Red Wings’ progress is evident, thanks to growing defensive identity

Detroit News

Detroit — Let’s turn back the clock to two years ago, and recall where the Red Wings’ status.

They had just lost to Pittsburgh, 5-3, and had fallen to a record of 7-21-3, an ugly .258 win percentage.

The Wings were the last place team in the NHL standings as well as many team statistical categories. It was a terrible start, and didn’t get any better before the coronavirus put a quicker end to the campaign than expected.

The rebuild of the Wings’ organization is far from complete. There are many more prospects to filter into the lineup.

More: Back from COVID-19 protocol list, Red Wings’ Danny DeKeyser eager to join the ‘fun’

But looking at Tuesday’s NHL standings, the Wings have a 13-9-3 record, a win percentage of .580 and are in the throes of a five-game win streak. Pretty remarkable progress.

“This year has been a total reversal from that so far,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said.

That Wings’ roster had been a mix of young players learning the NHL, older players on expiring contracts past their prime and a handful of players in-between, below NHL caliber.

The team was overmatched nearly every game, and the standings reflected that.

“That was a tough season,” DeKeyser said .”It seemed like every night, it felt like we didn’t have a chance to win. It was tough to go through, and obviously tough in the locker room on the players.

“This year has been a total reversal and we just want to keep that going.”

On more than one occasion, coach Jeff Blashill has mentioned how the 2019-20 season was the most difficult of his professional career.

“As challenging a time as I ever had professionally, and I’m sure it was the same for our players,” Blashill said. “It’s fun to go into games with the expectation that you should win the hockey game. When you’re down like we were two years ago, there were games you might be hoping to win the hockey game and now you feel you should win if you execute at a high level.

“That’s not to disrespect anybody and not we’re not here to say we’re the 1986 Edmonton Oilers. But we believe when we go out and play our best hockey, we put ourselves in position to win. Certainly it’s more fun to be in that spot than going out and feeling like you’re hoping to win.”

Blashill and many players think the Wings took a major step forward last season. Other than in January, when the Wings lost key regulars to COVID-19 protocol, the team was competitive through the shortened season.

Blashill felt the Wings committed to playing well defensively, and it has carried over this season.

“There was an understanding of the importance of defending well, how it keeps you in games and you can find ways to win games,” Blashill said. “I would say on this current stretch it’s been similar. We’ve competed hard, and when you do that, you’re in the mix to win games.

“Then it’s about making a play at a critical moment, and we’ve done that more this year than we did a year ago. We’ve taken a step 25 games in, but we’ve got a big five-game segment ahead of us and a whole lot of games ahead.”

Grand Rapids shuffle

The Wings recalled defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Kyle Criscuolo from minor-league affiliate Grand Rapids.

With defensemea Marc Staal (COVID-19 protocol), defenseman Gustav Lindstrom (upper body) and forward Tyler Bertuzzi (COVID-19 protocol) all unavailable, the Wings needed reinforcements.

DeKeyser returned to the lineup Tuesday after being on the protocol list. Forward Joe Veleno returned Saturday after missing three games.

“We’re in a spot here between injuries and COVID that we have to make sure we have enough manpower,” Blashill said.

Monday, the Wings recalled defenseman Dan Renouf.

With the Griffins not in action until later this week, the Wings were able to pluck Witkowski and Renouf.

Witkowski, 31, a Holland native, has shuttled between the NHL and AHL having played with the Wings for 65 games over two previous seasons.

“We’ll see when and if we use him,” Blashill said. “It would be a determination as we move forward.”

Ice chips

There’s little update on forward Jakub Vrana (shoulder surgery), who was hurt his first on-ice practice in training camp. He has yet to play this season.

“It’s a long timetable and he’s doing good in his progress,” Blashill said. “Certainly no steps back. But, honestly, it’s going to take time.”

… DeKeyser was expected to be paired with rookie Moritz Seider on Tuesday.

“Danny is a guy who is really smart, as is Moritz,” Blashill said. “Danny’s not afraid to get on a rush, but he’s also not afraid to stay back and let Moritz get on a rush. The more Moritz is playing here, the more he’s in attack mode. So you’ve got to make sure that the other guy is smart enough to read that and make sure he’s back.

“Certainly, Danny is that.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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