The Wings’ playoff streak sure seems to be in trouble, but we should know better than to doubt them – especially when the analytics still favor them.
It was fun to see the Red Wings recall Anthony Mantha from the AHL for Tuesday’s game. It was also troubling.
The shine has worn off Mantha a little since Detroit drafted him 20th overall in 2013, but he remains a promising prospect. He ranks 27th overall in the newest edition of THN Future Watch. He rates as the Wings’ No. 1 prospect. He’s significantly spiked his offensive production in his second year as a pro, jumping from 15 to 21 goals and from 33 to 45 points with AHL Grand Rapids in six fewer games. He’s a budding goal scorer and, at 21, has probably done enough to warrant a look at the NHL level.
At the same time, Mantha has been somewhat of a project since he broke his leg last year. it took a while for him to gain his rhythm.
“He was kind of running uphill the rest of the year,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill, Mantha’s AHL bench boss last year, says in Bob Duff’s Future Watch report. “He probably lost a bit of confidence. Anthony has to score goals. That’s one of the things he does well. But it’s about learning to skate every single shift, skate to pressure the puck, skate to get back on track.”
It sounds like an assessment of a player who could use one full healthy AHL season before being tested in the NHL. But this week’s Mantha call-up suggests Wings don’t have the luxury of keeping him on the grill until he’s well done.
The Wings have played 70 games, and their leading scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, has 43 points. They have a single 20-goal man in rookie Dylan Larkin. Even Pavel Datsyuk’s 40 points in 54 games pro-rate to just 52. The Wings have the fewest goals of the 16 teams currently occupying playoff positions. They rank 24th in power play efficiency.
So adding Mantha felt like a desperate attempt to slow unstoppable bleeding of late in Motown. The Wings have lost five of their past seven games, including a crucial contest in Philadelphia last night against a Flyers team that has two games in hand and sits just one point back now for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Detroit’s reliable veterans are past their prime and not producing at the same rate anymore. Zetterberg is suffering through his worst offensive season since he was a 22-year-old rookie in 2002-03, Datsyuk missed the first 15 games of the year after ankle surgery, and stalwart blueliner Niklas Kronwall might miss the rest of the regular season with a sprained knee.
On the flip side, Detroit’s emerging kids haven’t quite found the consistency yet to take the torch from the vets. Wingers Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have regressed after breaking out in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively. Larkin looked like the Calder Trophy frontrunner two months ago but has been ice cold since the all-star break, with just five goals and seven points in 20 games. That’s forgivable considering he’s played about twice as many games as he ever did in a college season with Michigan. Goalie Petr Mrazek had pretty much caught Braden Holtby in the Vezina race by the end of January, going 18-9-4 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Since then? 8-6-2, 2.59, .906 and the feeling of backup Jimmy Howard’s hot breath on his neck.
The Wings have made the playoffs an incredible 24 straight times, but are all these red flags suggesting the run is finally about to end? Maybe Detroit is a team too much in transition to make the playoffs. The old are too old and the young are too young.
Not so fast. If the Wings have taught us anything year after year, it’s to never count them out. First off, we shouldn’t jump to discredit coach Jeff Blashill and assume the team’s struggles are his fault or that Detroit would be lapping the field if Mike Babcock were still there. Babcock’s Wings had to scratch and claw to make the big dance in recent years, especially 2013-14, when they landed the eighth and final Eastern Conference seed. Secondly, it’s not like Babcock carried each of the past 24 Detroit playoff teams. He’s a phenomenal coach, but he’s not the only good one on Earth. Before him there were Dave Lewis and Scotty Bowman and Bryan Murray. So it’s not ludicrous to imagine Blashill takes the reins and becomes the Next Great Detroit Coach. Remember, he guided much of the current roster personnel to the Calder Cup title with Grand Rapids in 2013. That team had Tatar, Nyquist, Mrazek, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Joakim Andersson, Luke Glendening and Teemu Pulkkinen in prominent roles during the AHL post-season. So it’s not like Blashill lacks a feel for his players.
Most importantly, I remember reading plenty of early-season buzz about the Wings morphing into a terrible possession team with the Babcock-for-Blashill swap. That was true in October, when Detroit sputtered along to a 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi percentage of 46.7, ranking 27th in the NHL. Since then, though? Try 53.0, the seventh-best mark in the league. While plummeting in the standings this month, the Wings rank as the top offensive possession team in the league, with a score-adjusted Corsi For per 60 of 63.3. A team struggling to score is actually generating the most shot attempts of any in the NHL these days.
So maybe, just maybe, the Wings are merely unlucky right now. They’ve lost five of seven but have outshot their opponent in six of those games. The Wings have scored just 15 goals despite 255 shots over that span. That’s 5.9 percent accuracy for a team averaging 8.3 percent on the year. The lowest season-long mark for any NHL team is 7.3.
In theory, then, the Wings are not playing nearly as poorly as the record indicates, and they should right the ship as soon as their luck regresses to the mean. Mrazek has slumped but hasn’t been that bad at all. In his past five starts, he’s allowed two or fewer goals four times and posted an OK .914 SP. Wins should start piling up again once Detroit’s offensive puck luck turns. The Flyers’ games in hand are scary, but Detroit gets to play them again, this time at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings also host a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins before the season is up, so Detroit gets chances to control its own destiny against the team directly below and above it in the standings.
Things look grimmer for the Wings than they have in 25 years, yes, but luck has been their enemy of late, and it should even out as long as they don’t run out of time. Do you really want to bet against them? They’ve more than earned our trust after nearly a quarter century of excellence.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin