The Detroit Red Wings have had the top odds in this year’s draft lottery locked up for some time now.
There’s no sense in rooting for losses. There’s no reason to root for other bottom-dwelling teams to pick up wins. The Wings are in a comically bad league of their own, and following a 7-1 shellacking at home by the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night, their fans could have really used the pick-me-up of a win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
Detroit wound up giving that one away after leading 2-0 in the second, falling 4-3 in a shootout. Surrendering a second-period lead is par for the course at this point, but when looking at it through a larger lens, this loss, against a team that has the third-best odds in spring’s draft lottery, following a six-goal defeat, was more than your typical loss.
It was the only game that could be deemed “winnable” from now until the season finale on April 4.
Even Bumpier Roads Ahead
The Red Wings begin the final 15 games of their season on Monday night against the Colorado Avalanche, who will enter the contest just three points behind the Western Conference-leading St. Louis Blues. Not an ideal opponent for a team that’s looking for literally anything to go right.
But that’s just the start. In what is truly a terrible twist to the Red Wings’ nightmare of a season, its final 15 games represent one of the toughest strength of schedules in the entire NHL. (from ‘Detroit Red Wings desperate to show growth as season winds down, but playoff-bound opponents loom,’ Detroit Free Press, 03/02/2020) A majority of those games come against teams that’ll be playing for the Stanley Cup in April.
Detroit has three games left against the Tampa Bay Lightning (41-19-5) and two against the Metro-leading Washington Capitals (40-19-6). It’ll play three road games against opponents that currently lead their division, facing the Boston Bruins (41-13-2), Vegas Golden Knights (36-23-8) and Blues (39-17-10) before the month of March concludes.
As for the other seven games, three come against teams currently in a playoff spot. The four opponents remaining are either tied for a wild card position (Arizona Coyotes) or are within six points of obtaining one (Chicago Blackhawks, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers).
The Red Wings are not playing under circumstances that are normal, even for a last-place team. Getting to 20 wins on the season seems well out of reach, a crash of epic proportions that followed one of the greatest quarter-century runs by any professional team in this country’s professional sports landscape.
Sure, there’s optimism to be found in “the process.” Losing in the early stages of a rebuild is a necessary step to acquire a better draft position, and, in turn, more highly touted prospects. Detroit has made top-10 selections — center Michael Rasmussen, right wing Filip Zadina, and defenseman Moritz Seider — each of the last three drafts, and while injuries to the two forwards have limited their ceiling to this point, there’s reason to believe that all three will one day become important pieces for the revamped Red Wings.
Still, they’ve yet to make a top-five pick. One could argue that bottoming out is necessary, as a portion of the fanbase was even disappointed by a strong finish to last season that lessened the organization’s lottery odds.
But too much losing can have a negative long-term impact on confidence and development. The first-overall pick in 2013, current Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon told hosts of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast last summer that he had to see a sports psychologist to regain his confidence after putting up less than 40 points in the three seasons that followed his rookie campaign. In one of those seasons, the Avalanche were the first team in the salary-cap era to finish below .300.
“It’s like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ … You kind of judge yourself off of how you’re playing hockey sometimes. It’s a dangerous thing to get into. If you have a bad year, you think poorly of yourself as a human. And that can happen to a lot of athletes, I think. It’s not right, it shouldn’t be like that, but it was.”from ‘Spittin’ Chiclets Interviews NHL Superstar Nathan MacKinnon in Halifax, Nova Scotia,’ Spittin’ Chiclets, 08/17/2019
The bench shot of Dylan Larkin from Thursday’s loss to Minnesota, the odds-on favorite to be Detroit’s next captain, begs the question: How low is too low, and what could the long-term implications of this disastrous season be?
Will this gauntlet of a finale really make a difference in the overall representation of this season? Probably not. But it does demonstrate just how bad they’ve been to this point, their hardest stretch coming long after they locked up the title for the worst team in the league.
Given the way that everything has transpired, maybe facing the league’s toughest end-of-season schedule is an appropriate swan song for the 2019-20 Red Wings. Maybe it’ll reap a little bit of good karma when those ping-pong balls go bouncing around at the lottery later on down the road. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll pull out a win or two.
Or maybe they’ll lose all 15 and still end up with the fourth-overall pick. Sports are unfair like that sometimes.
Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit sportswriter covering every major local professional sports team for The Detroit News and host of the Locked On Red Wings podcast.