Red Wings Wednesday Weekly: The Final Countdown

Welcome to Red Wings Wednesday Weekly! In this weekly column, we will 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.

The Detroit Red Wings are not last in the Discover Central Division…alright, they’re tied for last, but they’re not alone in the basement! Their ability to collect points, as well as the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ ongoing struggles, have put them in a spot in the standings that has to cause some concern for those that want to see the Red Wings embrace the tank. To that point, Detroit currently sits with the seventh-best odds to land the top pick in the 2021 draft; if the season were to end today, they could pick first, second, seventh, eighth or ninth overall depending on how the lottery goes.

That being said, there are still eight games left on the schedule, and head coach Jeff Blashill and general manager Steve Yzerman are going to want to see this team finish strong. Relatively speaking, this has been a successful season for the Red Wings, and they won’t want to see the team throw away any progress that they have made. So without further ado, let’s take a look at what progress the Red Wings made this week (if any) and what kind of challenges await them as they enter the final stretch of the season.

Series Finale With the Blackhawks

4/15 vs. Chicago: Win, 4-1
4/17 at Chicago: Loss, 4-0

The first game against the Chicago Blackhawks was filled with excitement as it marked the Red Wings debut of Richard Panik and Jakub Vrana, who were both acquired in the trade that sent Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals. This night did not disappoint as defenseman Gustav Lindstrom found Vrana wide open after leaving the penalty box and, well, just take a look:

The first game saw an almost perfect effort from the Red Wings that helped lock down a 4-1 victory over their Original Six foes. The second game was the polar opposite of the first. The Blackhawks secured a 4-0 victory on the back of a Malcolm Subban shutout, as well as three helpers from one of Chicago’s new acquisitions/reuinions, Vinnie Hinostroza. The Red Wings finished their season series with the Blackhawks with an overall record of 2-5-1 – certainly not in line with what we expected ahead of this season.

Overall Grade vs. Chicago: C

Dallas Star Wars

Whoever made the claim that stormtroopers miss everything they shoot at clearly hasn’t seen the Dallas Stars play hockey in their reverse retro jerseys.

Much like the series with Chicago, the Red Wings put forth a strong effort in the first game, falling a shootout goal short of a victory, only to follow it up with an absolute stinker in the second game. Vrana recorded his second point as a Red Wing in the second game, assisting on a Valtteri Filppula goal, and goaltender Thomas Greiss stopped 45 of 47 shots he faced over both games (he entered the second game in relief of Jonathan Bernier.) While both losses stung to a certain degree, the biggest loss may have come in the form of top center and team captain Dylan Larkin, who gingerly left the ice at the conclusion of the second game after he got tangled up with the Stars’ Jamie Benn.

Both games were heartbreakers for different reasons. The first game was a missed opportunity to grab a W. The second game was another in a growing list of ugly losses this season. With just eight games remaining, how many more of these will we have to endure?

Final Grade vs. Dallas: D+

3 Takeaways From Last Week’s Games

1. Greiss and Bernier Have Swapped Places

For most of this season, the Red Wings have played well in front of Bernier, who is about to cap off his third season in Detroit. Even when they didn’t play well, he was almost always there to bail them out of trouble. There’s a reason why his name was in the rumor mill heading up to the trade deadline.

During that same time period, the Red Wings had the exact opposite experience with Greiss between the pipes. They were unable to give him any sort of goal-support, they were porous defensively, and the veteran goaltender routinely gave up goals that you just don’t like to see your goalie give up. Bernier had a winning record, Greiss did not.

Jonathan Bernier Detroit Red Wings
Jonathan Bernier, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fast forward to today, and through their last five starts, Greiss has a save-percentage (SV%) of .935 while Bernier’s rate is .883. If the idea is to ride the hot hand in goal, then Greiss should probably see the bulk of the starts down the stretch. It’s really too bad for Bernier, too, because he was putting together another season that would have seen him miraculously rank among the best goaltenders in the league in terms of goals saved above average. I don’t know when Greiss’s bad juju fell onto Bernier, but it definitely has.

2. Vrana Can Play

It’s still early, but the early returns on Vrana suggest that the Red Wings have a good one on their hands. The 25-year-old Czech forward is playing more minutes than he ever did with the Capitals (his average time on ice is 17:51 through three games with Detroit) and he has two points to show for it.

It’s not just about production, though. While both plays he collected a point on were sights to behold, he has also quickly established that he has the ability to help sustain offensive pressure through stick checking and creativity. Whenever he has skated alongside Larkin and fellow-Czech Filip Zadina on the top line, that trio usually spends the bulk of their shift in the offensive zone. This could be a situation where once they all grow familiar with each other and develop some chemistry, this could be Detroit’s top line heading into next season.

