Red Wings Weekly: December is Detroit’s Biggest Test Yet

Welcome back to Red Wings Weekly! In this weekly column, we like to take a look at the Red Wings’ most-recent week of play, identify any players and/or trends that stood out, and then look ahead and find out what the next week may have in store for the team from Hockeytown. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section down below.

Detroit Red Wings Weekly Moritz Seider and Dylan Larkin
Moritz Seider and Dylan Larkin (The Hockey Writers)

December will likely be the most difficult month of the season for the Detroit Red Wings with games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and other Stanley Cup contenders. If Detroit is able to hold on to the playoff spot they’ve found themselves when the calendar flips to the new year, then they will have proven themselves against some of the toughest competition around the league.

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I have been—let’s say hesitant—to call this Red Wings group a playoff team so far this year because their 5v5 numbers have been rather disappointing and they’ve been held afloat by great goaltending and bursts of special teams excellence. While that’s not the most sustainable model, it is essentially the same model that took the New York Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals last season so who knows, maybe that model can work!

Best Team in the West Brings a Challenge

12/3 vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 4-1 Loss

Despite the final result, I think this game was a moral victory of sorts, because Detroit didn’t look out of place against a juggernaut Golden Knights team that has made lesser teams look pedestrian this year. The Red Wings were able to match the pace and intensity of the top team in the Western Conference which is not something we could have expected from this team for the last six or seven years. 

Phil Kessel Vegas Golden Knights
Phil Kessel, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

Detroit managed to come out of a loss with a 5v5 Corsi For Percentage of 53.61% and an Expected Goals For Percentage of 49.44% (Stats via Natural Stat Trick). Those are both above Detroit’s season average in each statistic even though they lost, a good indicator that the team is making legitimate progress at even strength. Obviously, a win would have been nice, but at least we got to see the NHL’s greatest ironman, Phil Kessel, score a goal. 

Final Grade: C+

Power Play Comes Through in Win Over Jackets

12/4 at Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-2 Win

Another must win game against a depleted Columbus Blue Jackets team, another victory for the Red Wings. Despite the weaker competition, this game showed off everything good about this iteration of the Red Wings, a great goaltending performance from Ville Husso, successfully shutting down the opposing team in the neutral zone, and an improved power play led by some of their offseason additions

Despite a few lapses here and there (four goals against on 13 shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs, eight goals against from the Rangers), Husso has been excellent this season. He’s among the most impactful offseason goalie acquisitions in the NHL which is saying a lot considering how many goalies bounced around this offseason. Husso didn’t exactly steal this game, but he made sure that Detroit’s lead stood after Columbus scored two goals to make the score 3-2. His ability to stay calm and instill confidence in the rest of the team is remarkable.

Final Grade: B

Head Coach Derek Lalonde Wins in Return to Tampa Bay

12/6 at Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2 Wins

This was perhaps Detroit’s most impressive victory of the season thus far. It was a tight game against a very good team, but the Red Wings did a great job of limiting Tampa’s electric (pun intended) offense and taking advantage of their scoring chances, which led to Detroit’s 2-0 lead in the first six minutes of the third period. The first 40 minutes showed how far this team has come in the last year, now being able to keep up with one of the best teams in the NHL over the last decade.

 However, the third period showed how far Detroit still has to go. Tampa Bay, not satisfied to lose a game 2-0, showed an extra gear to their game that the Red Wings couldn’t match as a group. Thankfully, the most important player on the ice managed to keep up quite well. Husso made an astounding 28 saves on 30 shots against in the third period alone!

Derek Lalonde Detroit Red Wings
Derek Lalonde, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Detroit managed to score two empty net goals to seal the game in the final minutes, but the Lightning sure made it interesting toward the end. They were able to keep up with a good Tampa Bay team for the first 40 minutes but were struggling a bit against an excellent Tampa Bay team in the final frame, as evidenced by the 30 shots against in one period. Husso stole this game in the third period, but I’d argue that Detroit was the better team through 40 which was a delightful surprise. 

This was Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde’s first game back in Tampa Bay since leaving his post as their assistant coach this offseason. I’m sure it was a validating night for him that his new team managed to pull out such an impressive victory against his former team, in part by employing the very defensive systems that make the Lightning so formidable. 

Final Grade: A

Stymied in Sunrise

12/8 at Florida Panthers, 5-1 Loss

After such an impressive regulation victory over the Lightning, spirits were high heading to Sunrise to face off against the underachieving Panthers. This game was very important for the playoff race as the Panthers are one of the teams just below Detroit in the wildcard race that have underachieved and are expected to rise up again to claim their spot in the post season. Florida had been without captain Alexander Barkov for six games, and this was his first game back from illness.

Well, this one wasn’t pretty, with Husso, Olli Määttä, and Jake Walman all out of the lineup. Määttä and Walman have been steadying presences on the left side of Detroit’s d-corps, and you may remember that Husso has been great from the way I gush about him weekly on this column. 

