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What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. This week Devin Little, Patrick Brown, and Kyle Knopp are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.
As Detroit enters the next phase of its rebuild, it is obvious that the team has made some strides toward getting back on the right side of the playoff hunt. For one, the Wings bettered their win total in 2020-21 from the 2019-20 season, while playing in fewer games. With the additions of Alex Nedeljkovic, Pius Suter, and Nick Leddy, that total should continue to rise.
However, as with any reubild, there are still plenty of questions that surround this team. That led to a discussion amongst The Grind Line members — which of the following factors will have a greater impact on the success for the Wings during the 2021-22 season?
Who needs to have the better season – Dylan Larkin or Tyler Bertuzzi?
Devin Little: Larkin
I think it’s ultimately important that both players have good seasons for differing reasons. As it is, Dylan Larkin is the team’s top center, and it is more important that he rediscovers his scoring touch while also taking his defensive game to another level. Another down season from the team’s captain would set back the Red Wings’ competitive timeline substantially; in my opinion, it wouldn’t be as hard to recover from another lost season from Tyler Bertuzzi.
Pat Brown: Larkin
I started an unintentional controversy on a recent episode of our podcast after suggesting Larkin was not a first-line center, and there’s ample opportunity this season to prove me wrong. Last year’s 23-point performance in 44 games left a lot to be desired, but his faceoff win percentage of 49.5 percent needs to drastically improve, too. Prove me wrong, Dylan!
Kyle Knopp: Bertuzzi
While it is important for Larkin to lead by example and come back stronger than ever this year, I think the onus is on Bertuzzi to have the better season and prove that he can hit his potential. Prior to the shortened 2020-21 NHL season, Larkin scored 50 or more points three seasons in a row while Bertuzzi fell just shy of the 50-point mark in back-to-back years. We all know that Larkin is being groomed for a true second-line center role, which tells me this is Bertuzzi’s year to prove that he is a legit first-line winger.
What is more important to the team’s success – more goals scored or fewer goals given up this season?
With a new, young goaltender in town, and a top defensive prospect poised to join the team, I do think it is important that the Red Wings continue to build on the defensive progress they made last season. The easiest way to let the Nedeljkovic experiment fail is to let him get lit up on a regular basis. That being said, when Detroit’s leading goal scorer, Adam Erne, managed just 11 goals last season (a goals-per-game rate of just .24) it is clear to me that this team needs to manufacture more offense.
Too many players had down seasons, offensively, last season, and that can eat away at the morale of the team as a whole. To me, this conversation begins and ends with an improved power play, and you have to hope that new assistant coach Alex Tanguay can work some magic there.
PB: No Offense, But They Need Offense
Score, score, score! The focus this year needs to be on improving the team’s offensive prowess, hands down. Yes, defense wins championships, but many of those pieces are already in the organization, and just aren’t NHL-ready yet. In the meantime, the team is stacked with options at forward, and given the agonizing number of one-goal losses the team has strung together in the past two seasons, an increase in offensive output is just what the doctor ordered.
KK: Time to Get Offensive
Over the past two seasons, the Wings went from 2.00 goals scored for per games played (GF/GP) and 3.73 goals scored against per games played (GA/GP) to 2.23 GF/GP and 3.00 GA/GP in 2020-21. Much of that change can be credited to the Wings upgrading in net from Jimmy Howard to Thomas Greiss, and with the most recent upgrade from Jonathan Bernier to Nedeljkovic and the core of the Detroit defense coming into its own, the GA/GP should remain around that 3.00 mark.
While the one goal swing is huge for the direction of the team, it essentially means the Wings went from dropping games in 2019-20 on an average of 4-2, to losing games in 2020-21 on an average of 3-2. In order for Detroit to show true improvement this season, and for Blashill to earn another year of job security, the Wings need to increase their GF/GP closer to the 2.75-3.25 range.
Which would be better for the Wings in terms of the overall rebuild – making the playoffs or winning the draft lottery?
DL: Plight for Wright
If Larkin isn’t a true top-line center, the Red Wings need to figure out how to get their hands on one. The player projected to go first overall in the 2022 draft is center Shane Wright, and he looks to have the potential to become a cornerstone piece for the team that drafts him. If there was ever a year for the Red Wings to finally get some love in the lottery, this is it.
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PB: Compete at a High Level & Attract Top Talent
I know this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m done depending on the draft. For one, the Red Wings can’t count on favorable positioning, even when the odds are in their favor. Beyond that, though, I believe Detroit has so much talent in its pipeline, there’s no need to tank. If the team can use the talent in its system to take the next steps, interest from top free agents on playing in Hockeytown will increase tenfold. Steve Yzerman has drafted well, the talent is gaining valuable experience, and the next step in this rebuild is to start competing at a higher level so that the final pieces of the puzzle can be placed.
KK: Honestly… Somewhere in Between
Leave it to me to pose the question, and then completely ignore it when answering. But to be completely honest, I don’t see either scenario helping this team more than being stuck in the purgatory that is sitting just outside of the playoffs looking in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this team gaining the valuable experience that comes with a playoff run — putting win streaks together to move up the standings, competing in meaningful games, and the bonus of postseason practice and game time.
However, sneaking into the playoffs this year could end up doing more damage down the road if the Wings were to miss out on the playoffs next season or the following. At the same time, finishing at the bottom of the standings and relying on the luck of the lottery could send the wrong message to any potential free agents looking to be that final piece to put the Wings back into contention.