The nature of an NHL season is trial and error. With fresh faces coming in and the knowledge of what did and didn’t work the season prior, players and coaches are often stuck in a pattern of trying out different things until something sticks. These “things” I’m referring to can be line combinations, styles of play, a player’s overall intentions when they’re on the ice, and so on and so forth.
When you’re a rebuilding team like the Detroit Red Wings, this process of trial and error gets pronounced as the implications of whether or not something works can be the determining factor in a player or coach’s future with the team. There’s also the fact that finding the things that work is key to establishing a barometer for success going forward. Just finding one line that works can give fans hope for the future – just look at how Red Wings fans felt about the line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha following the 2019-20 season despite the team’s overall lack of success.
The 2020-21 Red Wings enjoyed a bit more success than the season before, and it was because of the team’s ability to find things that worked for them. But with a final record of 19-27-10, there were clearly plenty of things that did not work for the Red Wings this season. Here are just three of each:
3 Things That Worked for the Red Wings
1. Adam Erne
If we had done an article like this last season, Erne would have found himself under the “didn’t work” category. After coming over in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was just kind of…there last season, leading to low expectations for the 26-year-old forward heading into this season. This led former THW writer Ian McNaughton to pin him with this as his “best-case scenario”:
After scoring just five points and posting a minus-28 last season, anything would be an improvement. Seriously, if he scores just six points and has a minus-27, I would be happier than I was in 2019-20.– Ian McNaughton
Well, Erne soared past those expectations by posting 20 points and finishing with a minus-1 plus/minus rating. Playing mostly on the fourth line with Luke Glendening and Darren Helm, the 2013 second-round pick was able to provide energy and offense from the bottom six. He also managed to produce on the power play where he had three goals and six points. While nobody would mistake him for a top-line forward, his play this season not only vindicated general manager Steve Yzerman for making the move to acquire him, but it also put him in a position to be protected ahead of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. It’s going to be very interesting to see whether or not he “works” again next season.
2. Low-Event Hockey
Part of the reason the Red Wings were able to improve upon their win total from last season was that they adopted a style of play that allowed them stay in a majority of their games. While it was admittedly boring to watch sometimes, Detroit committed to playing team defense by clogging up the neutral zone and (mostly) holding their opponents to non-dangerous shots and opportunities. This essentially allowed them to “hang in there”, hoping to capitalize on the few offensive opportunities that they created for themselves.
The results were undeniable. After allowing 3.76 goals-against last season, they allowed “just” 3.05 this season. Had the Red Wings been able to reduce the amount of blowout losses this season, their goals-against mark would surely be below the 3.0 mark. As head coach Jeff Blashill mentioned many times throughout the season, Detroit did not have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the best in their division. The answer to that problem was to commit to playing great team defense, and doing so allowed them to find success against teams like the Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes – two of the top teams in the NHL. While more offense is preferential heading into next season, their commitment to playing low-event hockey this season should have laid a foundation to build on as the team continues to add more talent to their lineup.
3. Swapping Anthony Mantha for Jakub Vrana
It is unwise to make a judgment call like this after a sample size of just 11 games, but the results in that timeframe were too good to completely ignore. While Mantha will undoubtedly be missed by many throughout Hockeytown (myself included), his “replacement” in Vrana seems to fit in with what Yzerman is building way more than No. 39 did. The 25-year-old from the Czech Republic used speed and skill to create multiple highlight reel moments for the Red Wings and their fans.
Seriously, that goal was absolutely insane. While an 11-game stint does not equate to long-term success, it does offer a glimpse into what Vrana could do in a full season with the Red Wings. While I’m not convinced that he is part of Yzerman’s long-term plans quite yet, that could change very quickly if he continues to produce like this. For a team that lacks star-power in their top six, this trade might have just given it the jolt that it badly needed.
3 Things that Didn’t Work for the Red Wings
1. Goaltending Rotation
This might seem like a weird thing to say given that both Thomas Greiss and Jonathan Bernier ended the season with a positive quality-start rate (.586, .652 respectively) but their individual successes almost never coincided with the other’s. For a good portion of the season, Bernier was the only goalie that was getting wins for Detroit, and Greiss had some of the worst advanced analytics in the league. Then, towards the end of the season, Greiss flipped a switch and became arguably the hottest goaltender in the league while Bernier struggled after coming back from his second injury of the season.
While it can be said that this is actually a success – the Red Wings always had one goaltender they could count on on a given night – the point of going with a 1A-1B setup is that the team can count on both guys on a given night. The inconsistency shown by the Red Wings’ goaltenders plagued them as the team suffered a few too many blowout losses, and you could never be too sure that the team was going to receive A+ goaltending. As a whole, the Red Wings’ goaltending was far from their greatest weakness, but on an individual basis, you would have liked to see more consistency out of their duo.
2. Low-Event Hockey
As much as the Red Wings’ low-event style helped them on the defensive side of things, it definitely handicapped the Red Wings’ offense in a big way. That Erne’s 11 goals led the team this season says a lot about Detroit’s overall inability to create offense throughout their lineup. Larkin had just 23 points. Mantha had only 21. Filip Zadina fell short of expectations with 19. Their production had less to do with their own individual abilities, and had more to do with the overall lack of talent on the roster and the style of play that the team adopted.
This is why it’s crucial for the Red Wings to add a bit more offense into their game next season. Playing solid defense is great, but it means nothing if you can’t go the other direction and put the puck in the net. That’s not to mention the potential for stunting players’ growth in the offensive side of their games. While wins are always fun to watch, it’s just as fun – if not more fun – to watch your favorite team’s best players light it up in the offensive zone. Here’s hoping we see more of that next season.
3. Robby Fabbri at Center
Fabbri began the season as the Red Wings’ second line center. His last game in that spot was Game 21 on Feb. 23. His time as the second line center encompassed 13 games. He recorded four goals and seven points in that time. He then switched over to the left wing and played 17 games from that position. In that time, he recorded six goals and 11 points. This means he had a points per-game (P/G) rate of .54 at center, and a P/G of .65 on the wing.
Trying Fabbri out at center was a worthwhile experiment considering the team’s overall lack of depth down the middle. That being said, this is a player whose value to the team is tied to his ability to produce offense – there’s a reason he doesn’t take a shift on the penalty kill. Given the chemistry he has shown with Larkin, I think it would be best to close the book on the “Fabbri at Center” debate.
Trial and Error
The Red Wings made progress this season because they found a number of things that worked for them this season – even more than the three listed here. The key to making more progress as they continue to rebuild is to find more and more things that fit under that category, and snuffing out the things that don’t work. It sounds easy to do when put plainly like that, but that’s why rebuilds take time. Luckily for the Red Wings and their fans, it seems like they are poised to add at least one more thing that will work heading into next season:
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.