The Grind Line: Defining Success in the 2021-22 Season

What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. This week Devin Little, Patrick Brown, Kyle Knopp, and Jeff Middleton are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.

NHL Expansion Draft? Check. NHL Entry Draft? Check. Free agency? Check.

Looks like it’s time to talk about the upcoming NHL season. 

The Detroit Red Wings had an incredibly busy offseason, one that’s been well-documented, but now all eyes turn to training camp, preseason, and the start of the 2021-22 NHL regular season. To be clear, there aren’t many people who are picking the Red Wings to be a playoff-caliber team, but that’s understandable considering the team’s current rebuild status.

With that in mind, today we’re focused on answering one question: In your mind, what defines success in the upcoming NHL season? Let’s dive in.

Devin Little: Steady as She Goes

While the rebuild added some jet fuel this offseason, the actual on-ice product is still taking baby steps forward as it awaits the fruits of this rebuild. In my opinion, this season’s team is still lottery-bound, so I’m not going to be caught up on wins, necessarily. As long as progress is still being made on an individual and team basis, I will consider that a success. 

I expect to see this team build on the progress they made last season. One thing I know I’m looking out for is fewer blowout losses. Any team is good for one or two of those in a given season, but the better teams keep that number low. The Red Wings did a good job of bouncing back from those types of losses this past season, but they had to bounce back more than you’d like to see. By my count, they had seven blow-out losses last season. Let’s try to knock that number down to five or below.

Dylan Larkin Detroit Red Wings
Can Dylan Larkin bounce back next season? (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

The most important progress you want to see, however, is in the players themselves. Dylan Larkin needs a good bounce back season after posting his worst points per-game rate since his sophomore season back in 2016-17. You’d like to see Filip Zadina produce on a more regular basis and potentially even become a line-driver in his own right. Alex Nedeljkovic needs to cement himself as an NHL starter. Oh, and there’s this rookie named Moritz Seider coming into the league and you have to hope his game continues to develop over the season as well. 

Not that I’m setting the expectations too high, or anything!

Pat Brown: (They’ve) Got The Power!

The Red Wings’ powerplay percentage last season was 11.41 percent. Stunningly, that was still higher than the Anaheim Ducks’ abysmal mark of 8.94 percent, but even so, an 11 percent clip is atrocious, and something needs to change. Well, it would at least appear that help is on the way, and after cutting ties with Dan Byslma and bringing in Alex Tanguay, Detroit hopes to jump-start its special teams.

There’s good reason to believe things should be markedly improved this season. For one, the aforementioned Tanguay helped guys the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild to an impressive 21.9 percent power-play percentage in 2019-20, though those numbers did drop to 13.9 percent in 2020-21, albeit in a 34-game season. Even so, the success he has experienced in the past bodes well for a team that desperately needs to find a spark.

Jakub Vrana Detroit Red Wings
Jakub Vrana may help bolster the Detroit Red Wings’ powerplay. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Speaking of sparks, Jakub Vrana has potential to elevate the power play, not to mention the recently-signed Pius Suter. Their offensive prowess, combined with Zadina’s continual growth in creating plays, means the man advantage will no longer be one-dimensional. In addition, Nick Leddy’s addition brings in a blue-liner who has vast experience quarterbacking on special teams. The veteran’s presence will be felt almost immediately.

If scoring increases, especially on the power play, that’ll be another step in the right direction for the Yzerplan.

Kyle Knopp: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

To me, there are three areas that will determine success this season: player development, offensive production, and groundwork for the future. That final aspect has been in progress for the last few years and is starting to bear fruit. Having the final few pieces — Seider, Joe Veleno, and possibly Lucas Raymond — getting more opportunities at the NHL level this season, and with the Wings moving away from older, overpaid contracts, it’s safe to say the future is in good hands.

Since player development goes hand-in-hand with laying the groundwork for the future, the next step is allowing these young players to gain the confidence needed to play in the NHL. For the past six years, Wings fans have been drowned in stories about how Jeff Blashill is a developmental coach — but that he was lacking the necessary pieces to really make this his team. Now that Yzerman has made way for the young prospects to take control of the team moving forward, Detroit will need every ounce of the developmental talent that is in Blashill’s arsenal in order to get his players to that final level of maturation.

Jeff Blashill Red Wings bench
Players need to take a huge step up this under Jeff Blashill (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, as past seasons have proven witness, Blashill has struggled when it came to certain players. Guys like Michael Rasmussen, Evgeny Svechnikov, and even Zadina to an extent, have all stalled in their offensive growth under Blashill. While it’s hard to criticize the current coaching staff for making the team better on the defensive side of the puck, it’s even harder to instill confidence when offensive creativity is stymied.

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Speaking of offensive production, the Red Wings ranked 30th last season with 125 goals scored — or 2.23 goals scored per game — edging out the Vancouver Canucks by one goal for last place. The Buffalo Sabres scored more goals than the Wings last year!! Having Nedeljkovic in the crease this season will help to lower the goals scored against per game, but until we bolster the offensive firepower, Detroit will continue to be a boring team to watch. Offensive creativity needs to be opened up and Blashill needs to let his skill guys have a longer leash this season in order to truly have this team moving in the right direction. If not — a lottery pick might be the only way to salvage success in 2021-22.

Jeff Middleton: All The Small Things

The Red Wings as a team won’t be great. Anyone expecting anything different is going to be in for a rude awakening. However, that doesn’t mean success isn’t possible in other ways. Smaller and more meaningful things for individual players will ultimately translate to team success, and development of chemistry between linemates is vital.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic should help Detroit between the pipes this year. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

One player that I think defines success this season is former Carolina Hurricanes netminder, Nedeljkovic. Recently acquired by the Red Wings for the rights to speak to Jonathan Bernier early and a third-round pick in the 2021 draft. Bernier didn’t sign with them, so really, they got a single draft pick for a goaltender that was a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

One of the reasons that the Hurricanes supposedly got rid of him was because of a small sample size. It’s understandable, especially considering how erratic goaltenders can be statistically. However, I think there’s enough to say that Nedeljkovic is worth more than a third-round pick even with the volatile position.

What do you think defines a successful 2021-22 season? Let us know in the comments below!

Want more Red Wings content? Tune into The Hockey Writers’ Grind Line — a weekly show on YouTube and Facebook. We stream weekly on The Hockey Writers YouTube channel. Check out our most recent show below, and make sure you subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss any upcoming shows.

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