Well, it’s that time of year again, isn’t it Red Wings fans? With about 10 games to go, the end of another regular season is in sight, and once again- there is no hope for a playoff push down the stretch.
It can be the most confusing time of year – watching the last several games, attempting to soak it all in, rooting the boys on to victory… while at the same time, thinking “well, if they lose, it’ll improve their draft stock!” So what is a fan to do? Let’s examine where this team is at now, and where we have been.
The Red Wings draft stock needs to be considered when finishing this season. At the same point, they have to end on a high note. It’s a pride thing. So, how should the Red Wings try and finish the season?
A lot of fans aren’t fond of the “tanking” strategy, but throughout the last few years, I have been all aboard the Tanking Express.
When a team lacks talent from the top line down through the AHL system, which this team did after Ken Holland desperately tried to save a playoff streak on life support for several years, it is absolutely the right move to sell your valuable pieces to begin to re-stock the war chest.
Let’s not forget the best the team had to offer in 2015-2016, the last year of the playoff streak. Besides Zetterberg and Datsyuk who were on their way out, the top scorers were Larkin, Tatar, and Nyquist. And in previous years, Ken Holland had pulled off the infamous Erik Cole and David Legwand trades, each of which cost 2 existing prospects plus a 2nd round pick (and one of those picks became Roope Hintz).
Then after considering how bereft of talent the organization was, take a look at some of the top names in the draft in that era: Aaron Ekblad and Leon Draisaitl (2014), Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel (2015), Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Matt Tkachuk, and Mikhail Sergachev (2016). Yes, yes, I know, you’re not guaranteed one of those top-caliber guys even if you finish last. But it’s a fact that the worse you finish in the standings, the better shot you have at one of these gamebreaking, franchise player type talents.
On the flip side, of the 20 players drafted by the Wings in 2014-2016, only 3 of those players have played for the 2022 squad – Larkin, Hronek, and Givani Smith.
One of the biggest arguments against tanking however is that it promotes, or at least fosters, a culture of losing. Even the biggest tanking supporter has to concede this is true, and that tanking is never a permanent strategy. At some point, the results have to come.
After several years of selling their highest-value assets, this team has a lot going for it: a strong, young top-6 forward group with Larkin, Raymond, Bertuzzi, Vrana, Suter, and Zadina(bear with me on the last 2); a defensive superstar in Mo Seider; and several prospects on the come who can contribute as soon as next year including: Edvinsson, Viro, Sebrango, and Johansson on the back end, Berggren and Soderblom on the front end, and several goaltending prospects including Sebastian Cossa.
We currently hold 10 draft picks for the 2022 draft, and 8 each of the next two years. And let’s not forget all the cap space.
I can list all the reasons the team is in a better position now than they were 6 years ago, but just look at the eye test this year as compared to previous ones. This is undeniably a better, more skilled, higher quality team than last year (despite the recent post-deadline slump), and they are clearly past the “bottom out” phase of the rebuild.
Another reason you can feel justified in rooting for wins this year is they’ve done well enough that there isn’t much of a chance for a top pick at this point anyway. As of Sunday afternoon, the Wings sit at 24th in the overall NHL standings.
With amount of games left and points available, the best they could do is probably overtake the Ducks at 22nd, and the worst they could likely do would be to fall down to 25th. According to Tankathon, the 22nd worst team has a 6.5% chance at a Top-2 pick, whereas 25th has a 12% chance. So at this point, we are realistically quibbling over a 5.5% difference at a Top-2 pick.
Having rooted for tanking in previous years, and now seeing the fruits of that failure, my expectations have evolved. This team is becoming more skilled, and a core group for the next generation has developed. We clearly need a few more pieces, but have the prospects and cap space/draft picks to be able to acquire them when the time comes. The time to begin contending is soon, and that needs to be the organizational focus.
So while it may have been the best move to lose and improve the draft stock in the past, that’s not where this team is at any more. We’ve progressed to the next stage of the rebuild, where it’s imperative to build a wining culture, and, that old cliché, “learn how to win.” Because of that, I’ll be savoring the stretch run here along with all of you, and embracing the fact that the team’s future holds more wins than losses, and enjoying the ability to root shamelessly for those wins.