Red Wings’ Late-Season Struggles Put Rebuild Timeline Into Focus

The second-half of the Detroit Red Wings’ 2021-22 season has been disappointing for several reasons. The games simply aren’t as fun to watch when the Wings are getting pummeled with scores like 9-2 and 11-2. Players that showed so much promise and progress in the first half look to be regressing back to old, bad habits since the All-Star break. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is that with each loss, the Red Wings are showing that their rebuild is far from over despite a promising first half that teased that tough times would soon be coming to an end.

Related: Red Wings’ Lack of an Identity a Major Concern

Depending on when you think the rebuild began in earnest, the Red Wings have been rebuilding for four or five years now. Under current general manager Steve Yzerman, Detroit has steadily been selling off present pieces to accumulate assets for the future. While their prospect pool ranks in the top-10 of the NHL (as it has for the last couple of years), most of those prospects are years away, assuming they arrive in the NHL at all. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have not made the playoffs since 2016, and fans are slowly becoming impatient as this season’s team looks to only be marginally better than Red Wings teams from the last couple of seasons.

Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings General Manager
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings General Manager (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So what’s the problem? The Red Wings added good, young talent to their roster this season in the form of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and Calder Trophy candidates Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond – but even that hasn’t been enough. If adding players like them isn’t enough to truly turn the tide, how far away are the Red Wings from getting back into the postseason?

Red Wings’ Defense Still Under Construction

The Red Wings currently sport a team goals-against average (GAA) of 3.8. That’s on par with the 2019-20 season, where the team’s defensive group consisted of players such as Trevor Daley, Mike Green, Patrik Nemeth and Danny DeKeyser (they posted a GAA of 3.76 that season.) While a rebuilding club surrendering a ton of goals isn’t exactly a shocking development, it is disappointing after the Red Wings did a fairly good job defensively last season, posting a team GAA of 3.05. Furthermore, Detroit added Seider (who recently celebrated his 21st birthday) to the mix this season, giving them a steady defensive presence that they haven’t had since Niklas Kronwall’s heyday.

To his credit, Seider has been as advertised this season, if not better. On a team with a minus-68 goal-differential, he boasts a solid plus/minus rate of minus-5 while averaging a little over 23 minutes of ice-time a night. At even-strength, the Red Wings are outscoring their opponents 57-54 with him on the ice. and he has a relative Corsi of 4.1 percent, meaning that the Red Wings see an uptick of 4.1 percent in their share of the offensive chances whenever he is on the ice. By now, everybody inside and outside of Hockeytown knows that he is a keeper and a player that Yzerman can build around heading into the future. But what about Seider’s defensive counterparts?

Aside from veterans such as DeKeyser, Staal and Jordan Oesterle, the Red Wings’ defense is made up of players who are in the midst of their first 82-game season in the NHL. Filip Hronek, who spent the last couple of seasons as the team’s de facto top defender, has found a home on the team’s second defensive pairing this season, but his defensive play has left something to be desired even though he’s producing at a steady .54 points per game (a career high). After Hronek, you’ll find the likes of Gustav Lindstrom, Olli Juolevi and Jake Walman, all of which have spent time in and out of an NHL lineup this season (Walman was a healthy scratch on numerous occasions with the St. Louis Blues this season.)

Related: Red Wings’ Struggles Cast Spotlight on Coaching & Team Defense

The Red Wings’ top prospect, Simon Edvinsson, is a Swedish defenseman that should make a strong push for a roster spot next season, but his success is far from guaranteed despite hopes that he could have a similar effect as Seider has had this season. Other prospects that will look to make the NHL roster next season include Donovan Sebrango and Albert Johansson, but neither of them are a shoo-ins, especially if somebody like Walman is able to secure a contract for next season.

