The future was looking bright at the beginning of the 2021-2022 campaign in Detroit. After a 4-3 defeat of the New York Islanders on December 4th, the Detroit Red Wings moved to 13-9-3, over .500 almost two months into the season. Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi were making massive strides in their games, playing at a point-a-contest level and helping outscore some somewhat worrying defensive problems. Three shiny new rookies graced the LCA ice for the first time and put the league on notice, lighting up the scoresheet and the highlight reel.
Close games were starting to go Detroit’s way, and they were competing with some pretty decent teams. For a brief moment, many of us asked ourselves, “are the Red Wings back?”
And then the bottom fell out.
Since a shootout victory over the New York Rangers on the road in February (that I called their best win of the season), the Red Wings are 3-10-3 and have given up 82 goals in that time period for an astonishing 5.12 GA/G. The “somewhat worrying” defensive problems have revealed themselves as massive and apparent holes in the defensive core, initially shielded by an impressive start from Detroit’s offense and goaltending. When the offense and goaltending started to struggle, the team completely fell apart. No one has been exempt from the slide : Not even #71, #59, #53, #23, or #39.
With only 15 games remaining in the season and change likely coming in the offseason, all the Winged Wheelers can do for the current season now is buckle down and finish as strong as possible. But how?
Nothing about the current iteration of the Red Wings is more painstaking to watch than the men on the back-end. Outside of #53, it’s beginning to feel like there will be some thorough defensive roster turnover before the franchise sees the playoffs again. That doesn’t help us right now, though.
Detroit needs its veteran defensemen to play like they’re veterans. It’s late in the season and we’re slowly inching towards the finish of an at-first promising year turned sour. This is when the younger guys tend to lose their legs a bit. However, that shouldn’t be too big of an issue for this specific group.
Five out of every six defenders in any given lineup Detroit has iced this year are vets, no strangers to the haul of an 82 game season. The physical issues that these players are having are not due to youth and inexperience — they’re due to age. But what I’ve seen, and what drives me more mad than anything, are the mental lapses.
The team desperately needs its leaders to lead, in this case, by example. A strong 60 is to be expected out of any man that puts on the sweater with the Red Wings crest on the front. I can’t say I’ve seen that from the guys on the back end any time recently. Quality defensive play is just as much, if not more about effort and awareness as skill. When you struggle as much as this team does defensively, you have an effort problem. And that just can’t fly.
This is not as much of an issue as it was a couple of weeks ago, with the re-emergence of the Alex Nedeljkovic we often saw at the beginning of the season. His effort on many nights still isn’t enough, unfortunately.
All the Wings need Ned to do is keep playing with confidence. Since his self-scoring gaffe against the Wild, Alex has been a man determined. Nedeljkovic hasn’t been perfect, but he has rebounded quite nicely and has given us a lot to be optimistic about in his case going forward.
Alex needs his backup goalies to actually finish the games that they start, though.
Thomas Greiss has been an absolute trainwreck in-between the pipes in the last month, and will almost surely be gone by the offseason. The other options they have, put in valiant efforts, but have now seen the horrors of playing behind the 2021-2022 Detroit Red Wings.
When Ned is scheduled to have a night off, he needs to actually get a night off. If he has to keep coming in to games where his backup gets shelled, and face an astronomical amount of shots and quality chances, it’s going to be damaging to him mentally and physically. We’ve already seen the frustration rear its head on a few occasions.
Ned is still a rookie, and he’s never been relied on/ridden this much. He’s tired, but he’s giving it everything he has every night he plays. He’s a competitor — it’s in his nature. You have to let him have a rest, and in order for him to have a rest, we either need to find a backup goalie that can put in a better effort or a coach who is willing to not switch goalies every other shift.
Scoring has significantly dropped for the Wings as of late. All three of Lucas Raymond, Dylan Larkin, and Tyler Bertuzzi have cooled off, seemingly all at the same time. Even with the input of bonafide goal scorer Jakub Vrana, Detroit has struggled to score in sufficient volumes.
I don’t think there are many other ways of putting it: Outside of the top 6, the Red Wings don’t have any offense. Their secondary scoring has completely disappeared. Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen still can’t find the net; Adam Erne has 16 points and 5 goals in 66 games and gets third/second line time; Vlad Namestnikov is gone; Sam Gagner and Pius Suter haven’t scored in what seems like forever. They just don’t have the production they need to compete at this level, especially with how many goals they allow per game.
Hopefully down the stretch, Larkin, Raymond, and Bertuzzi can find it again, and a couple of other guys can get going and help put goals on the board. If not, it will be more of the same.
In retrospect, we definitely pumped the tires of this squad a little too much after the first 20 games. That bubble burst, and what we’ve been left with is a miserable stretch of hockey. A stretch of hockey that has been so hard to watch and so hard to want to care about. The road to competition has many speedbumps, this being quite a large one. Fear not, the franchise will get through it and continue on its trajectory toward success. It just may not be as smooth or as pretty as we were expecting.
For now, the team must make due with what it has, and come back after the offseason with a different mentality. A winning one.