Detroit Red Wings’ tussle with the Oilers was a reminder of how far they still have to go

Detroit Free Press

Tyler Bertuzzi scored for the Detroit Red Wings in the first period Tuesday against Edmonton. He snapped the puck from the right circle after a tidy pass from Lucas Raymond.

He found an opening and pounced when he had the chance, driving toward the net, as always. The forward has a talent for getting to spots to create chances. And yet it was only his second goal of the season.

Bertuzzi had played 17 games before Tuesday night — a couple of hand injuries cost him 31 games and have left general manager Steve Yzerman a tricky choice regarding Bertuzzi’s future as a Wing: Move him before the March 3 trade deadline or re-sign the soon-to-be-unrestricted free agent.

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Which brings us to the rebuild; his absences this season have slowed it, and — more critically — complicated getting a true read on the team.

The same goes for Jakub Vrana, who is scoring quite a bunch lately — six goals in his past seven games — for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. Vrana, of course, missed about six weeks in the NHLPA players assistance program and was sent through waivers after his return. Yzerman may or may not bring Vrana back to the NHL this season, but he obviously was willing to part with the goal-scoring forward for nothing, had another team wanted to pick up his salary.

Vrana’s future on the roster, though, isn’t the point, either. It’s that his absence, like Bertuzzi’s, has clouded the view of the Wings this season.

We know a couple things, at least.

First, the Wings found a goalie, as evidenced by the crowd’s reaction every time Ville Husso made a clever save Tuesday night against the Oilers.

Huuuuuso … Huuuuso,” the Little Caesars Arena crowd chanted.

The defense in front of the 28-year-old Finnish keeper is improved, too, which makes sense, as Yzerman’s emphasized goal-stopping in the rebuild; he has a potential defensive star in Moritz Seider — last season’s top rookie in the league — and a couple of promising young defenders are on the way.

If Bertuzzi and Vrana had been available all season, the Wings would surely be closer to a playoff spot, even in the deep and dastardly Eastern Conference, rather than nine points out of the final wild-card spot.

Yet as much as their goals would have helped, the Wings are still a high-level playmaker away — maybe two — from contending.

No team has won the Cup in the past decade without such a player. The St. Louis Blues, the 2019 champs, were the most offensively hamstrung; no player even got to 80 points. Their top scorer, Ryan O’Reilly, had 77 points, while Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in goals with 33, good for a tie for 30th in the league.

The Blues were deep and tough-minded, though, and won with a bevy of smart, talented players. Although they showed a Cup can be had without a superstar scorer, it hasn’t been done often. (Their best player was arguably rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who made his first start of the season on Jan. 7, while the Blues were in last place, and turned in a 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.)

No wonder Yzerman raided St. Louis’ roster. David Perron scored 23 goals for the Blues the season they won the Cup. He scored 27 last season and is on a respectable pace — 23, again — this season as a Wing.

Goaltending, defense and solid goal production up and down the lineup can make a team competitive, and Yzerman is slowly building out this way. Still, at some point he’ll have to get lucky, whether by trade or by draft, and find finishers that the Wings don’t have enough of at the moment.

That was evident Tuesday — as was a bit of poor puck luck — when the Wings finished the first period leading just 1-0, despite a handful of terrific chances. Seider and Jonatan Berggren hit goal posts. Robby Fabbri had an open net and missed.

Puck luck?

Yeah, some. But finishing isn’t just luck, either. It’s skill and feel and vision and hands, the combination of qualities that separate players such as, say, Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers’ nifty center who scored 55 goals last season, 29 this season — including three in his past five games — and who’s not even the best player on his team.

That would be Connor McDavid, who also has three goals in his past five games en route to 41 this season, and who is coming off a 123-point season. (That’s, y’know, pretty good.) McDavid is the consensus best player in hockey, with two MVP awards and top-5 finishes in MVP voting in each of the past six seasons. He’s also the most thrilling.

And even though the Oilers have both those superstars, plus a handful of other gifted players, they still lost last season’s Western Conference finals to Colorado — which also has a superstar in Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avalanche’s best player didn’t lead his team in goals or points, though; he finished with 32 and 88, respectively — four behind Mikko Rantanen. Two others Avs (Nazem Kadri and Cale Makar) topped 80 points, too.

Finishers, Derek Lalonde might call them — even Makar, a defenseman. The kind of players who lead to playoff chances and Cup runs.

The Oilers had won eight of nine before arriving in Detroit, giving the Wings a stiff test to start the second half. Edmonton won by three goals but don’t let the score suggest the game wasn’t close, chippy and competitive.

Joe Velano scored with less than a minute left in the second period after the Red Wings had killed an Oilers’ power play. Edmonton led by just one at the second intermission, and in the third period, the Wings had more chances.

There’s that word again: Chances. The difference between 5-2, or 4-3 the other way.

“I know it sounds simple,” Lalonde said, “but we’re not natural finishers, goal scorers. We don’t have a ton of 30-, 40-, 50-goal scorers on our team. We don’t actually have any of them, really. It’s kind of got to be by a group.”

That group might have different results so far with more from Bertuzzi and Vrana. But even with them, the group doesn’t have Drasaitl or McDavid or MacKinnon or … well, you get it.

That remains Yzerman’s final charge.

Asking him to find the next McDavid is silly. He’s a generational talent who went first overall in the draft in 2015 after years of hype as the NHL’s next big thing. Besides, teams don’t need someone that outlandishly gifted to win a Cup. But they do need players like MacKinnon, another No. 1 overall (2013) who took a few seasons to develop.

Preferably a couple of them.

The Wings began their second half with a spirited outing against a team from last season’s final four that is surging once again. It was the kind of effort that should keep them from falling off the way they did this time a year ago.

That’s progress. Tuesday night was also a reminder of how much more progress is still needed.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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