Yzerman will undoubtedly want to fortify his defense ahead of next season as it has been exploited time and time again this season. This year’s pool of free agent defensemen isn’t exactly filled with game-changers though, and the few that are there (Kris Letang, Mark Giordano) seem far more likely to sign with a Stanley Cup contender than a rebuilder. Unless a big trade is made, the best bet for defensive progress is to plug a hole with a mid-tier free agent, hope that Edvinsson is ready, and then do everything in the organization’s power to ensure that Seider and a few others take another step next season.

In other words: this problem isn’t going away anytime in the near-future. This is a problem that will take at least a couple more years to fully solve.

Red Wings’ Goaltending Remains A Question

In all fairness, the Red Wings’ goaltending picture looks remarkably better today than it did a year ago. Nedeljkovic was a key reason why Detroit looked so good in the front half of this season and, at 26 years old with another year remaining on his current contract, he gives the Red Wings upside at the position now and into the immediate future. However, it must be said that his .881 save-percentage after the All-Star break has been a huge contributor to his team’s struggles in the second half of this season.

Alex Nedeljkovic Detroit Red Wings
Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It must also be noted that the plan heading into this season was for a “1A/1B” goaltending tandem between Nedeljkovic and veteran Thomas Greiss. Nedeljkovic’s previous career-high for games played came last season when he appeared in 23 games for the Carolina Hurricanes. Most (correctly) assumed that he would hit a wall at some point this season and would need a steady balance of starts and rest, with Greiss being able to fill in and provide solid goaltending for 30 games or more. As we all know by now, that is not what has transpired for the Red Wings this season.

Nedeljkovic has been thrust into a clear-cut number one goaltender role due to the fact that Greiss has not provided any semblance of relief for the rookie netminder. The 36-year-old is having his worst season since the 2017-18 campaign with the New York Islanders, and quite possibly the worst season of his career as a whole. He sports a quality-start rate of just .500 this season.

Greiss is not a part of the long-term picture in terms of the Red Wings’ rebuild. However, his inability to put together strong performances with any consistency this season has put his younger counterpart in a position the organization did not want to put him in this quickly. Giving a player too much to handle too soon can stunt their development, and it’s obvious when watching Nedeljkovic lately that his confidence is not where it was in the first half of the season. “Ned” has all the tools to be this team’s goaltender for the foreseeable future, but this season proves that he is not at the same level as the Andrei Valsilevskiys and Connor Hellebuycks of the world that can start over 75 percent of their teams’ games. Nedeljkovic needs help ASAP, and it won’t be coming from within as top goalie prospect Sebastian Cossa seems a couple of seasons away from making an NHL push.

Red Wings Need More Offensive Stars

One of the brightest spots for the Red Wings this season has been the top line of Raymond, Tyler Bertuzzi and captain Dylan Larkin. Whenever this trio plays together, they routinely sustain offensive pressure and are a threat to score on any given shift. The problem, however, is that there isn’t enough support down the lineup to create matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Lucas Raymond Detroit Red Wings
Lucas Raymond, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Aside from those three, the only other player in their lineup that is capable of scoring on a moment’s notice is winger Jakub Vrana, but he has been limited to just 15 games this season due to a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the lineup before the season even began. To that point, the Red Wings haven’t been able to ice their preferred offensive lineup for the majority of the season due to Vrana’s injury, Bertuzzi’s inability to play in Canada this season, and a season-ending injury suffered by Robby Fabbri. It’s fair to wonder what kind of offense this team could produce with a fully healthy lineup, but injuries are fact of life in the NHL, and they shouldn’t be used as an excuse.

Instead, the Red Wings have been let down by a number of players they were hoping would provide depth scoring behind the first line. Naturally, the player that embodies this frustration is Filip Zadina, the team’s top pick in the 2018 draft and perhaps the first real piece of their rebuild (with all due respect to Michael Rasmussen, who was drafted ninth overall in 2017.) The Czech winger’s struggles this season have been highly publicized to the point that it would be redundant to elaborate on them here. Aside from him, players like Adam Erne and Pius Suter haven’t provided Detroit with the caliber of secondary scoring the team needs from them. All of this has been magnified during the second half of this season.

