The Hockey Writers (THW) published their annual season predictions recently. There were a few surprises in the 2023-24 edition including the Nashville Predators finishing in fourth place in the Central Division while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers are expected to finish in first place in their respective divisions. The biggest surprise involved the Detroit Red Wings, with the writers projecting them to finish in seventh place in the Atlantic Division.
This is shocking largely because the Red Wings are viewed as an up-and-coming team and have been for a few seasons. Their general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman is regarded as one of the best in the business and has helped assemble a team that looks poised to contend in a few years. On top of that, they acquired star forward Alex DeBrincat this offseason, making the biggest splash in the summer and signaling that they are ready to compete.
Yet, they are projected to finish in seventh place in their division. The Red Wings would not only miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row if that happens but end up behind the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators, two up-and-coming teams in their division.
The question is why the Red Wings, a team perceived to have a successful rebuild, isn’t receiving the vote of confidence heading into this season. There are a few reasons that stood out among the writers here at THW, starting with something that is unfortunately out of the team’s control.
The Atlantic is a Tough Division
The Red Wings have done a good job assembling a talented roster. Yzerman has taken a team that was a perennial cellar dweller and made them a borderline playoff team. The problem is that they play in arguably the best division in the NHL and certainly the one with the most playoff-caliber teams.
The Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Tampa Bay Lightning have been the class of the division for a while now. The Maple Leafs extended Auston Matthews and are going all-in with their current core thus explaining the confidence in them ahead of this season to win the division. The Bruins lost both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement and the Lightning have an aging roster that is expected to take a step back. However, there’s a lot of confidence in both teams to put together strong 2023-24 seasons. Simply, the top teams are the ones to beat until they prove otherwise.
The Florida Panthers were the final team to make the playoffs last season and it’s easy to see a team that barely made the playoffs regressing. However, it’s hard to ignore their Cup run, and with a great core still in place, they look to be competitive this season as well. While they might miss the playoffs in a competitive division, they will at least be in the conversation and their proven track record gives them a more favorable outlook.
Then there’s the Sabres and the Senators, two rebuilding teams that have made major strides in recent seasons. The Sabres have rising stars in both the forward unit and the defense with Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Quinn, and Owen Power expected to carry the team back to the playoffs. The Senators moved on from DeBrincat, one of their best players last season, but they still have a great young core led by Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, and Drake Batherson. Along with the star power, both teams have added the depth needed to become playoff teams and are expected to make that leap this season.
The Montreal Canadiens are the one team in the division that isn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot. But even they have put together an impressive rebuild under GM Kent Hughes. They might not make the playoffs but with Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, and second-year skater Juraj Slafkovsky expected to continue to make big strides, the Canadiens will be a tough team to play against on a nightly basis.
The Red Wings have the right pieces in place to make a leap into the playoffs. However, the other teams in their division have made greater strides. One writer noted that if they were in the Central Division and the Western Conference, they would be a playoff team. However, in a division where there are other teams on the rise, they were passed by, leading to the next problem concerning the Red Wings.
Yzerman Lack of Stars
Yzerman has managed to find a lot of good or even great skaters to lead the Red Wings but not a lot of elite players. The forwards that lead their top two lines include captain Dylan Larkin, DeBrincat, and 21-year-old rising star Lucas Raymond. All three skaters are good but none are top 10 or arguably even top 20 in their respective positions. The same can be said about the top defensemen; offseason addition Shayne Gostisbehere and 22-year-old Moritz Seider who led the unit in assists (37), points (42), ice time (23:09), and defensive point shares (3.9) last season.
There’s a gap between the Red Wings’ best skaters and the best skaters on the other teams in their division. In comparison, Thompson scored 47 goals and 47 assists to lead the Sabres last season while Stutzle had 39 goals and 51 assists to lead the Senators. The Red Wings didn’t have a skater with 35 goals or more or 80 points or more (Larkin led the team with 32 goals and 47 assists). Defensively, Seider is a promising defenseman who is expected to emerge as one of the best in a few years but he isn’t at that level yet. The rest of the teams within the division have defensemen already playing up to that level, specifically, they have received Norris Trophy votes in previous seasons. Good skaters can only take a team so far and to make the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference, a team needs elite talent to carry them.
