When the Detroit Red wings finally were granted their wish and earned a move to the Eastern Conference, they were thrilled because it allowed them to join the other Eastern Time Zone teams and reduce travel. It didn't hurt that the East has been the weaker overall conference in recent seasons, either.
The move had the anticipation of being good for business and possibly the team's success. We're talking about the Detroit Red Wings here, the franchise that has been to the postseason every time since the 1989-90 season. Giving them what amounts to easier competition in the East would be no problem, the streak would likely live on.
Only there's one problem: The Wings aren't having that expected success. As it stands heading into Wednesday, the Red Wings are in sixth place in the eight-team Atlantic Division, one point back of Ottawa (with a game in hand) and perhaps surprisingly, only five points up on Florida. Currently they are 11th out of 16 teams in the East. The caveats come again with the amount of games played and such but that ignores the reality that the Red Wings have been very much a middle of the pack team this season.
So on Tuesday that led to a pretty simple yet difficult question from Globe and Mail writer James Mirtle.
So... are the Red Wings just not that good anymore?— James Mirtle (@mirtle) January 21, 2014
That's a tough one to really tackle, now isn't it?
First and foremost, it can be said almost unequivocally that the Red Wings aren't great anymore. They haven't been a Stanley Cup contender for a few seasons now and there's not a lot of reason to think this edition of the team would truly be in the mix for that either, even if they were healthy.
You can't talk about this season's Red Wings without discussing their health, or lack thereof. They have undoubtedly been dinged up, the injured list at times looking more like a monthly grocery shopping list in length. The latest is the return of goalie Jimmy Howard to the sidelines. But other teams have had the same issue, teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins for one example. Having depth to overcome whatever obstacles present themselves is one of the many characteristics that good teams possess and the best teams have the ability to get by, or in some cases do more than just get by.
Still, it is a legitimate issue the Wings have dealt with. It hits you when you realize that only two players on the Red Wings have played in all 49 team games this season; Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey. Only nine players have played more than 40 games, meaning half of the roster has missed at least 20 percent of the season thus far. That's going to hurt any team's chances.
The injury issue is very real but that doesn't mean other issues aren't present. For one the Wings don't scream greatness down the middle. Get past the awesome Pavel Datsyuk and you're talking about a center corps that has Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist (who has been most productive of this bunch), Darren Helm and Stephen Weiss among a few others who have popped up from the AHL. Weiss was supposed to be the No. 2 guy but he has been felled by the old injury bug and before that was having a dreadful beginning to his Wings career with four points in 26 games.
There is also the issue of a lack of offense from the blue line. Niklas Kronwall is fourth on the team with 29 points but among defensemen Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are next with a whopping 11. The defensemen not named Kronwall have combined for a goal and six assists on the power play, a power play that is 22nd in the NHL at 16.8 percent. It's pretty apparent Niklas Lidstrom isn't back there anymore.
It all helps to explain why the Red Wings, the high-powered Red Wings just a couple of seasons ago, are 23rd in the NHL with 2.45 goals per game. When we adjust for the goal that absolutely should not have counted against LA as it was scored by the mesh above the boards, the Red Wings have scored six goals in the past six games -- three coming in one game.
One trend that has not so surprisingly coincided with their offensive shortage has been a downward movement in puck possession. They have been trending down (as these pretty graphs from Extra Skater indicate) in metrics like Fenwick Close, which is simply the percentage of unblocked shot attempts in a team's favor when the game is defined as close and therefore being played evenly (nobody is sitting on a lead, etc.). The Wings are still above 50 percent -- barely -- but again, they are pretty much middle of the road in this department. Not bad but not great either. There is a trend playing out here.
As much as anything the Wings have been felled in shootouts, going 2-7 so far in the skills competitions. Those are points that are more or less coin flips and points the Wings have been giving up. Overtime hasn't been much better as the Wings are 2-3. Overall they're 4-10 after regulation and that absolutely doesn't help matters in the standings. Play .500 there and you're talking right now about the difference of being out of the playoffs vs. being in the top wild card position.
To loop back to the question at hand we can really only answer it in terms of this season; are the Wings that good anymore? It remains tough to definitively say because of the incompleteness they have shown in terms of roster continuity but there are certainly some issues, chiefly the sagging scoring (we haven't really mentioned the defense where the Wings are 14th in the NHL with 2.59 goals against per game; again, pretty close to perfectly average).
None of that is to say that the Red Wings can't or won't make the postseason, they are as square in the thick of things as you can get in the Eastern Conference this season. Whether they continue their amazing playoff streak -- it's going to be tight all the way to the finish -- the Wings are pretty much in what you could call a transitional phase and that's not something we see from Detroit often. But it would also be so very Wings-like to continue their streak even in a "down" time.