Detroit had no answer for a Panthers team that makes their living at even strength, bending their opponents to their will until they break. Florida had 15 shots on net in the first period alone, though they didn’t score on Alex Nedeljkovic until the final two minutes. You could tell they smelled the blood in the water though because the Panthers came out swinging in the second period, scoring four goals on 19 shots.

Jonatan Berggren Detroit Red Wings
Jonatan Berggren, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

As I said, not a pretty one. It was nice to see Jonatan Berggren continue to impress with a power play goal, his fourth goal and ninth point in 13 NHL games. He has provided great depth offense for Detroit on the fourth line with Austin Czarnik and Joe Veleno, but his all-around game has been much more impressive than I expected. I find it hard to believe that he’ll ever see an AHL ice sheet again. 

Final Grade: D

3 Takeaways From the Week

Elmer Söderblom Returns to Stolen Roster Spot

It was announced Friday morning that Elmer Söderblom has been activated off injured reserve and assigned to the Grand Rapids Griffins to help him get back into game shape before throwing him in the deep end of the NHL. He hasn’t played in just over a month so some time in the AHL makes sense to me, however I’m not convinced he’ll be called up anytime soon. 

Söderblom has two goals and zero assists in 13 NHL games, going pointless in his last eight games. I think he will be well served by getting some playing time in Grand Rapids where he will be more likely to succeed and earn big minutes at even strength and on the special teams units. Söderblom is incredibly talented and has skills that don’t seem possible for someone of his size, but I don’t think he is quite ready for a full-time NHL spot, and I can’t see him pushing Berggren out of the lineup anytime soon. 

What’s Stopping Detroit from Making the Playoffs?

Who would’ve thought that we’d be talking about this team and the playoffs still in December? I certainly didn’t expect this impressive of a start to the season, so what will it take for them to take that step and hold firm until April? The biggest thing is finding success against Atlantic Division opponents. The Atlantic is a very difficult division, so Detroit will need to earn points against their divisional rivals if they want to keep afloat.

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To be more specific, Detroit needs to stay healthy for the rest of the season. Their offensive depth has been tested so far this year and it has held up alright, but their defensive depth is a bit more tenuous at the moment. Walman has looked great since returning from an offseason surgery, though Robert Hägg and Jordan Oesterle have been less than great. 

One concrete thing that Detroit will need to improve is their faceoff game. Currently they are 25th in the NHL in faceoff win percentage at just 47.7% and improving their percentage to just 49% would go a long way in improving their possession metrics at even strength. Faceoff wins also translate into better success on both special teams units so their value cannot be overstated. 

How to Get Seider Going Again

What will it take to get Moritz Seider looking like his rookie self again? Obviously, the sophomore slump is a real thing and we’re getting a good look at it this season with Detroit’s German star. A combination of teams having better game plans to neutralize him, the added pressure of such a great debut performance on a team with much greater ambitions, and a lack of confidence have contributed to Seider’s struggles this year. 

Moritz Seider Detroit Red Wings
Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

So, what can be done about it? My first instinct would be to switch up the defensive pairings. Seider and Ben Chiarot have simply been terrible together this season, with a Corsi For Percentage of 42% and an Expected Goals For Percentage of 42% when on the ice together at 5v5 (Stats via Natural Stat Trick). Seider managed to excel last year while paired with Danny DeKeyser so I wouldn’t feel too bad pairing him with pretty much any left-handed defender on the team, though my first pick would be Määttä. 

Seider has only spent about 50 minutes away from Chiarot at even strength while spending nearly 360 minutes with him. I’m sure the Red Wings’ coaching staff doesn’t want to break up the surprisingly effective Määttä/Filip Hronek pairing, but perhaps it’s time if Seider and Chiarot have still yet to find any chemistry together after spending roughly a third of the season together. 

3 Stars of the Week

3. Jonatan Berggren (2g, 1a)
2. Filip Hronek (4a)
1. Andrew Copp (1g, 3a)

Prospect Spotlight

After struggling to earn regular minutes in the SHL with Rögle BK, Theodore Niederbach was loaned to MoDo Hockey of the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier professional league. In six games with MoDo, Niederbach has scored six points, tying him for 14th in league scoring among U21 players, most of whom have played three or four times as many games as him. I’m glad that he’s finding success in a competitive league against grown men, especially after what must have been a very frustrating start to his SHL season. 

Reasonable Start to Difficult Month

As mentioned earlier, the month of December is something of a death march for Detroit, facing off against many of the NHL’s elite teams in quick succession. Detroit managed to win a game against a great Tampa Bay team but were outmatched against both Vegas and the Panthers. If this week is any indication of how this Red Wings team matches up against the best teams around the league, then it’s clear that Detroit can hang with them when they get great goaltending and execute their defensive game plan well.

Ville Husso Detroit Red Wings
Ville Husso, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That is an encouraging step, however consistency of execution is what separates the good teams from the great teams, and it is what Detroit will need to work on if they hope to join that upper echelon of hockey teams that can impose their will on opponents on a nightly basis. If the Red Wings want to hold their playoff spot through this gauntlet of a month, they will need to find that consistency, and soon.