Why Detroit Red Wings want to eliminate hope in an effort to get better

Detroit Free Press

Sam Gagner came out of his second bout with COVID-19 in better than shape than his first time and eager for the Detroit Red Wings to resume their season.

The Wings are scheduled to host the Washington Capitals on New Year’s Eve. It would be the Wings’ first game since Dec. 18 and there is hope they would have nearly a full lineup, as Gagner and Joe Veleno joined the exodus from quarantine Wednesday.

By Friday, only Lucas Raymond and Nick Leddy project to still be in pandemic protocol. The Wings have gone consecutive days without any personnel testing positive for the virus, and that comes as the NHL has shortened the isolation period for infected personnel who are vaccinated to five days from 10, provided they test negative.

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“You cross your fingers knowing the way this has gone,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “As soon as you think you’re out of the woods, someone tests positive, but it’s certainly good that it seems to have, in the last couple days, subsided a little bit. But you just don’t know. It’s almost an hour-by-hour approach.”

The virus hit the Wings so hard they were shut down Dec. 19-25, and they have had two games postponed since Christmas. Gagner entered protocol Dec. 19, the day after the Wings’ last game, and emerged not having missed any games. Gagner said he felt “knocked out,” when he had the virus last season, which was before he was vaccinated.

“It was better this time,” he said. “My kids got it, too — thankfully, they were OK — so I was with them. Last time, it was 14 days kind of isolated. I definitely got a lot sicker last time. This time, I didn’t miss any games, so that was great, and I got to be around my family for Christmas, so no complaints.”

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While not having the whole team available for practices makes for a challenge, the Wings (15-13-3) are using the extra practices to bear down on puck management. Blashill has pointed to reducing plum scoring chances against as a key focal point. He wants his players to recognize when it is the right time to make a play, and when the better decision is to just hang onto the puck and wait for a better opportunity.

“One of the things we talk about is eliminating hope plays,” Blashill said. “If you are in pressure, you either eat it, you lay it up the wall, but you don’t ‘hope’ it to spots.”

It’s what former captain Henrik Zetterberg used to preach: Sometimes nothing may happen for 59 minutes, but to try to force a play won’t help.

“It’s a maturity process for sure,” Blashill said. “When you have players that can make plays you want to make a difference in the game and so you’re trying to make plays, and you just have to know when to make a play and when to live another day. What factors into that? How much time you have, how much pressure you’re under. Where you are on the ice — there are certain areas that turnovers crush you. What’s the score in the game? What line are you playing against?

“This is the thing that most players need to learn as they come into the NHL: How to produce offense efficiently. It doesn’t probably get talked about enough, but it’s critical. That’s why great young forwards, it takes time for them to learn to lead a team to winning a Stanley Cup. If you look across the league, almost every team that wins has seasoned players because of that, because it a takes a process to learn how to create offense efficiently, meaning you create a bunch of chances for without giving up a whole bunch.”

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Gagner, the most experienced forward on the team, described the balance in instilling that philosophy in young players.

“Part of what makes some of our younger players so special is their creativity and their ability to make plays that other people can’t,” Gagner said. “You want to make sure that they are continuing to be confident in making those plays, but at the same time, to be a successful team, to be a winning team, you have to understand the time of the game and momentum in a game. Ultimately you want to create more chances than you give up and spend more time in the other team’s end, and there’s ways to do that. If you’re turning pucks over and constantly back-checking and playing in your own end … it’s a hard way to win. Ultimately we want to be a winning team and we want to be a team that goes deep in the playoffs, and in order to do that, you have to understand those things.”

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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