Niyo: 'Joke' of a loss is reason to question Red Wings' direction

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – They said all the right things when it was finally over. But that was only after they’d done so few of the right things.

Or as Niklas Kronwall, the Red Wings’ elder statesman, put it, “We had nothing, simple as that.”

And maybe it really was that simple. But if you’re a frustrated hockey fan in Detroit, Tuesday night’s 8-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens wasn’t merely an ugly reminder of how far the Wings have fallen. No, this was the sort of effort – the franchise’s worst home loss since a 10-3 loss to St. Louis in 2011 – that leaves you with all kinds of questions about the state of this so-called rebuild.

Detroit goaltender Jonathan Bernier lays on the ice after a goal by Montreal Canadiens center Andrew Shaw in the third period. It was Shaw's third goal of the game.

A day after the front office capped another trade deadline as a reluctant vendor, it was hard to buy what anyone was selling at Little Caesars Arena, from the general manager's vision to the head coach's voice to all of the young players' promise.

Jeff Blashill called Tuesday’s showing “stupid” and a “joke,” and he wasn't in a laughing mood. Dylan Larkin used the word “embarrassing” a handful of times while apologizing to the paying customers. (“They deserve better, the city of Detroit deserves better,” he said.) And Kronwall, a 15-year veteran who could’ve been in Columbus or somewhere else playing for another team Tuesday if he’d wanted one more shot at the playoffs, couldn’t hide his disgust, either, saying at one point in a blistering postgame rant, “We’re not even trying out there.”

“No heart whatsoever,” Kronwall added. “No pride out there.”

And no defense, for that matter. During the game, or after.

Wings mail it in

Jimmy Howard was chased for the third time in as many starts after allowing six goals on 22 shots in the first two periods. But he wasn’t the issue Tuesday. It was the listless play in front of him – and in front of Jonathan Bernier in the third period – as the Red Wings mailed it in, then realized they'd forgotten the postage.

How bad was it? Montreal managed to score eight goals without a single power-play opportunity the entire game, which left Detroit’s skaters a combined minus-35 on the final scoresheet. According to Hockey Reference, the last time an NHL team scored eight or more goals without a power-play tally among them was all the way back in 1979, when the Red Wings beat the Colorado Rockies, 8-1.

If this was all the result of a trade-deadline hangover, following deals that sent Gustav Nyquist to San Jose and Nick Jensen to Washington, that’d be one thing. Or if this was merely a Les Habitants habit – the Wings have lost eight in a row to the Canadiens, including a 7-3 loss in Montreal in October and a 10-1 rout there last season, that'd be another.

But that’s six straight losses now for Blashill’s team, one shy of their seven-game skid to start the season. And while that seems like good news for the “Lose for Hughes” crowd, it’s worth noting the Red Wings (55 points) didn’t even make up any ground on the two teams ahead of them in the race to the bottom of the NHL standings for the best lottery odds to land top draft prospect Jack Hughes. Los Angeles (53 points) lost, 6-1, at Carolina, while Ottawa (49 points) lost, 7-2, at Washington.

Never mind the fact that the players aren’t trying to lose. They just played like it Tuesday, is all.

“It was straight-out embarrassing tonight,” said Frans Nielsen, another of the team’s veteran leaders. “Whatever position you’re in in the standings, you’ve still gotta go out there and compete. That’s the No. 1 thing. If you don’t compete, you don’t have a chance.”

And to hear Blashill talk, that’s the most galling thing about Tuesday’s effort. He keeps hearing about the need to “play the kids” and see what they can do if given a chance to compete.

“Well, here it is, men,” Blashill said, sarcasm intended after Tuesday's debacle. “You’ve got lots of opportunity. So show us what you’ve got.”

What he got Tuesday was, in his words, “totally unacceptable.”

Reason for pause

Barely 24 hours after Blashill announced Andreas Athanasiou would get an extended run anchoring a scoring line to see if he “can be an elite-level center,” the 24-year-old looked anything but that Tuesday, whether it was in the faceoff circle or in his own zone. Anthony Mantha, another supposed cornerstone piece in this rebuild, looked even worse, at times, that lone goal notwithstanding.

Filip Hronek was a liability on the blue line all night, and Michael Rasmussen played the kind of timid game that makes you think he really would be better off playing junior hockey, something the Wings have already decided against this winter. Even Larkin – “the one guy all year that has brought it every night,” Nielsen said – admitted he wasn’t in a position to call out teammates Tuesday.

“Not tonight,” Larkin said. “I wasn’t nearly good enough tonight.”

No one was, obviously. Luke Glendening played 13 minutes and was a minus-4 on the night. Danny DeKeyser played 18 ½ minutes and was a minus-5. I could go on, but you get the idea.

“They want to see the young guys play, and we’re playing,” said Larkin, who slammed his helmet on the bench as he skated off for good with 5:01 left, after being forced into a silly fight when ambushed by Montreal’s Brett Kulak. “But we’re not really playing. We have to play harder. We have a good chunk of time left. We can’t have this effort every night. We have to buy in and at least work hard, at least battle.”

Blashill, for his part, wasn’t singling anyone out after the game, except to spare rookie first-round pick Filip Zadina, who was playing his second NHL game and “I actually thought he played pretty good,” his coach said.

As for the rest?

“Your recourse as a coach generally is talking, teaching, yelling, showing video, ice time,” Blashill said, when asked if there was anything he could’ve done to send a message in the midst of that performance his team was delivering Tuesday night. “Well, I mean, taking ice time (away) there is giving them an out.”

So the message was, as he said, “Keep playing. You started this thing.”

Well, yes and no. Technically, Ken Holland and the front office are the ones who started this thing, this rebuild that still feels days late and dollars short to so many. And owner Chris Ilitch is the one who’ll have to decide who gets to stick around to finish the job.

Blashill’s in the final year of his contract. Holland's extension runs through next season. Steve Yzerman, as everyone is aware, is back in town after stepping away from his GM duties in Tampa, and perhaps is waiting for the right moment to take the reins here.

But nights like this should give everyone pause, young and old alike. Players, coaches, and ownership, too. Do you trust the people calling the shots? Do they have right players to take them, or limit them? One game is hardly a referendum on any of that. But a game like that, in the middle of another season like this, has to make you wonder.

“Ultimately, you are what you do,” Blashill said. “And the group of us, that was the result (tonight.) So if that’s gonna continue to be the result, then the collection of us aren’t good enough. And something’s gotta change that way.”

Simple as that? They'd all do well to make it a little harder.