Detroit — It’s amazing what having better players in the lineup can do for a team. The 2021-2022 Detroit Red Wings provide proof.
For the last several seasons, talent was in short supply in the Motor City. The dearth of depth prevented the team from competing daily against the best of the NHL.
Improvement is evident this season. The addition of rookies Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic has helped turn the Wings into a pleasant surprise.
Detroit hits the 41-game mark of the regular season Friday. At worst, it will be .500. Currently 18-17-5, the first-year players have had an impact.
“There’s been a real infusion of talent with those three players,” coach Jeff Blashill said.
Raymond, 19, has 11 goals and 22 assists for 32 points while playing all 40 games. The Wings’ 2020 first-round draft pick, fourth overall, was an instant sensation winning NHL Rookie of the Month honors in November when he had five goals and 12 points in 14 games.
“Lucas is very smart, he’s very competitive,” Blashill said of the forward. “He’s got a good maturity to him with a really good skill set. That’s a really good package. The organization is in a better spot to win long-term with Lucas Raymond on our team.”
Seider, 20, leads the Wings with 22 assists and also has played all 40 games. The defenseman has combined offense, defense and physicality at such an important position.
“He’s impressive to me,” veteran defenseman Marc Staal said. “He plays hard, and he’s so good with the puck and he’s just getting better and better every day. He’s a fun guy to watch and a great guy to be a teammate with.”
Nedeljkovic, 26, was a second-round draft pick of Carolina in 2014 who finally got an extended chance in the NHL last season. He produced a season worthy of being a Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) finalist.
But the Hurricanes didn’t have total faith in Nedeljkovic and traded the goaltender to the Wings for a third-round draft pick. Carolina didn’t want to deal with the potential salary Nedeljkovic could earn in arbitration.
The Wings worked out a reasonable two-year, $6 million contract ($3 million per season) and may have their starter for the forseeable future.
“Through the course of this season, he’s had a number of moments where he’s looked like a guy who can really be an elite goaltender in this league,” Blashill said.
The three young standouts have been major stories during the Wings’ surprising season.
Here are other developments, both good and bad, for the first half:
►Tyler Bertuzzi:The impact Bertuzzi has had when he’s been in the lineup is remarkable. There could come a point in the second half of the season, if the Wings are still within striking distance of the playoffs, where he’s unavailable to play in Canada due to his unvaccinated status. Detroit has lost six of eight games without Bertuzzi.
►Dylan Larkin: Any concerns after a sub-par performance last season, and injury issues, have disappeared. Larkin is off to one of the best starts in his career.
►The rookies: The impact of Seider and Raymond has been impressive. Both are likely to be finalists for the Calder Trophy and both can make strong arguments to win the award. Knowing the two will be part of the team’s nucleus for many years gives fans optimism.
►Home-ice advantage: Since Little Caesars Arena opened, the Wings have waited for their rink to be a factor, a place where opponents struggled to win. It’s finally happened. With a more talented roster, and an energized crowd, the Wings are 13-6-2 at LCA.
►Alex Nedeljkovic: General manager Steve Yzerman acquired a finalist for the Calder Trophy last summer. Nedeljkovic has shown he is capable of being the starter for years to come.
►Road woes: As good as the Wings have been at home, they are 5-11-3 away from LCA. Some of the losses haven’t been close, and until they defeated Buffalo on Monday, the Wings hadn’t won a road game in a month. That’ll have to change to remain in the playoff hunt.
►Filip Zadina: The former first-round draft pick isn’t developing into the goal-scoring threat the organization envisioned. Zadina seems to have taken a step back this season. He’s only 22. But progress needs to be seen.
►The power play: Assistant coach Alex Tanguay was brought in to make it more competitive, but the unit still ranks 29th at a15% clip. Still plenty of work to be done.
►COVID: The Wings had their season paused for 12 days as an outbreak ravaged the roster — as it did with numerous other teams — and essentially took out five games that’ll need to be rescheduled. The Wings have been searching for the momentum they had before the shutdown.
►Not enough goals: The first line has been dominant, but the Wings are still searching for consistent secondary scoring. They rank 24th with 2.68 goals per game, not enough to be a real threat to make the playoffs.
►Dylan Larkin: Close call, but Larkin is the team’s All-Star representative, and has made a fairly dramatic turnaround statistically. Bertuzzi has been superb, nearly as good if not equal to, Larkin. Both have driven the offense this first half.
►Vladislav Namestnikov: In a very understated way, Namestnikov has had a great season. He’s scored important goals and plugged in a variety of spots. A pro’s pro, really.
Reasons for optimism
►COVID neutralized: A significant portion of the roster has already contracted the virus, and with the new NHL testing procedures, asymptomatic players aren’t going to be tested. The rest of the schedule should be much smoother sailing (fingers crossed).
►Jakub Vrana is returning: Remember him? Vrana had shoulder surgery during the preseason and hasn’t yet played a game. But he’s begun skating, and will likely return at some point in February. He’s a proven goal scorer. It’s like adding a valuable piece at the trade deadline without giving up anything. Vrana could become an X factor.
►Possible offensive balance: It’s a small, small sample size. But Blashill’s decision to put Bertuzzi on a line with Pius Suter and Robby Fabbri, while putting Namestnikov with Larkin and Raymond, has the potential to have two dangerous scoring lines. That would be a big plus.
Reasons for pessimism
►Atlantic Division dominance: When dreaming about the playoffs, remember the four teams ahead of the Wings in the division are playing .639 hockey or better. The Wings have to win nearly 70% of their games to get even. Everyone suspected this would be a powerhouse division, and it has been.
►Rookies could hit a wall: Young players such as Seider and Raymond have never played an 82-game NHL season, and faced the grueling travel and elite competition night after night. It’s fair to wonder whether they’ll hit some kind of wall eventually. Also, Nedeljkovic hasn’t been a consistent starter in the NHL yet, so he’ll be tested.
►Trade deadline: Yzerman has already said the team isn’t going to be aggressive at the trade deadline, so reinforcements from other teams aren’t coming. And if the Wings get offered quality draft picks for potential rentals such as Namestnikov or Nick Leddy, Yzerman will be tempted to make the moves, and cut into the Wings’ depth.
Keep an eye on
►Vrana: If he returns and shows the offensive prowess he did last season after being acquired from Washington in the Anthony Mantha trade, some of the Wings’ offensive woes could be alleviated.
►The penalty kill: It has been trending upward in recent weeks and now ranks 18th (79.1%). Continued, steady play will be important if the Wings have any chance to surprise.
►Bertuzzi status: The Wings have six more games in Canada and if Bertuzzi isn’t vaccinated he isn’t going to be in the lineup. That’s 12 possible points that could be incredibly valuable if the Wings are in playoff contention.