Across the opening week of the NHL campaign, there was a glimmer, a sparkle, a glint of hope for the Detroit Red Wings, a feeling that maybe, possibly, this team would be greater than the sum of its parts and have itself a respectable season. It was a feeling that came as the result of three wins in the Red Wings’ first four games, victories over the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens, each of which were projected playoff teams entering the campaign. It was a feeling that was built on the strength of Anthony Mantha’s white-hot start. And it was a feeling that had carried over from a summer of change that saw Steve Yzerman return to the franchise and take over as GM, replacing longtime team architect Ken Holland.
It’s also a feeling that no longer exists.
Since Detroit picked up its third win of the season on Oct. 10, a 4-2 road victory over the Habs, the Red Wings have yet to win another game. Put another way, it’s been three-plus weeks of losing for Detroit, who have now seen their record slip to an unsightly 3-8-1 through their first dozen games. And few defeats on their now eight-game losing streak will sting quite as much – or do quite as much to illuminate that this is a team nowhere near consistently competing – as Sunday’s, which saw the Red Wings fight back from a third-period deficit against the St. Louis Blues and take the lead with eight minutes remaining only to surrender the game-tying goal with little more than four minutes remaining before an eventual overtime defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Making matters worse is the way in which Detroit has dropped games. Prior to Sunday’s loss, the Red Wings hadn’t earned so much as a single point from their seven consecutive defeats, and the scores in those contests had been decidedly lopsided. Only a single loss was by one goal and five of the seven had been by three or more goals. And during the losing streak as a whole, Detroit has surrendered five goals on six occasions, scored fewer than three goals in all but one game and has been outscored by a whopping 21-goal margin, allowing 34 and scoring 13 since Oct. 12.
As painful as this has been for the Red Wings and the Hockeytown faithful, though, this hasn’t been some one-off experience. Rather, it’s been the norm. Across the past three seasons, Detroit has had nine losing streaks of five games or more, including two seven-gamers, one eight-gamer and a double-digit streak that saw the Red Wings drop 10 consecutive tilts from Feb. 28 to March 18 during the 2017-18 campaign. Detroit is making up for lost time by experiencing some serious and prolonged on-ice pain following a quarter-century playoff streak.
And, ultimately, it’s a necessary evil for the franchise.
It’s been said time and again, but what the Red Wings need most at this juncture are new centerpieces around which to build the franchise. Undoubtedly, some of those pillars are in place. Mantha’s continued growth has turned him into a legitimate top-six forward and arguably the team’s MVP through the early season. Dylan Larkin has been considered a foundational piece since he made his big-league debut. And the hope and belief is there are others on the way, including Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider, who was selected sixth overall this past June.
What the upcoming draft presents, however, is an opportunity for the Red Wings to land a legitimate franchise-turnaround type player. The 2020 draft class, led by standouts Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, projects to be one of the most talent-laden in recent history with potential to be transformative for more than one franchise. While still too early to call, that the Red Wings are sliding this fast this soon suggests they will be in the hunt for one of the two stud prospects, potentially with top odds to land the first-overall pick.
But the necessity of a poor campaign goes beyond the ability to land a high draft pick. It also gives Yzerman the opportunity to start the process of separating the wheat from the chaff and begin the process of refreshing a veteran roster, something the Red Wings have long needed to do.
Niklas Kronwall’s retirement put the final nail in the coffin of a now bygone era of success, and Yzerman appears ready to correct some of the franchise’s ills. The waiving of Jonathan Ericsson, who is in the final year of his contract, opened up a roster spot for younger defensemen, and you can rest assured that pending free agents Mike Green and Trevor Daley aren’t long for Detroit. What seems to be occurring with the veterans on their way out is the graduation of younger players to those roles. Case in point: 21-year-old Filip Hronek is the Red Wings’ current ice time leader and 27-year-old off-season signee Patrik Nemeth isn’t all that far behind. And that’s only on the blueline. Up front, all four forwards leading the team in ice time are 25 or younger, and among those being given the chance to produce and taking some minutes from the more established skaters are relative newcomers Taro Hirose, Christoffer Ehn, Jacob de la Rose, among others.
A continued plummet down the standings, however, might allow Yzerman to get even bolder with his roster decisions. In the coming months, with Detroit all but certain to be a seller at the deadline, consideration can be given to cutting ties with not just Green and Daley, but veteran winger Darren Helm and netminder Jimmy Howard, no matter the return. Even late-round picks will give the Red Wings more darts to throw at the board. And at that point, Yzerman’s focus can shift to doing what he needs to really reset this roster. If Detroit falls all the way to the bottom of the league, few would even bristle at Yzerman finding a way out of boat-anchor deals such as those to Justin Abdelkader and Frans Nielsen, who have been high-priced bottom-six pieces this season. That’s money that’s better allocated to extending pending restricted free agents Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Andreas Athanasiou.
None of this is going to happen overnight, mind you. Yzerman has a long road to hoe in Detroit, and the Red Wings may not take a truly meaningful step forward for another two or three seasons’ time. But a trip to the NHL’s basement could give Yzerman the freedom he needs to wipe the slate almost entirely clean, and if he can begin to build anew around a select group of up-and-comers – and maybe even one of the draft’s top-two talents – he might be able to jumpstart a franchise that is close to bottoming out after years as the class of the league.
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