The Detroit Red Wings were not a subpar team last year.
They were worse.
The team’s 33-36-13, 79-point effort signified the end of a connection to the last quarter-century of Red Wing history that saw four Stanley Cups, six conference championships and six Presidents’ trophies along with many other accolades and countless memories. The team’s defense was in shambles, allowing 2.98 goals against per game, the team’s worst mark since 1991-92. They also could not score to cover for their porous defense, as their 2.41 goals-for per game was the worst since they missed the Stanley Cup dance 25 years ago. Tomas Tatar was their only 20-goal scorer with 25.
But none of this seems to phase head coach Jeff Blashill.
— gregg krupa (@greggkrupa) July 21, 2017
Now, Blashill’s sentiments seem quite outlandish and the overall direction of the organization as a whole with going in the direction of re-tooling and not rebuilding is not popular with many, including myself. However, a coach who has literally won everywhere he has gone up to this point with a Clark Cup (USHL) and Calder Cup (AHL) under his belt has to know a thing or two about how to achieve victories. The Calder title was won with seven current Red Wings.
Blashill’s confidence is coming from Detroit’s room for improvement among many this season. Underperformers were abound highlighted by Riley Sheahan’s scoring futility that saw him go 81 games without a goal until scoring two in Joe Louis Arena’s final game. However, there are a certain few that have to take the next step in order to fulfill Blashill’s confidence and prevent it from blowing up in his face.
Larkin came into 2016-17 fresh off of a solid rookie campaign that saw him score 23 goals and 45 points while posting a 52.4% Corsi-for percentage, the best Red Wing freshman season since captain Henrik Zetterberg scored 22 and added 44 points to his name in 2002-03. What’s more, he made the team out of camp as a 19-year-old, the first teenager to make it onto the roster since Jiri Fischer in 1999-00. The rookie wall did hit him in the second half as the team struggled to make it into the postseason, scoring just nine goals and 17 points in the final 40.
Overall however, it was a solid turnout for Larkin, a Waterford native, whose young success and team decline have expedited Red Wing prospects’ paths to the NHL. 2016 first round selection Dennis Cholowski signing his entry-level deal after one year in college is a testament to that.
Expected to play his natural position of center this past season, Larkin instead struggled to find much mojo through most of the year, finishing with 17 goals and 32 points as his possession meter dipped to just below-average at 49.4 percent. A reason for his decline could be his decreased play in the offensive zone, starting 51.51 percent of his shifts there versus 60.63 percent in his rookie year, taking on more 332 faceoffs easing into the middle of the ice.
He ended up bouncing around on three different lines before settling in in the final 20 games of the season, mostly at center between Justin Abdelkader and Andreas Athanasiou tallying 13 of his 32 points of the year. It was encouraging to see Larkin excel in a position that Detroit will need him to be strong in going forward as Zetterberg and Frans Nielsen age.
There are special teams spots that need filling and Larkin could use the extra time, playing just 27:10 shorthanded with some speed to burn on a passive aggressive shorthanded unit that has scored just 11 goals in the four-on-five situation the past four seasons. His five power play goals last season with increased responsibility on what was the worst unit in the NHL was quite encouraging and he is due for more responsibility this season.
There are no clear cut bonafide replacements coming and Larkin will need to continue his hot stretch into next season to reassure the organization he can be elite.
Talk about some reassurance — the soon-to-be 23-year-old Mantha answered past criticisms and claims from Detroit senior vice president and alternate governor Jim Devellano along with general manager Ken Holland in stride this past season.
His 17 goals and 36 points in just 60 games eclipsed the marks set in his AHL rookie season in 2014-15 that disappointed Wings management, and on a team that averaged a 48.23% Corsi-for percentage, he posted a 53.29% mark, one of four Wings forwards to post a possession rating over 50. His plus-6.5 shot attempt relative ratio speaks for itself.
Mantha, like Larkin, hit a rookie wall in the second half, however, scoring six goals in the final 30 contests while tallying 14 points. He is another one that could use some special teams time on the offensive side, playing just 113:40 on the man advantage. On a power play that started clicking at the end of last season at a 22.4 percent clip from February 1st on, it would only be better with the former 50-goal scorer in junior on the first unit.
If Blashill really believes this team can get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the must utilize his biggest shot on the team wisely, as there’s 25-goal potential ready to burst at the seams this season. That number could reach 30 in no time at all.
Gustav Nyquist could be in this spot, as well as Tatar. However, neither possesses the shot, size or potential that Mantha does at his age, and both have been in the league for a few years and have not been able to pass the 60-point or 30-goal plateau. The team hasn’t had a 30-goal scorer since four Red Wings achieved that feat in 2008-09, highlighted by Marian Hossa’s 41. Having that consistent rock that can produce when need be will be tremendously important going forward in a league that is difficult to score in.
This goes without saying, but Mrazek was, as Blashill would say describing a young player’s effort, “not good enough” last season. The stretch since his 24th birthday has been dreadful to say the least, posting a .894 save percentage in 70 appearances since.
Before then, he was on his way to becoming one of the league’s best and promising young goaltenders carrying a subpar Red Wings team for much of 2015-16. From the beginning of 2014 to just before that fateful February afternoon against the Boston Bruins, his .927 save percentage tied for second-best in the NHL through that span minimum 60 starts.
However, in a business of “what have you done for me lately,” Mrazek was left off of the Wings’ protection list for June’s expansion draft in favor of Jimmy Howard, who posted the best numbers of his career despite injuries limiting him to 24 starts this season, placing second in save percentage at .927 to Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Detroit media soon followed with stories of Mrazek not being the most positive or hard-working teammate, citing the eleventh hour arbitration deal last summer that expires after this season and the fact that he wasn’t the happiest with a job as the starter not being set in stone with a trade of Howard.
Working with goaltending coach Jeff Salajko, who shared a relationship with Mrazek in Grand Rapids with the AHL affiliate Griffins, coupled with the motivation to play his way into a trade or starter’s job here, especially in a contract year, should fuel the now-25-year-old to push harder than ever this season.
If the team wants to meet Blashill’s playoff expectations, the net will need to have zero leaks with the Wings up against it on the back-end already. Trevor Daley may help out in the short-term, but puck movers like Nick Jensen and Xavier Ouellet must get more reps as more defensemen like Cholowski, Joe Hicketts, and Villi Saarijarvi come in the near future.
Help Will Be Needed Down the Line
The Wings do have a suddenly rejuvenated Zetterberg along with complements Nyquist and Tatar, but one line cannot be the end-all be-all for Detroit. Nielsen will soon regress with someone needing to take his place, and Larkin must provide some stability down the middle in the form of taking another step. Mantha must add another element to the offense as the go-to goal scorer. Mrazek, most importantly, must return to form despite Howard being by his side going into the third year of the 1A-1B style.
Even if these three take the next step and rebound, it may still not be enough to meet the “100 percent” confidence Blashill has in his team, and perhaps serve as a another overdue wake-up call of consecutive playoff misses that this team despite solid young talent needs more of it at a higher level to make these three important cogs that much better.