3. The Cholowski-Lindstrom Showdown is On

As my THW colleague Tony Wolak mentioned in his latest expansion draft mock up for the Red Wings, Detroit’s third and final protection spot for defensemen will likely come down to Lindstrom and Dennis Cholowski. These two players could not be more different in terms of how they approach the game and what they offer to their team. Despite their differences, the Red Wings’ decision-makers are definitely taking a long look at both young defensemen and gauging how they fit in to the Red Wings’ long-term plans.

Dennis Cholowski Detroit Red Wings
Dennis Cholowski, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Cholowski, who is 23-years-old, has played in more games (eight) and has averaged a little over 15 minutes of ice time this season. He has yet to record a point, and his advanced stats are actually the poorest they have been since he made his debut in Detroit. Lindstrom, who is 22-years-old, has played in just five games, averages a little under 14 minutes of ice time, and assisted on Vrana’s first goal as a Red Wing. While his advanced stats aren’t pretty either, they are a bit more favorable than Cholowski’s.

At the end of the day, Cholowski has higher upside than Lindstrom, but it appears to me that the latter is more NHL-ready than the former. There are still eight games to change the narrative, but Cholowski needs to start producing in some form if he’s going to have a long-term future in Detroit.

Upcoming Matchups

Vs. Dallas Stars (4/22, 7:30 PM ET; 4/24, 7 PM ET)

Statistical Leaders (45 Games):
Goals – Joe Pavelski (19)
Points – Pavelski (42)
Wins – Anton Khudobin (10)
SV% – Jake Oettinger (.919)

The Red Wings will close out their season series with the Stars at home following this week’s two games in Dallas. With the Stars just a point out of a playoff position, Detroit should expect a big push from their southern foes as they look to overtake Nashville in the Discover Central Division. As for the Red Wings, wins in either of these games will keep them ahead of Columbus in the standings, which should give fans flashbacks to the old Central Division back when the Blue Jackets never had the answer for the Red Wings.

The Red Wings have managed to collect just four points against the Stars, and two of them came in losses in extra time. Simply put: things don’t look promising for the Wings as far as these two games are concerned. Whether or not Larkin can play will play a big role in determining how these games unfold.

At Columbus Blue Jackets (4/27, 7 PM ET)

Statistical Leaders (48 Games):
Goals – Oliver Bjorkstrand (15)
Points – Bjorkstrand (35)
Wins – Joonas Korpisalo (nine)
SV% – Elvis Merzlikins (.910)

The battle for the basement takes center stage next Tuesday. Since trading away defenseman David Savard and team captain Nick Foligno at the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets are winless. In fact, Columbus is winless through their last seven games, collecting just a single point over that time span. While the Red Wings have been playing roughly .500 hockey over the last month, their neighbors across the Ohio border have been bottoming-out in a big way.

Patrik Laine Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrik Laine hasn’t helped the Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

While it’s discouraging for their fans, this may be the best thing for the Blue Jackets. Securing a top-10 pick in this year’s draft to go along with the two first round picks they acquired from the moves I previously mentioned should help them refill a prospect pool that has grown stale over the last few years. After trading away center Pierre-Luc Dubois earlier this season, this team clearly lacks a top center, and that alone has held them back from competing this season. Having a top-end winger like Patrik Laine is nice, but he can’t do it on his own; draft this man a center, Columbus!

Players to Watch

The Stormtroopers Stars are led on the back-end by John Klingberg, and boy has he been good this season. The 28-year-old defenseman has 31 points this season, including five in six games against Detroit. He’s a facilitator for their offense, and he logs big minutes for them in all situations. He’s in a similar role in Dallas that Victor Hedman is in with Tampa Bay: he doesn’t get the same recognition that his teammates do, but his team wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are without him.

As for the Blue Jackets, I’ll be watching to see whether or not Laine looks engaged as his team looks to finish out a disappointing season. His former team, the Winnipeg Jets, is in a battle for the second seed in the Scotia North Division and seemingly don’t miss him much despite the elite talents that he possesses. His contract expires after this season, and it would do his wallet well to act as a catalyst for some wins for Columbus down the stretch.

The Red Wings will look to see continued success from Vrana as he assimilates to his new team.

Jakub Vrana Detroit Red Wings
Jakub Vrana, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

If Larkin is out for any period of time, the burden of creating offense for this team will almost entirely fall on the shoulders of Vrana and Zadina. With 159 points through 287 regular season games in the NHL, he is a player that has already proven that he can find the back of the net given the opportunity. While he was never a top of the lineup player for the Capitals, he’s getting a big opportunity to strut his stuff for the Red Wings. It might be a lot to ask, but hopefully he can continue his strong start in Detroit.

Final Thoughts

We are officially at that point in the season where my mind is starting to wander off to the upcoming draft, and I’m sure I’m not alone. However, there are still a number of storylines to keep track of that have big 2021-22 implications depending on how they shake out, the Lindstrom-Cholowski battle being one of them. There’s only a couple more weeks left in the season; don’t give up on the boys in red quite yet!

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