The Red Wings seem to be running on empty down the stretch, as we inch closer to April and the end of the NHL’s regular season. The Winged Wheelers have dropped 8 of their last 10 and are struggling to stay competitive, especially against quality opponents. The fanbase has grown frustrated with these performances — it feels as if the rare “lead” is always unsafe and wins are unlikely.
A massive reason for this is Detroit’s almost innate inability to keep the other team from lighting up the scoreboard, giving up the 4th most goals per 60 in the league at 2.93. This has caused game after game to end up in the L column, despite the Wings’ increased scoring clip. We’ve seen the extremes: 7 goals against vs. Colorado and Minnesota, 9 goals against vs. Arizona (!), 10 goals against vs. Toronto. Let’s take a look at just why the Wings have been so bad at limiting opponent scoring this season — specifically as of late.
The 2021-2022 season has been the most exciting and competitive campaign the Detroit Red Wings have embarked on in half-a-decade, which caused some of us Wings fans to temporarily forget what this year’s roster looks like: Improved upon, but not great. There is no better evidence for the previous statement than the defensive corps.
Struggles on Defense
The following is my personal top-six d-men on the roster this season, in no particular order:
Olli Juolevi (recently acquired, 0 GP)
Although it is spearheaded by Calder Candidate and long-term anchor Mo Seider, the defensive lineup Jeff Blashill ices on any given night is quite far below the quality required to consistently compete in “The Show”. Marc Staal is an aging veteran, past his prime and nearing the end of his career. He has certainly lost a step when it comes to keeping with his man — much like we saw happen to another physical defenseman, Nik Kronwall. I don’t expect him to be a Red Wing much longer than 1-2 more seasons, if that. Danny DeKeyser and (arguably) Nick Leddy are no longer serviceable NHL defensemen. Oesterle and Stecher are nothing more than short-term pieces, and Lindstrom and Juolevi are unproven and raw at best. The jury is still currently out on Filip Hronek and his future with the team — your guess is as good as mine.
We have seen frustrating lapse after frustrating lapse from Red Wing defensemen this season, in an even higher volume as of late. Whether it’s ill-advised pinches while on the offensive attack, allowing their man to get around them on the rush, or just straight-up leaving a man wide open in front of the net, it seems like Wings’ back-enders that don’t wear #53 can’t do much of anything right recently. The squad will need better performances from its defenders in the future should the franchise aspire to do any winning. It’s likely that the back-six will look at least a little different every year for the next couple years until the core is cemented and built around. Prospects are on their way, but they probably won’t make it this year. Thus, it is more likely than not that we are cursed to have to continue to watch the blueliners that we have now continue their often futile attempts to stave off opposing attacks.
As far as skaters go, the forwards must play better defensively as well — they are certainly not off the hook for the defensive issues the team has had. That’s not a worry for me, however: If there’s any one GM and franchise that knows how important it is to play a two-way hockey game, it’s Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings. That one just needs time and better commitment.
Goaltending is Struggling
Now, we move on to the goaltenders. Hoo boy, here we go.
Both Alex Nedeljkovic and Thomas Greiss have been awful as of late, completely crumbling under the increased pressure their skaters have allowed to get to them. The frustration is plain to see, especially in the case of Nedeljkovic. The following are the stats for both goaltenders in their last 5 contests (before the conclusion of the Calgary game, which is not included in these numbers):
Yeah…ouch. There’s no other way to put it: You don’t win NHL games with goaltending like this, no matter how good your scorers are. Ask the Oilers.
Alex Nedeljkovic has looked like a completely different goaltender as of late compared to the beginning of the season, at times letting in shots that you’d expect just about any NHL goalie to have (and occasionally scoring on himself, as one does).
There’s no need to be worried in my opinion, though. He’s still technically a rookie playing in his first full NHL season, and we are reaching the point in the year when most rookies start running out of gas.
Also, and let’s not beat around the bush here: He has been hung out to dry by the guys playing in front of him on countless occasions. It just so happens that he’s not making some of the miraculous saves that we saw from him earlier in the year that helped keep the Wings in games, which I don’t necessarily think is his fault. He needs a break, and with the play of Greiss, he doesn’t have much time for one. Ned can be better, no doubt, but you have to look at the entire context before judging his play. Hopefully he can finish strong. I think this offseason will be very important for him, and I suspect that he will bounce back next season (hopefully with improved defensive play in front of him).
Next, let’s discuss Thomas Greiss. Like Nedeljkovic, Greiss also receives the “plays behind the 2021-2022 Detroit Red Wings” pass. But that does not entirely excuse him. Unlike Alex, Greiss is an NHL veteran, and has experienced the grind of an 82 game season many times before. Since his 37-save performance in Madison Square Garden, Thomas has been unacceptably poor in net, receiving the hook from Coach Blashill multiple times. That kind of stuff just can’t happen, especially when you need to give your starter a night off. The Wings need Griess to pick it up fast if they want to close out the year on a good note.
(As I wrote this, Greiss stopped 40 shots against the Flames and of course didn’t get any goal support — but at least he’s back on the right track, and Ned got a full night off on the first day of a roadtrip. Progress!)
What Can Steve Do?
In the most simple terms, get better players. Easier said than done, of course.
Sam Gagner, Nick Leddy, Marc Staal, Troy Stecher, Danny DeKeyser, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Thomas Greiss are all in the final years of their contracts, and will become UFA’s at year’s end. I would not expect more than maybe one or two of them to remain in Red Wings sweaters for next season. This opens up the door for Steve Yzerman to do a little bit of tinkering with the roster should he desire, both at the upcoming trade deadline and in the offseason.
I fully expect Simon Edvinsson to be a Detroit Red Wing for the 2022-2023 campaign, and would not be surprised to see Donovan Sebrango as a roster mainstay. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Marc Staal back, either — he is the most likely out of the expiring contracts to be resigned, in my opinion. Moving forward with the assumption that my roster change speculation is correct, with Seider, Hronek, and Lindstrom, that’s a full back six — and not a terrible one at that, especially if Edvinsson and Sebrango can adjust to the NHL game even half as fast as Moritz Seider did. Possibly inking Stecher or a different depth d-man and retaining Olli Juolevi will also give the Wings options, should someone need a game off.
Thomas Greiss will most likely walk, especially if Stevie believes that the backup goalie market could provide a better player for the team. Greisser could possibly even retire after a poor age 36 season. Look out for a signing/trade for an adequate backup this offseason. For now, Yzerman could give Calvin Pickard a shot down the stretch, but that’s unlikely due to the fact that the Wings would probably have to place Griess on waivers to do so. I think we’ll have to ride out the remainder of the season with this tandem — hopefully they can pick it up (so far, so good).
The bright side for the franchise is that the team has shown progress and promise this season. That fact, combined with the reputation of the franchise and of the men running it, means that we should have no problem finding/keeping higher quality players that want to play in Detroit. Steve’s goal is to get better and better each year, and to do it in a sustainable way. We’re seeing that start to unfold, but there will be some growing pains. Patience is a virtue, Wings fans. All of this frustration and failure is only going to make the future successes of the team just that much sweeter, trust me. So sit back, relax, and try to enjoy as much of the rest of this season as you can. And hey, if you can’t enjoy any of it, at least the Tigers will be back soon.