The date was October 26 and the Detroit Red Wings were 1-7-2, dead last in the NHL. At that point in the very young NHL season, things were about going as expected for the boys in the winged wheel. After finishing in the bottom five a year ago and being projected to be the worst team in the NHL, a dreadful start to the season was not unusual. Since then, however, things have taken a strange turn, with the Red Wings going 11-4-1 in their last 16 games. So as I did back in June when the Detroit Tigers had an odd start to their season before reverting to the mean, I’m here to examine how things have gotten to this point, and what to expect going forward.
What’s going well for the Wings?
There have been three important storylines for this Detroit squad, but all fall under the overarching theme of youth. While the Red Wings have been dogged in the past (rightfully so) for being a team of aging vets, this year’s team has seen a transfer of power towards younger players, with 5 of the top 8 scorers on the team being age 24 or younger. The first storyline has been the continued improvement of Dylan Larkin. Hopefully in a few weeks I’ll have a full Dylan Larkin appreciation post but I can paraphrase how good he’s been. Larkin has 22 points in 26 games, but most importantly, he has 10 goals, which is significant given he had just 16 a year ago (16 goals and 47 assists in 2017-18 for Larkin). Larkin is affecting every game he plays in in far more ways than what can show up on the stat-sheet. Most indicative of his transformation is the way he’s driving possession like never before. Larkin’s corsi for % (indicates what percent of the game your team has the puck when you’re on the ice) is a career high 54%, compared to a 50.5% a year ago. More astonishing is that relative to his team: Larkin’s corsi relative is an incredible 10.1%, which ranks in the top 5 in the NHL among centers who have played at least 15 games. Larkin has become a leader, a goal scorer, a distributor, and a guy who plays both ends well. At just 22 years old, Larkin is now Detroit’s most indispensible player and the cornerstone of their rebuild, with a real chance to become a star in this league.
But beyond Larkin, the Red Wings have seen something even more important occur: the emergence of Dennis Cholowski. As I wrote about in the summer, the Red Wings had a lot of defensive prospects, but no one who looked like an impact player. Now, they appear to have someone who has a shot to be that. Their 2016 first round pick, Cholowski was considered a reach at the time but has since proven to be more promising than expected. At just 20 years old, Cholowski is already logging nearly 20 minutes a night and looks like one of the Red Wings’ top two defensemen already. With 4 goals and 8 assists in 24 games, Cholowski has drawn praise from local and national outlets alike. He’s got a long way to go in his development process before we can crown him a defensive centerpiece, but at long last, there’s a glimmer of hope on the Red Wings’ blue line.
The third factor that’s been a pleasure to watch is Andreas Athanasiou. Arguably the most vexing player on the Red Wings’ roster, AA is a player loaded with skill and speed, yet had his NHL career defined as being something of a conundrum. In his two NHL seasons with at least 64 games played, he never had more than 33 points nor 18 goals in a season. This season in just 22 games, he’s already got 11 goals and 5 assists for 16 points, putting him on pace for 36 goals and 53 points. While he’ll most definitely cool off, he’s flashing a more complete and polished side to his game that we’ve never seen before and quite frankly, it is tantalizing. If he could simply hit 25 goals this year, he would affirm himself as a central forward in the Detroit rebuilding plan, rather than his previous fringe status. Additionally, he’s shaken some of the notions about himself as simply an offensive cherry-picker, as his Corsi Relative is 2.2%. Besides Athanasiou, the Wings have gotten solid offensive showings from some of their other younger forwards, as Anthony Mantha continues to be Johan Franzen reincarnate, on pace for 30 goals but in the most frustratingly streaky of fashions, and Tyler Bertuzzi continues to be a pleasant surprise, with 9 goals and 7 assists in 26 games. I suppose I should also shout out Jimmy Howard, who is fulfilling the Sparky Anderson Contract Year Prophecy by posting one of the best save percentages of his career and giving the Wings a healthy trade chip, and the same can be said for Gustav Nyquist, who, while not scoring many goals, has been a tremendous playmaker and is racking up the assists.
What to expect going forward
No matter how much fun this mini-run has been, we can’t expect it to last. By account of most stats besides record, the Wings are not a good team. They’re 21st in goals scored per game and 25th in goals allowed per game. They don’t possess the puck much and a number of the wins on this streak of games have come in overtime or shootouts, which suggest an element of luck which is not replicable going forward. However, even if the team cools off in wins and losses, that doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be valuable growth. Seeing how Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, Cholowski, and rookie Michael Rasmussen play going forward is infinitely more important than whatever the team’s record may be.
Indeed, a best case scenario for the Red Wings is probably one where they continue to get good results from the younger players but the overall team record sags, keeping them close enough to the bottom that they can get a high draft pick in June and cash in for another elite talent. Despite this string of good games, Detroit is still only 6 points from last in the NHL and a correction to the mean could quickly deposit them back into the bottom-five cellar, the type of spot you want to be in to score a top draft pick.
Other things to watch in the near future is whether we see Filip Zadina, the Red Wings’ #1 prospect and the 6th overall pick in June’s draft, who was considered one of three best talents in that draft. The Red Wings have stashed Zadina in Grand Rapids, where he’s still learning the ropes of professional hockey. I wouldn’t expect to see much of Zadina this year, but in a post trade-deadline world where a spot opens up on the NHL roster, we could see a call-up. The same can be said for defenseman Filip Hronek, who played 6 games with Detroit at the start of the year before returning to Grand Rapids. Having just turned 21, there’s no rush to get Hronek back to Detroit, but if he continues to light up the AHL (13 points in 15 games), it’ll be awfully hard not to give him a longer look this season. Again, this is also contingent on trade deadline possibilities.
Speaking of which, the trade deadline will be another key factor to watch in the near future. Even though the team has been hot as of late, GM Ken Holland and the front office have not changed their outlook on the season according to sources, and remain very comfortable with the possibility of trading veterans at the deadline. The most prominent and likely name to go is Jimmy Howard. In the last year of his contract, Howard has been the starter (or co-starter) with the Red Wings for 10 seasons, and it will be hard to see Howard go. However, this is a rebuilding project and Howard is an asset given the way he’s been playing. While he is a 34 year-old rental, there are already several suitors mentioned, most notably the St. Louis Blues. The Red Wings are rumored to be holding out to try and get a first-round pick for Howard, which would be a coup quite frankly. There is also the reality that they may pull the trigger in the next few weeks, since you can never know how much longer Howard can keep up the stellar level of play he’s been at this season. Anything higher than a 3rd round pick or a solid prospect would be a good return for a veteran piece like Howard.
Gustav Nyquist is also likely to go, and while he won’t fetch as much as Tomas Tatar did a year ago, the Red Wings can certainly get a pick or two for him. Beyond those two, Mike Green is one to watch. Green was going to be dealt a year ago but his back injuries prevented him from leaving town and Detroit re-signed him in the offseason. He’s not a rental this year, but that could theoretically improve his value if someone really wanted him. He’s having a good offensive season and has been steady enough for a trade to make sense. Thomas Vanek will be on the trading block as well, but I’m not sure how much he could really fetch and whether the Red Wings would be willing to do that.
All in all, the season has largely been going according to plan, or at least how Red Wings fans hoped. There’s been continued growth in the young core and the team has been competitive, yet they’re also close enough to the bottom of the league to put them in a good spot for June. I don’t expect this run to last much longer, but the bigger storylines of this season could persist. And that is welcome news to Red Wings fans.