A little over a week removed from being mathematically eliminated from the 2022 NHL playoffs, the Red Wings are soul searching to finish out the year. Dylan Larkin and Nedeljkovic have both pointed out in recent media availabilities how players on the team are playing for jobs for next season, whether that be in Detroit or somewhere else. But over the past week, aside from goaltending, the Red Wings as a whole have lacked any true jump in games.
Top Line Woes
For most of the season, the team relied on the top line to drive offense and, ultimately, the pace of the game. Over the course of the past week, they have been getting outmatched by their opponent’s top line, which wasn’t happening as much a few weeks ago. Over the past five games, the line of Tyler Bertuzzi-Dylan Larkin-Lucas Raymond have been outscored at even-strength 10-1, granted that includes two-empty net goals against Ottawa.
Dylan Larkin hasn’t looked himself, and it’s hard not to think that he may be dealing with a nagging injury, as he has frequently been taking maintenance days and not practicing. Following the Red Wings’ 6-1 loss to Florida, Larkin said the team needs to “take pride wearing the winged wheel” the rest of the season. I think he had his strongest game in a while versus Florida on Sunday, as he was creating the majority of chances for the Red Wings until the score got out of hand.
Tyler Bertuzzi and Lucas Raymond have also been struggling, especially in their own zone where off the wall, they are losing the majority of foot races for loose pucks, leading towards longer shifts in their own end. On the Panthers’ first goal Sunday, Bertuzzi was the player back-checking Aleksander Barkov, who would send the puck cross-ice to Anthony Duclair, who finished the play.
Bertuzzi was at the end of his shift, but in that position, he needed to challenge to puck carrier to force a play rather than just hold out his stick in the middle of the ice and hope it hit him. Over the past month, the trio’s production has dipped from where it was most of the season. Since March 17th, Dylan Larkin has only four goals and eleven points through 16 games.
Lucas Raymond has three goals and nine points in the same amount of games.
Tyler Bertuzzi has three goals and eight points in 13 games.
I’m not sure how much it makes sense to have those three together to finish the season, as it hasn’t worked offensively or defensively of late.
The game plan from Jeff Blashill and the coaching staff has been reminiscent of last year, being low-event on both sides of the ice. With that style comes the likelihood of being outshot most nights as, through the past five games, the Red Wings have been outshot 187-139.
Saturday afternoon’s loss to the Rangers saw the Red Wings only get 20 shots on net.
“We didn’t seem to have enough jump all game. We didn’t have much jump. They had good jump. We defended alright through large parts of it but we just defended so much.” Blashill said in his post-game media availability.
The objective is to limit high danger chances by forcing plays away from the middle of the ice and letting the opposing team shoot outside the slot, at the expense of the team’s offense. That system can work in the NHL, as we have seen the New York Islanders under Barry Trotz make their way to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in the 2020 and 2021 playoffs while getting outshot the majority of games.
The difference between the New York Islanders of the past three seasons (excluding this year) and the 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings is that not only did the Islanders have a better defensive core and limit high danger chances, but they also bought into the system, something the Red Wings haven’t done.
There is the rare handful of games in a season where a goalie can make 40-plus saves and will a team into a victory, which Alex Nedeljkovic did versus Carolina on Thursday night, but that isn’t reasonable to expect every game, especially when a lot of those are high danger shots.
Some of that can be due to the fact that the Red Wings don’t have a strong enough defensive core yet, but it could be argued that this season’s core, with the addition of Seider, is the strongest group Jeff Blashill has had in a few seasons. Yet there are many more lopsided games this season than last season.
Jeff Blashill has been at the helm for seven seasons now and has struggled to implement a consistent system that the team has bought into. You look at the Buffalo Sabres under head coach Don Granato, a team in a similar position that is playing good hockey down the stretch. Don Granato has only been head coach of the Buffalo Sabres for thirteen months and has been able to revamp the team completely. After seven seasons, you would think that a team identity would have been developed. It is tough imagining Jeff Blashill behind the Red Wings bench next season after how the second half of this season has played out.
The Red Wings have a single home game in their remaining six games, and four of them are against playoff teams. A young team needs to finish a season strong to carry into next year to improve hopefully, and for the Red Wings, that starts now.