Related: The Grind Line: Addressing the Filip Zadina Situation

When they score, like when they scored seven on Feb. 26 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they also hemorrhage goals in their own end, as evidenced by the Maple Leafs’ 10 goals in that same game. Other times, their lack of depth is apparent. Throughout the entire month of March, they managed to score more than three goals in a game five times, but their record was just 2-1-2 in those games, which just further emphasizes the issues that plague this team defensively. In some ways, this is a team that needs to outscore their mistakes in order to win games, but they simply are unequipped to play a run-and-gun style like that.

Help may very well be on the way in the form of winger Jonatan Berggren, but one player isn’t going to completely transform this forward group. Larkin has been the team’s only center capable of producing consistent offense this season, and, unless they get lucky, they won’t be adding a center in the draft that is capable is stepping in as soon as next season. Whether it’s through a trade or free agency – or progress made by a player such as Joe Veleno – the Red Wings absolutely must add some offense to their center group.

While the Red Wings have scored more goals this season than they have the prior two, comparing their forward group to the top teams in the league reveal just how far off this group is right now. Take the Colorado Avalanche, whose second line center, Nazem Kadri, has 83 points in 65 games this season. Furthermore, despite Kadri being out with an injury right now, they have a 21-year-old rookie in Alex Newhook that stepped into Kadri’s role and hasn’t looked terribly out of place.

After the Avalanche are the Florida Panthers, a team that probably boasts the most lethal middle six in the NHL. Jonathan Huberdeau (and his 102 points this season) and trade deadline acquisition Claude Giroux are on the team’s second line, while rookie sensation Anton Lundell and former second-overall pick Sam Reinhart hold down the fort on the third line. That’s the kind of offensive depth that the Red Wings simply can’t compete with right now, and that’s not going to change in one offseason.

Not only do the Red Wings need to add more players through free agency, the draft and trades, but they need their current group of forwards to either maintain their games or take it to the next level. If your team has a ton of offensive depth, it can afford to have a player or two that isn’t quite meeting expectations. But when your offensive depth is limited to four or five players, there is no room for failure elsewhere in the lineup. Some of that goes hand-in-hand with icing a young and developing roster, but it’s a lot easier to stomach when that development and progress is clear to see.

Red Wings’ Rebuild is Far From Over

The overarching word to come out of Yzerman’s introductory press conference as GM was “patience”. From the moment he took the job, he knew this wasn’t going to be a quick refurbishment job. The cupboards were almost completely bare, the roster on hand had very few bright spots, and there simply wasn’t enough talent or personality around that could convince people to fork over their hard-earned money to buy a ticket to see the Red Wings. This rebuild was a colossal undertaking from the get-go, and it is living up to that billing almost three years later.

In a season where the Red Wings made observable progress for the first time in Yzerman’s tenure, it is certainly disheartening to consider how much work is still ahead. Not only does he still have to fill out this roster with even more talented players, but even once that happens, their division features teams that are Stanley Cup contenders right now (Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida) as well as teams that are on the rise just like Detroit (Ottawa, Buffalo, Montreal). The Red Wings could easily have a playoff-caliber roster well before they actually make the playoffs.

It is important to understand where the Red Wings are right now because it informs the decisions that Yzerman will have to make as we head into the offseason. They likely aren’t going to make a huge splash in free agency (though that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t add some meaningful talent where they need it.) The slow and steady approach with their prospects isn’t going to change anytime soon. Head coach Jeff Blashill has always been the “rebuild coach”, but does that mean he’s going to be around to see it through? And what of a player like Bertuzzi, who will be 28 years old when his contract expires next year, and will likely be well into his 30’s by the time we can confidently say the rebuild is over.

Things are certainly heading in the right direction, but if the second half of this season has showed us anything, it’s that the Red Wings still have a long ways to go before Little Caesars Arena hosts its first NHL playoff round.

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