Why the Detroit Red Wings have plenty to be joyful for at Christmas

Detroit Free Press

Focusing on the positive is always a good idea, and it is one that resonates all the more given the uncertainty surrounding the Detroit Red Wings this Christmas.

Their 15-13-3 record reflects the progress they’ve made since Steve Yzerman was named general manager in April 2019. His draft picks are among the best players on the team, and they are helping push the rebuild toward a more competitive future. It is the present that is harder to unwrap: The Wings had to shut down Sunday amid a surge in personnel testing positive for COVID-19, mirroring the world at large.

WORK FROM HOME: How NHL pulling out of 2022 Beijing Olympics affects Wings

MORE FROM ST. JAMES: What Yzerman told Ben Simon before he coached Red Wings

Since Dec. 15, players Robby Fabbri, Michael Rasmussen, Alex Nedeljkovic, Givani Smith, Carter Rowney, Filip Zadina, Sam Gagner, Pius Suter, Joe Veleno, Adam Erne and Jordan Oesterle, coaches Jeff Blashill and Alex Tanguay and an unidentified member of the support staff have entered pandemic protocol.

As the virus put a stranglehold on the NHL, the league and the Players Association agreed to move the holiday break up two days to start Wednesday and run through Christmas Day. Players can report back to their clubs this Sunday for testing, practice and travel only. Games are slated to resume Monday. The Wings are scheduled to play at the New York Rangers that day, but with the NHL having to postpone 50 games because of COVID, schedule makers are making adjustments and booking dates in February, which opened up when the NHL pulled out of participating in the 2022 Beijing Olympics. 

[S THE SPREAD: Yzerman questions testing asymptomatic players for COVID-19]

While the nights are silent, here are 10 thoughts on the Wings:

His guys

Yzerman got a piece of business done this month, inking Fabbri to a three-year extension. It’s another piece in Yzerman’s transformation of the roster. When training camp began in 2019, there was a sense among the players that they weren’t “his guys,” meaning Yzerman’s. Now almost all of them are.

Of the players on the NHL payroll (including those on injured reserve), 13 forwards, seven defensemen and both goaltenders bear Yzerman’s stamp of approval. Either he has brought them in, he re-signed a player he inherited (like Filip Hronek), or, in the case of Dylan Larkin, Yzerman named him captain. That leaves forwards Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno to earn Yzerman’s endorsement. Yzerman has engineered significant change in a short amount of time while giving himself flexibility within the confines of the salary cap.

[STEVE’S CALL: What Steve Yzerman told Ben Simon before he coached the Wings]

Larkin ascending

Larkin went into the extended break having recorded his first hat trick at the NHL level, giving him a team-leading 15 goals and 29 points. He spoke sweetly of thinking of his grandmothers when the third goal went in — they used to encourage him to score with $5 rewards. His contract with the Wings carries an annual average value of $6 million, so he doesn’t need nana’s money anymore, but the Wings needed Larkin to have this kind of season after he produced just 23 points in 44 games last season. Larkin is on pace to reach 30 goals for the second time in his career, and he has re-established that he’s the team’s engine. Larkin is a big believer in doing things right — remember, he was Henrik Zetterberg’s understudy — and that’s showing again.

Good fortune

There was a feeling of having gotten lucky among the Wings when Lucas Raymond reappeared after a collision Dec. 10 at Colorado that sent him to the locker room during the second period. Something similar happened twice with Moritz Seider: He left the Nov. 18 game at Vegas early after blocking a shot and left the Dec. 7 game against Nashville after being the recipient of a big hit. Both times, Seider was back the next game. It’s good to be young, even better to be resilient.

The Calder Trophy race

Raymond and Seider have become frontrunners in the conversation for rookie of the year. Raymond came right in and showed he belonged on the top line, handling himself with a maturity that belies his 19 years. Raymond is so good at hanging onto the puck — even when opponents are closing in on him — he keeps control until he can make a smart play with it. Raymond has 28 points; the longest he has gone without a point is two games in a row.