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The defense for the Red Wings is that they aren’t a team that is carried by top-end talent. Instead, they have depth that can propel them to the playoffs. David Perron, Robby Fabbri, Andrew Copp, and offseason additions J.T. Compher, Christian Fischer, and Klim Kostin round out the forward unit while Jake Walman and Olli Maatta add stability to the defense. However, there isn’t a similar confidence in a roster that is dependent on depth to make the playoffs. When the roster is battling injuries or needs one player to bail them out, they don’t have that elite player. Think of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, or other greats who could carry their team even when things weren’t going well. That’s the biggest obstacle in the Red Wings’ roster build.
The lack of star power appears to be a knock on Yzerman. In his defense, the Red Wings have been forced to build a contender without high draft selections and only one top-five pick (Raymond went fourth in 2020) in the past 10 NHL Entry Drafts. Likewise, with the surplus of draft selections, Yzerman has managed to assemble a deep roster, landing players in the middle rounds who have become starting-caliber. That said, the lack of star power leaves the Red Wings on the outside of the playoff projections looking in. Ultimately, it makes the DeBrincat deal all the more consequential as he can be the elite player who can carry them and if he plays up to his potential, the team will be back in contention.
Red Wings’ Inability to Find Core Players At Key Positions
Among the three or even four best forwards on the Red Wings, how many of them primarily play the center position? The answer is one, Larkin. DeBrincat and Raymond primarily play on the wing in the top six while Perron in a less impactful role, also plays the wing. Joe Valeno is a young center who can have a breakout year while Copp and Compher are reliable middle-six skaters but the Red Wings lack the strength up the middle that makes it easy to think they will compete in the Eastern Conference.
In recent seasons, teams have proven that their best players don’t need to be centers to lead the offense. The Lightning have Nikita Kucherov leading the offense from the wing while the Panthers have Matthew Tkachuk setting the tone at that position as well. However, the center position is still viewed as an integral position, and having four reliable players who can contribute offensively, defensively, and in every facet of the game goes a long way. The Red Wings have plenty of talent in the forward unit and even in their top six but a lot of their best skaters are complementary pieces and not integral to the team’s success.
Then there’s the goaltending, an issue that has haunted Yzerman since he was hired as the GM in 2019. Since the 2019-20 season, the Red Wings have started eight different goaltenders, and heading into this season, they will be relying on a duo of Ville Husso and James Reimer. Goaltending across the league was down last season and there weren’t many reliable starters but the Red Wings are heading into the upcoming season with arguably the worst tandem in their division.
Yzerman has constructed great forward and defensive units but goaltending is where the team falls apart. To be fair, he’s tried to find a starter and fix the team’s issue. In the 2021 offseason, he acquired Alex Nedeljkovic from the Carolina Hurricanes, a young player who looked poised to become the franchise’s starter for years to come. To say that the Nedelkovic trade flopped would be an understatement. In two seasons, he had a .900 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.35 goals-saved above average (GSAA) on 2,262 shots to go along with minus-13.5 goals saved above average (GSAA). Yzerman has brought in multiple goaltenders with hopes of providing stability in the net. Jonathan Bernier, who interestingly, was a holdover from the Ken Holland era, is the only one who posted a SV% over .910 in the past five seasons.
The Red Wings selected Sebastian Cossa, who was one of the top goaltending prospects in the class, with the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. In the recent draft, the Red Wings selected two goaltenders, Trey Augustine, who was taken in the second round, and Rudy Giumond, the team’s sixth-round pick. The hope is that one of them can join the NHL roster in the near future and add that stability that the team desperately needs. Otherwise, the goaltending position looks like it could be Yzerman’s undoing.
Other Reasons For Low Bar On the Red Wings
While the THW predictions have the Red Wings finishing seventh in their division and missing the playoffs, it’s important to keep in mind how close things are and the difference between a seventh and third-place team is slim. An injury in training camp or a player that gets off to a slow start on another team can propel the Red Wings ahead of them.
One writer noted that if the Red Wings acquire Patrick Kane, who looks ahead of schedule in his rehab, he would move the needle for them. While it’s unlikely they will add Kane to their roster, a minor addition is still on the table for the Red Wings and could be the difference this season. Likewise, a move at the trade deadline can and will make them a playoff team and it’s something that none of the writers at THW could see coming.
The Red Wings can prove THW wrong and not only make the playoffs but end up as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. However, there are a lot of reasons why they are expected to miss the playoffs once again.
Do you agree with THW’s assessment of the Red Wings heading into the 2023-24 season? Let us know what you think in the comments section.