Detroit Red Wings look better, but don’t appear close to ending NHL playoff drought

Detroit Free Press

Maybe this was never going to be the season the Detroit Red Wings reached the NHL playoffs and ended a postseason drought going on seven seasons.

There was hope, of course, with new coach Derek Lalonde and his mandate to improve the risk in the team’s game. There’s certainly evidence, if you look hard enough, that the team has improved since Lord Voldemort, I mean Jeff Blashill, was the coach.

But if you look at where the Wings are today in the NHL standings, compared to where they were at the same time last season, well, it’s a little like trying to distinguish between shades of gray and slightly lighter gray. Either way, it’s hardly an uplifting Bob Ross painting.

If you want to go strictly by the most basic of measurements, their record, the Wings are fractionally better this season than they were at the same point last season through 46 games.

Through 46 games this season, the Wings have 48 points and are 20-18-8. At the same point last season, they had 46 points and were 20-20-6.

But if you look at their place in the standings, the Wings are in worse position than they were last season. Right now, they’re sixth in the wild-card standings and eight points out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference — though they have played less games than the teams they’re chasing. Last year, they were third in the wild-card standings, seven points behind the Boston Bruins.

The Wings at least had the decency Tuesday night to win their final game at Little Caesars Arena before the All-Star break, beating the lowly San Jose Sharks in overtime, 3-2.

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But too often, the Wings have played down to their competition or not raised their game enough this season to give anyone hope they’re about to make a leap into the postseason. It’s understandable under a first-year coach trying to instill a new way of playing.

Yet, you could feel the frustration in Lalonde after a game that ended up being closer than it had to be. Adam Erne’s needless giveaway led to an extended shift, which led to tired legs, which led to Logan Couture tying the score, 2-2, with seven seconds left in the second period.

“It’s just we’re still immature in how we manage our game,” Lalonde said. “I don’t want to sound negative, because this was a good win. But you guys saw it the way we complicated that game.”

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It was clearly even more painful to Lalonde that the game turned more difficult and was almost squandered because the Wings weren’t managing the risk in their game, which is the major tenet of Lalonde’s coaching philosophy.

No one is saying the Wings are terrible. They just don’t look like a team on the rise, and certainly not one ready to make a run after the All-Star break, and much less like a team that would make noise in the playoffs if they got there.

The only player who has been a downright disappointment has been goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who was demoted to the minors three weeks ago. Filip Zadina, the No. 6 overall pick in 2018, continues to struggle with health and production.

Otherwise, the Wings have a roster of mostly solid players with some promising young talent. The only player that ranks in the top 10 of any major statistical category is goaltender Ville Husso with three shutouts. He has been the team’s MVP, after general manager Steve Yzerman presciently saved the season by acquiring Husso from St. Louis in July for a third-round pick.

I’ll pause for a moment while Winged Wheel Nation genuflects to Saint Yzerman.

I don’t want to delve too much into stats but suffice it to say the Wings are much better in one key metric: goal differential, where they are minus-12 compared to minus-35 through 46 games a season ago.

Overall, Lalonde was satisfied with Tuesday’s effort and, of course, the result. But I asked him if he was pleased with where the Wings are and how they’re responding to what he’s asking of them. He said he was, though admitted he wanted more.

“It’s just when you’re in the midst of it,” he said, “and you flirt with it with a performance like we had against Toronto, a performance like we had against Vegas on the road, you always want more.

“But yes, we’re playing better defensively. We’re harder to play against. I think special teams is improving. So yeah, we’re happy where it’s at. But as a coach, I always want more.”

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Lalonde mentioned something else. He brought up the projected points and gave reporters a spontaneous pop-up math quiz. Never a good idea, Newsy. The Wings are on pace for 86 points, which would be a dramatic improvement on last season’s nose dive that resulted in 74 points and a coach’s firing.

“If you told us, with our expectations,” Lalonde said, “if we were gonna hit that, we’d all take it.”

Last season, the Wings were in a similar position and would have taken 86 points, too. This season, it’s up to Lalonde and his team to make sure they get there.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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