So, for the third year in a row, and fourth time in five years, the Detroit Red Wings have been eliminated in round one. After this team struggled with consistency all season, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to most fans. They have quite a bit of talent there, both young and old, they just could never put it all together. So we are left to wonder what went wrong and what happens next.
First, what went wrong? A lot…is really all I can say. Some people will want to point to coaching, and while there are certainly things to question what first year head coach Jeff Blashill was doing at times, I don’t think that is all of it. Remember, Mike Babcock had his struggles with this team down the stretch late last season. They looked very similar at times. The biggest problem was players not stepping up to the levels that they needed. Henrik Zetterberg and Blashill both had talked in the offseason about the younger players needing to step up and take a leadership role with this team. That didn’t happen. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar combined for 56 goals in the 2014-15 season. This season, they combined for 38 goals. That is the exact opposite of stepping up. When your team finishes with a -12 goal differential, you have to look no further than those guys. Zetterberg and Datsyuk can both still play, but they can’t carry the team the way they did 8 years ago. Dylan Larkin in his first season, was great, and you have to assume he’s only going to get better. But if Nyquist and Tatar don’t get back to the 25-30 goals you expect out of them, it won’t matter much.
Wings were a little awkward on the defensive side of the puck as well. At the start of the season both goalies were playing great. Petr Mrazek had outplayed Jimmy Howard but only slightly. The team defense though was awful. Giving up far too many shots and making their goalies keep them in the game. That improved as the season went on, but then the goalies started to struggle. While Mrazek played well in January and February, Howard struggled with his confidence. The Wings rode Mrazek has best they could but as the team began to struggle again during the month of March, so did he. Howard was able to step in and got his game going again, but his team continued to let him down. During the first two games of the playoffs it was mental lapses and mistakes that caused the Wings do to go down 0-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So…what to do next? In an article that I don’t agree with at all really, Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press pointed to the teams that were now Stanley Cup contenders, or had one Cups recently, were good because they had good young talent and could afford the more expensive role players, like Valteri Filppula, because they had young cheap they now have because of years of being terrible. First, Wings could have afforded Fil now and when he left in 2013 at this salary. According to reports at the time, they offered him a similar contract and he chose to leave as a UFA, which is his right. Had he stayed, there never would have been a Stephen Weiss contract to buy out and Brad Richards wouldn’t be here either. So I’m not sure the point of him bringing up that was. Wings could afford him without being as crappy as TB was for a couple years.
Foster’s other point in the article was the Hawks, Kings and Pens had won Cups recently because they had great young talent from being so freaking terrible for many years. Basically saying, the Wings need to blow it up and do that. First, the Wings can’t blow much up with the contracts they have. Also they have young talent, maybe not Kane or Crosby type, but Larkin showed he is going to be a great two-way player, Nyquist and Tatar had bad years but are both in their mid-20’s, Anthony Mantha is developing nicely and Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen are nice young talents, but the players need to step up and up to the coaching staff to find a way to utilize them.
The pointed to the Blackhawks, Pens, King and Lightning, while ignoring the Oilers, Flames, Coyotes and Blue Jackets, is just looking at the grass on the other side of the fence. It’s always greener there isn’t it? The Blackhawks made the playoffs just once in 10 years and got extremely lucky to pick Patrick Kane in 2007. The Hawks were slotted to pick 5th based on record but won the draft lottery and ended up picking first overall. There is no guarantee the Wings would be that lucky, and the odds of winning the draft lottery as the worst team are tougher now, than then. The Pens also missed the playoffs for 4 years, and were god awful those years, and also got extremely lucky to get Sidney Crosby. The Pens were terrible in 2004 and got Evgeni Malkin and with no season in 04-05 the 2005 draft lottery was weighted toward the crappy teams from 03-04. Had there been a 2004-05 season, maybe the Pens don’t get Crosby. So again, a lot of luck there. While with that luck came a lot of good young talent, it also brings it’s issues now. Do you let people walk? Do you sign them? Which ones do you keep when their deals are up? The Hawks have had to trade away good role players to keep under the cap. The Pens haven’t been able to put together a good group of role players since winning the Cup in 2009. The LA Kings, while having 2 Cups, have major cap issues on their hands and while they might be better as the Wings currently, have very little wiggle room. The Lightning…they are probably going to lose their #1 overall pick from their crappy 2007-08 season this summer…Steven Stamkos because of all of “cheap young talent” they have. They are cheap now but won’t be soon, which is why Stamkos most likely walks.
Then the other side of the coin are the teams that have been awful for years and have nothing to show for it. Edmonton Oilers have had four #1 picks since 2010 and have never made the playoffs. They also got lucky last season, by getting the #1 pick and got the next Crosby…Conner McDavid. He’s great and I’d love to have him. Do I want the Wings to miss the playoffs for 10 years the way they have? No thanks.
So what do the Wings do next? Pavel Datsyuk seems set to retire and head home to Russia. With still one year at a cap hit of $7.5mil on his deal, the Wings will need to trade his contract to a team that needs to reach the cap floor to be able to get his salary off the books. It’ll take giving up a prospect or good draft pick to do it, but that’s probably better than having $7.5mil worth of cap space eaten up by a guy not here. Jimmy Howard could also find himself somewhere new this summer as Mrazek is the future and having two goalies taking up $8-9mil is a little pricey.
I had talked about Steven Stamkos earlier and he might be the answer. Wings have plenty of young talent and some aging veterans, but the young kids might not be the game changers just yet. Stamkos coming here could be the shot in the arm the franchise needs. He helps now by taking pressure off of Zetterberg for his last few years and helps in the long run as Larkin and Mantha mature. Does it happen? I dunno but it’s not a far fetched idea. The Wings need some help up front, even if Nyquist and Tatar return to form next season.
On defense is where the Wings could also use some improvement. They need a true #1 defensemen. Something they haven’t had since Nicklas Lidstrom retired four years ago. Kronwall seems to be showing his age and while I love Danny DeKeyser, he’s is not a #1 defensemen. It would take trading a Nyquist or Tatar to make it happen but if you are able to get Stamkos and with some of the young guys coming a lot, it might be worth the risk. Jonathan Ericsson looked awful the last few games against Tampa, but with four years left on his deal, I don’t see him being moved anywhere.
It’s going to be an interesting offseason, but if you expect the Wings to blow it up and try to stink, they won’t. They will do their best to make the playoffs and if the don’t, use the pick(s) they get to improve their team. They won’t try to be awful in hopes that they’ll get lucky and get a franchise player. Do your best and see what happens.