Seider had a three-game gap without a point, but otherwise he has epitomized German engineering on the back end with efficient performances. He’s tied with Raymond with a team-high 18 assists and also has three goals. In giving one an edge for the Calder, my choice is Seider, because he plays a more demanding position. Put it another way: If those incidents had been more than brief scares, which player would have been a tougher loss for the Wings? The answer is Seider.

[TAKE YOUR PICK: How Wings’ Moritz Seider owned 2019 top NHL draft pick Jack Hughes]

The trinity

Raymond leads the rookie scoring race, and Seider leads rookie defensemen in scoring. On top of that, Alex Nedeljkovic, who is still considered a rookie even though he was a finalist for the Calder last season, leads rookie goaltenders with nine victories. It’s happened just twice in NHL history that the rookie leaders in each category — points by a forward, points by a defenseman and wins by a goaltender — have all been on the same team.

In 1929-30, forward Ebbie Goodfellow (34 points in 44 games), defenseman Harvey Rockburn (five points in 36 games) and goalie Bill Beveridge (14 wins in 39 games) did it with the Detroit Cougars (who were renamed the Red Wings in 1932 when James Norris bought the franchise). In 1936-37, Syl Apps, Jimmy Fowler and Turk Broda did it with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Zadina’s situation

While Raymond and Seider are performing like the bluechip former first-round picks they were (Raymond, No. 4 overall in 2020; Seider, No. 6 in 2019), Zadina is not. There was a great deal of excitement in the organization when he fell to the Wings at No. 6 in 2018 after being projected to go as high as No. 3, but Zadina has struggled to establish himself on offense. He put seven shots on net over back-to-back games Dec. 10-14, but for all that, he has four goals and six assists in 30 games. That’s the same number of goals as veteran Sam Gagner, who averages a minute less of ice time and who isn’t a mainstay on the power play. The Wings are hoping Zadina, 22, just needs more time to figure out how to increase his effectiveness.

Wondering about Veleno

Veleno, another former first-round pick (No. 30, 2018) was a healthy scratch Dec. 14 but when Fabbri and Rasmussen landed in pandemic protocol, Veleno drew back in the next game. Veleno had a fun story to tell when he was called up Oct. 30 and ended up carpooling to Toronto with Yzerman at the wheel. Veleno has played on the second, third and fourth lines. He has scored three times in 15 games and might benefit from some steady time in an offensive role.

Russian One

Vladislav Namestnikov is among those enjoying a resurgence this season. He has been the player the Wings thought they were getting when they signed him in 2020: Versatile and productive. He has nine goals and seven assists in 31 games and has been a fit up and down the lines. He’s often in the mix, grinding away. He’s either headed for an extension, or he could fetch a solid return at the trade deadline, given he’s in the last year of a deal with a $2 million annual average value. (The streak of having a Russian in the lineup, starting in 1990 when Sergei Fedorov opened the pipeline from the Red Army to the Red Wings, was broken 2018-19, but oh for the days of the Russian Five.)

[SEE YOU IN CHINA? Ex-Wings great Sergei Fedorov to coach Russians at 2022 Beijing Olympics]

Power play pointers

It may take a miracle for the Wings to have an effective power play. Even with puck-moving d-men in Seider and Nick Leddy, and a general infusion of talent, it has converted 13 times on 83 opportunities, a 15.7% success rate that ranks 27th in the NHL. Seider leads the team with eight power play points, and Raymond is second with six. The Wings have won 54.5% of their faceoffs during man advantages, but when they have possession of the puck, they often get caught up in trying to make a perfect play rather than simply directing pucks on net and trying to benefit from the chaos.

In good standing

With 33 points, the Wings are fourth in the Atlantic Division and three points up on the Boston Bruins for the second wild card spot. The standings are skewed by the disparity in games played — the Bruins have 30 points in 26 games, so their .577 points percentage is better than the Wings’ .532. But the bottom line is the Wings have played competitive hockey and largely stayed at or above .500. Considering where they were at two years ago at Christmas, when their points percentage was .276, this is something about which to feel merry.

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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