“I thought our team played so hard. I felt terrible, as bad as I’ve felt as a Red Wings coach after the loss in Tampa and yesterday.”
– Mike Babcock
It’s been more than a week since the Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, failing to get out of the first round for the third time in the last four postseasons. The Game 7 loss to the Lightning has had some time to sink in, and the gradual transition from Stanley Cup aspirations to a long summer with many questions unanswered is in full swing.
The Red Wings could just not get *that* next goal, culminating a season that had its many emotional ups and downs, most of the latter coming in the last quarter of the season. Still, the team notched 100 points for the 13th time in 14 seasons and made the Playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, a feat many expected them not to accomplish as early as last summer, the second without the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom patrolling the blueline.
A weakness that bit Detroit in 2013-14 would be starved for as last summer began.
July 1st 2014 came and went with the team swinging and missing on key free agents that were targeted to bolster holes in the blueline that plagued the team the last two seasons. Anton Stralman, Matt Niskanen, Christian Ehrhoff, all of them said no, and the Wings were without a need that their GM and coach were craving, a top-four right-handed defenseman. Instead, the once fan favorite for all the wrong reasons, Kyle Quincey, was re-signed to a 2-year contract with a pay raise. Veteran Daniel Cleary was re-signed again, much to the chagrin of many in the fanbase. Former Hobey Baker Award winners Kevin Porter and Andy Miele were signed to minor league deals, adding two veterans for help in the development category. 21-year old Tomas Nosek from the Czech Republic came next as an undrafted free agent to add to a depleted center pool in the system. No outside additions for the big club were made.
Training Camp soon arrived with hopes, questions, and interesting storylines. Youngsters Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar emerged as breakout players in the midst of an injury plagued year the season before, and the key for them was consistency in doing it again. Daniel Alfredsson was still hesitant on playing, and eventually retired later in the fall.
Stephen Weiss was ready to go after a forgettable 2013-14 playing just 26 games, looking to bounce back and provide for a team starved for secondary scoring. An intriguing possibility was the slim chance of 2013 1st Round Pick Anthony Mantha making the team out of camp, but those hopes were dashed with him breaking his tibia, delaying his progression in Grand Rapids. He finished the season with 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games for the Griffins.
Undrafted free agent defenseman Joe Hicketts was signed to a surprising three-year deal as a camp invite after impressing in Traverse City. The 19-year old responded with 12 goals and 64 points in 62 games this season for the WHL’s Victoria Royals, second to Flyers prospect Travis Sanheim.
After a hit into the boards in the first pre-season game, Pavel Datsyuk was sidelined for the first five games with a shoulder injury. The injury bug was already biting. Still, the Wings got off to a 3-1-1 start without him, finishing October strong at 6-2-2.
The rest of the fall saw the solid start of Jimmy Howard, ending December with a .922 save percentage and a 15-7-7 record. Stephen Weiss returned from another injury that kept him out of the lineup, scoring four goals and nine points in the first seven games he returned. Unfortunately, this would not last, putting the whole depth scoring prediction I made earlier in the season to bed. Jonas Gustavsson got injured in his third start, and a shoulder injury along with the play of Petr Mrazek would limit him to just six starts the rest of the way. He will be an unrestricted free agent.
Johan Franzen saw his season end December 6th after he took a blindside hit to the head from Oilers forward Rob Klinkhammer. He has yet to decide if he is going to continue playing, finishing the season with 7 goals and 22 points in 33 games. The 36-year old Datsyuk was back to his old tricks, potting 13 goals and 28 points in 27 games through December. The rejuvenated Henrik Zetterberg scored 9 goals and put up 33 points in 38 games.
The youngsters, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Riley Sheahan each finished the 2014 half of the calendar with a combined 37 goals and 67 points. Overall as a team, Detroit was three points away from being first in the conference posting a 20-9-9 record and netting 49 points to Tampa Bay’s 52. The powerplay was the best in the league, and the duo of Drew Miller and Luke Glendening were at their best in the penalty kill department.
Jimmy Howard suffered a partial groin tear in early January, opening the door for Petr Mrazek to get his first extended time as the number 1 goalie. He responded by winning 11 of 14 starts through March 15th, posting a .932 save percentage in five starts in the month. Through February 28th, the Wings were clicking. 61 games down, a 35-15-11 record(6 points back of first in the division), and a win against the best team in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, to close out a 4-1-1 road trip. The trade deadline came and went with Detroit adding a couple new names in the forms of 36-year old forward Erik Cole from the Dallas Stars and 38-year old defenseman Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils to bolster experience and add right-handed shot to the blueline.
