard to grab stuff out of red-white games, but certain guys have looked good. Anthony Mantha certainly has looked good and dangerous. If he can stay healthy and produce, that helps our team a lot.

“It’s been a long 10 months. We’re excited as a team. It’s going to be great to have game one here against Carolina and from there it’s going to go pretty fast with games almost every other night.”

On opening night, Larkin is expected to be wearing a ‘C’ on his sweater, as Yzerman has said he plans to name a new captain.

CAPTAIN’S LOG: How Larkin’s time golfing makes him a perfect fit as Wings captain

The NHL has expanded rosters from 21 players to 23 and added a four-to-six man taxi squad for this season. The taxi squad will practice and travel with the team, but is subject to waiver rules. Teams have to carry at least three goaltenders, and Kevin Boyle is the front runner to play behind Bernier and Greiss.

Unlike last season, when Blashill had very little to work with when injuries set it, this season’s squad has some depth to it. There’s potential to form three scoring lines; to have three defensive pairs that can move the puck. The top line of Larkin, Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi “look like they’re poised to have a great year, and that’s exciting for our team,” Luke Glendening said.

“I came out of last year and said we have to get more out of more people,” Blashill said. “Some of that is on me and some of that is on the players. Ultimately the more confidence I have in the different guys available, the better chance that we are getting more out of more guys. Guys have done a good job of coming into camp being ready and showing that they deserve more minutes. Ultimately, that type of depth is critical and it gives you flexibility within your lineup.”

It would be stunning if the Wings were one of the top four teams in their division when the season ends, thus ending a four-year absence from the playoffs. What is realistic is a team that shows improvement over last season in every facet — scoring, defense, special teams, goaltending. The 2021 season will be memorable no matter what because it takes place during a pandemic, but the Wings can make it memorable, too, for proving they are on the right path in the rebuild.


Jeff Blashill on why he’s keeping Red Wings’ top line together

Jeff Blashill interview, Jan. 9, 2021.

Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press

Read about the Red Wings’ history 

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at hstjames@freepress.com

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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