As they embark on another long offseason, the Detroit Red Wings do so with the conviction their arc is drawing upwards.
They finished a crammed, condensed schedule 19-27-10, fighting through losing five players to COVID-19 a week into the season and losing their top offensive players to season-ending injuries in January, March and April. The Wings can finish no lower than 27th, but their final spot in the standings — and thus, the draft lottery — is pending the NHL finishing a schedule that had to be stretched to May 19th because of pandemic-induced postponements in the North Division.
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While the Wings had rough outings here and there, there was never any prolonged loss of composure.
“They responded every time they faced setbacks,” coach Jeff Blashill said after Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss at Columbus. “We had some tough, tough nights but every single time it seemed we responded, and that speaks to the character of this group.”
In addition to winning two more games than last season, the Wings looked markedly more competitive than the squad that finished last in 2019-20. They played better team defense, played better as five-man units. The Wings were 2-2-0 when they were forced to play for two weeks without forwards Robby Fabbri, Adam Erne, Filip Zadina, Sam Gagner and defenseman Jon Merrill — two-thirds of their second line and, at the time, four power play regulars. By the time all five emerged from quarantine, on Feb. 5, the Wings were 2-7-2. By the time the quintet was back up to speed — Feb. 12, roughly — the Wings were 3-10-2. But from there, the Wings went 16-17-8 over their final 41 games, even as they lost Tyler Bertuzzi (Jan. 30), Bobby Ryan (March 28), Fabbri (April 3) and Dylan Larkin (April 20).
The Wings’ resilience made Blashill recall a saying favored by his predecessor, Mike Babcock.
“Babs used to talk about steadying the rudder,” Blashill said. “That was something he used to say lots. Our team did a good job of being steady on the rudder. We lost our way in that one stretch where we were missing those guys, but really if you look back, we’re seven games under .500, somewhere in that range. That COVID stretch was a tough stretch for us, but other than that, I thought we did a good job of responding when things went bad.
“I say this lots when I talk to people, I talk to businesses — like, it’s not about whether or not you get knocked down, you’re going to get knocked down. It’s if you continuously get back up. I thought our group continuously got back up. There’s a lot of good men in that room. On a night-to-night basis, we worked and competed to the Nth degree, and that’s something I’m proud of our group for.”
There was much to like down the stretch: Goaltender Thomas Greiss, who struggled the first half of the season, posted a .945 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average in his final 12 appearances. Over the final 19 games — a stretch that began April 1 — the penalty kill was at 90%.
“The way we started to kill required you to sit there and block shots like crazy,” Blashill said, naming Luke Glendening, Darren Helm, Gagner, Vladislav Namestnikov, Michael Rasmussen, Danny DeKeyser and Marc Staal among those who deserved credit. “Those guys stood there and blocked shots when there wasn’t tons to gain. It speaks to what they are.”
The most encouraging sign was that the Wings were forced to rely more on young players such as Rasmussen and — after the trade deadline in mid-April, when general manager Steve Yzerman traded Merrill and Patrik Nemeth — Dennis Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom.
“A lot of our younger players, especially, took strides this year,” DeKeyser said. “Ras, Zadina, Cholowski and Fil Hronek showed they’re meant to be here. That gives you a positive outlook on things.”
The trade deadline was mostly a time to say goodbye to teammates, as the Wings were active as sellers. But there was a most welcome addition in Jakub Vrana, part of the return in the Anthony Mantha deal. Vrana scored in his Wings debut, had four goals in one game a week after that, and continued to score on breakaways and backhands to finish with 11 points in 11 games wearing the Winged Wheel. He was just what the Wings needed to add excitement these past four weeks, to leave an impression of how much more dangerous the Wings could be with Vrana and a healthy lineup.
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“He’s got high-end skill,” DeKeyser said. “When he gets the puck in the offensive zone, he creates chances, and he’s one of those guys where he if he gets a grade-A scoring chance or a breakaway, he buries those chances more often than not.
“He’s definitely the type of player we could use here, a guy who finishes and just has that offensive mentality where he wants to put pucks in the back of the net. That’s a positive going forward.”
The Wings ended last season on such a miserable note — the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when the NHL shut down March 12. Months of uncertainty followed. When the Wings gathered in January to begin training camp, it was with gratitude and appreciation. Four months later, that’s still there — and so is the belief that next season will be even better.
“We’re a much, much improved team from a year ago, in our habits, in our structure, especially down the stretch here, with a number of young players being thrust into significant roles,” Blashill said. “The arc of this organization is starting to head in the right direction.”
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.