In 11 games, Cole had three goals and three assists before suffering a spine injury that currently has put his career in jeopardy. Zidlicky had 11 points 21 games, eventually slowing down due to some type of head injury that has also put his future in doubt. Both will be unrestricted free agents. Justin Abdelkader continued his breakout season as a power forward, scoring ten of his 23 goals in March.
In the 21-game period since the deadline, Detroit’s wheels fell off, as they posted an 8-10-3 record to finish at 43-25-14. Jimmy Howard lost his job as the starting goalie, posting a .898 save percentage through the final three months. The team as a whole finished 3rd in the Atlantic Division to clinch a playoff showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team they only beat just once all season long. Mrazek after a strong finish to the season was named the playoff starter over Jimmy Howard, the first playoff series Howard would not be starting since 2010. He turned in a great effort, allowing 14 goals in seven games while posting two shutouts and a .925 save percentage. However, the Wings could not close out the Bolts, losing in seven games after holding three separate series leads.
Despite the short run, the Wings had to be encouraged by the play of the young talent getting their second season to show what they could do.
Tomas Tatar led the team with 29 goals and finished 7th overall in the league in Corsi ratio at a +328 mark. Gustav Nyquist finished shortly behind with 27. Riley Sheahan improved his game on both ends of the ice, notching 13 goals and 36 points. Each scored in the playoff series versus Tampa, a step ahead from a combined 0 points against the Bruins last season. Tomas Jurco had a snake-bit season, scoring just three goals and adding 15 assists in 62 games compared to an eight goal, 15 point season in just 36 games last year. The 22-year old will have to do some work along with all of the young talent on the roster, as they continue to grow as NHL regulars. Nyquist will be a RFA, likely commanding a similar contract to Tatar’s.
Teemu Pulkkinen came up from Grand Rapids after at one point scoring a goal in eight straight games for the Griffins. In the AHL, he finished with 34 markers, besting his rookie season by three. In Detroit he played 31 games and scored five goals, showing flashes of his trademark holy slapper that has received many comparisons to Brett Hull. He will be out of waiver options starting next season, so it will be more than likely he will start in Detroit coming into camp.
Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko in sparse outings on defense were steady on the blueline, displaying their vision and hockey IQ with the big club. In 21 games, the 21-year old Ouellet put up three points while Marchenko played in just 16 games regulation and playoffs combined putting up two points, but the offensive flair is not what fans should be excited about.
One honorable mention is Landon Ferraro, despite such a short sample size as a fourth-line forward, increased once bleak chances of making the team next season, killing penalties and showing off his speed and grit with fellow grinders Luke Glendening and Drew Miller. He will be an RFA along with Joakim Andersson, a player he will likely battle with for a spot in Detroit next season.
The mainstays up front had some solid seasons as well, with Pavel Datsyuk notching 26 goals and 65 points in 63 games and Henrik Zetterberg scoring 17 goals and posting 66 points. The latter however, struggled to an extent in the second half, as in 39 games he put up just eight goals, three in one game, with 25 assists in that span. While Z was not putting the puck in the net, his knack for contributing on both sides of the puck was evident. His playoffs however, was not up to the 34-year old’s standards, as he finished with no goals and three assists in seven games. It was the first time in 23 playoff rounds Zetterberg did not have at least one goal. Datsyuk had three goals, including a game-winner.
Justin Abdelkader had his best season to date at 27 years old, potting 23 goals and 44 points. Converting from grinder to power forward, he shattered his previous career high of goals (10) while providing a presence that was felt all season long.
Niklas Kronwall had a Kronwall-type season quietly going about his business, potting 9 goals and 44 points leading the blueline in points and minutes(23:50 per game). Possibly the second-best defenseman this season was Danny Dekeyser. netting 31 points, he was second to Kronwall and the 25-year old’s vision and skating is very special. Brendan Smith scored just four goals and notched 13 points, but finished 14th among NHL defensemen in terms of Corsi ratio at a +210 mark. Dekeyser placed 30th with a +158. Kyle Quincey playing with the afformentioned Dekeyser enjoyed a bounce-back year, finishing with 18 points and outgrowing Henrik Zetterberg in terms of the beard category. (Seriously go back and look at that thing)
Kronwall isn’t getting any younger however, like the key veterans. Kronwall and Zetterberg will turn 35 next season, along with Datsyuk turning 37 this summer. The influx of youth in the salary cap era has never been so important, and the Wings have pieces for the foreseeable future to ring in the next generation.
Before we think about the future, let’s talk about the now. Questions abound. Will the area behind the bench look different next season? Will a certain Toronto defenseman find his way to Hockeytown along with possibly others? Will the team get even younger next season? It’s only been a week or so since the end of the season turning to another early summer, but this much is established: these dog days may be the biggest ones for GM Ken Holland since #5 decided to hang them up.
Quote courtesy of USA TODAY