The Detroit Red Wings entered the 2017-18 NHL season projected as one of the worst teams in the National Hockey League. For a franchise fresh off a 25-year playoff streak and a robust history beyond that, this was unfamiliar territory.
So far, things have gone better than expected. The Red Wings are 10-8-3 and fighting for playoff position in the rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference. While they may ultimately fall short, their rebuild appears to be going better than expected.
In order to get Tigers fans better equated with the “other team” owned by Ilitch Holdings, we spoke with J.J. from Kansas of Winging It In Motown, SB Nation’s excellent Red Wings community.
*Quick note: We did this Q&A over a week ago and were slow about publishing it, so if J.J.’s answers seem dated, it’s my fault.
1. The Wings' playoff streak just ended last season, but it has been a few years since we've seen the type of dominance fans had come to expect for the past couple decades. How and why have things fallen off? And how close are they to turning things around?
It's partially designed obsolescence by a league that evolved to punish the kind of long-term success enjoyed by the Red Wings, partially a brain drain as the rest of the league picked off some of the really great minds in the organization, and partially organizational rot driven by poisonous over-reliance on loyalty that led the Red Wings to slowly fade from contention and end up where they are now. The Wings are no longer the only team scouting the far corners of the globe and are no longer able to trade late first-rounders for guys other teams aren't going to be able to afford thanks to the implementation of the salary cap. They're saddled with too many unhealthy contracts which are either immovable by clause or by practicality.
Unfortunately, while we've seen hints of a club that knows they're in the dreaded band of mediocre also-rans and is doing more than hoping to climb out, we haven't really seen a commitment to both dumping the problematic contracts and collecting the necessary assets to accelerate a modern NHL rebuild. There are some pieces in place that gives them a decent chance at a number of what-if scenarios playing out favorably though, so if those bets pay off, the Wings could find themselves only a few years away from contending again. That's a bit rose-colored, to be sure though; crazier things have happened.
2. Many Tigers fans are excited with the new prospects the team acquired this summer, but it will be a couple years before we see them in Detroit. Meanwhile, the Red Wings already have some promising young players on their NHL roster in Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, among others. How good are those two going to be?
If the Wings are going to get back into contention, Larkin and Mantha are going to have to be a huge part of that and so far what they've shown this season in a larger role has been extremely promising. Larkin isn't finding the net, but he's putting up points helping out his linemates while continuing to develop the strong two-way game needed from a Detroit center.
Mantha is growing into a beast. He has range that lets him get to and handle pucks other players can't and he consistently puts defenders in bad spots trying to deal with him. On top of that, he's got soft hands and surprising speed. The term "power forward" gets thrown about a lot in the NHL, but Mantha is developing the tools to really live up to the moniker. While you're probably not looking at a Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin on the Red Wings out of those two, I do think both of them have all-star potential.
3. Are there any other exciting young players new/casual Wings fans should know about?
The third piece of the Mantha + Larkin puzzle that makes most games worth even tuning in for is the blazing fast Andreas Athanasiou. He likes to puck-handle a little more than his counterparts, but he's also extremely aggressive when it comes to trying to create offense and he's able to turn the jets on like few others in the league when it comes to chugging up ice.
Outside of those guys, I think a nice low-key like is defenseman Nick Jensen, who has fit in pretty well on the Detroit blue line and has done a really good job of being able to make space for himself to create breakouts. He's not a real flashy player, but it's fun to watch him escape forechecking. I'd also say wait a little while and take a look when Joe Hicketts comes up. The previously-discussed contract problems are one of the biggest reasons this kid isn't already with the big club, but he's a feisty player who isn't afraid to play the body on anybody.
4. How do Wings fans feel about Jeff Blashill? If there's one thing we Tigers fans can relate to, it's obsessing over every minor choice the manager/head coach makes.
I think the majority of Wings fans are ready to move on from Jeff Blashill, even if there's also an understanding that the problems the team faces right now go beyond the bench and that firing Blashill right now is probably at-best a duct-tape fix. Blashill is far-enough removed from being the rookie coach that there's no longer an excuse for him with lineup decisions he makes. While the old team culture and pressure from above to squeeze out as many wins as it would take to extend the playoff streak might have led Nik Kronwall to continue to man the Red Wings' power play, the fact that he hasn't scored a power play goal since March of 2015 should tell you how bad a decision it is to insist he be kept there. A lot of folks soured on Blashill last year and his treatment of the exciting kids, often limiting ice time for Athanasiou and Mantha while the team struggled to score goals. I personally think that holding them to a higher standard is perhaps one of his best coaching decisions, I can't confidently say that Blashill is the right coach for a team that should be focusing more on developing their younger talents more-quickly than they have in the past.
5. Last one: the Wings are currently 10-8-3 and fighting for a Wild Card spot. What is the realistic best-case finish for them this year, and why should we be rooting for that?
The rosiest I can get while still being realistic is that the Wings sneak into the playoffs and surprise their first-round opponent, but I can't see that as very likely, to be honest. The team needs to either play more consistently or they're going to have to rely on the various forms of luck (shooting/saving/special teams) to keep them afloat. I think there's a decent chance they make the playoffs, but honestly the best-case realistic finish for them would be to have all of the youth play supremely well and for luck/injuries/scapegoats to cost them enough points to give them a high lottery pick.
The Red Wings are in need of more game-changing talent and the only way they're going to be able to accomplish that with their current cap situation is to be able to draft it. You want to have that next nucleus started for that, so you don't want to ruin the kids like Mantha and Larkin in the process of acquiring those high draft picks (not to mention you've got an entire season of this team to watch), so you want them to be able to keep it interesting or possibly even make you look stupid for doubting them.
Once again, thanks to J.J. and the rest of the Winging It In Motown staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Winging It In Motown for the very best Red Wings news coverage and analysis all season long! And if you want to see them in action, tune in to Fox Sports Detroit on Wednesday as the Red Wings take on reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.