Niyo: Red Wings’ losing inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be this 'ugly'

John Niyo
The Detroit News

This is what they were afraid of all those years.

This is why “tank” was a four-letter word as the Red Wings played out the string at Joe Louis Arena and prepared to move into a new arena downtown.

Quite frankly, this also is why Ken Holland had to make way for Steve Yzerman as general manager in Detroit before things got really ugly.

Head coach Jeff Blashill does not escape blame for the Red Wings' woes, but he's not the sole reason.

And make no mistake, losses like the one we saw Tuesday night — a 5-1 meltdown in Winnipeg that marked Detroit’s 12th consecutive defeat — “They are ugly, for sure,” admits Jeff Blashill, the Wings’ head coach.

They’ve also become startlingly routine in a season that’s threatening to turn historically awful here in Detroit. Blashill’s team hasn’t won a game in a month, yet it goes beyond that. The Wings have allowed five goals or more in 16 of their 32 games and been outscored by three goals or more in 15 of them. And by way of ugly comparisons, while the Los Angeles Kings had the league’s worst goal differential last season at minus-61, the Wings already are at minus-62 this season — with 50 games yet to play.

“When things go bad, they’re really bad right now,” center Dylan Larkin told reporters after Tuesday’s loss to the Jets. “We don’t have an answer for that right now. But we need to find it. It’s not even Christmas yet and this has happened too many times. It’s not acceptable.”

No, it’s not, even if it’s at least understandable when you look at the lineup that’s hitting the ice of late. Injuries have robbed the Wings of their top forward in Anthony Mantha and one of their few reliable defensemen, Danny DeKeyser, among others. On a team that’s largely bereft of high-end talent, any losses are hard to cover up. To wit: In the seven games without Mantha driving play offensively, the Wings have scored eight goals. 

Below sea level

And what little confidence this group carries with it into each game seems to disappear in a flash, as it did again late in the second period Tuesday night, when the rink tilted and the Jets scored three goals in a span of two minutes to blow the game open.

“We can’t seem to stop the bleeding once it starts,” forward Luke Glendening said. “I feel like I keep saying the same things. but it’s enough talk. We gotta go do something about it.”

All of this reflects poorly on Blashill, of course, and that’s where the spotlight will shine brightest now.

“I get that,” the coach said after Tuesday’s loss, before mechanical trouble with the Wings’ plane made a long night even longer, forcing the team to spend the night in frigid Manitoba. “For me, all I’m doing is kind of what I always do, and that’s be solution-based and worry about what we can control. So what we can control right now is learning from this game and making sure that we’re helping our team get better. Find solutions, find ways to get better come Thursday, and worry just about that — that’s it.”

That’s about all he can say publicly at this point, really. He knows the hand he has been dealt here with this roster, from the AHL call-ups to the veterans who are still around because of their immovable contracts.

“We can’t seem to stop the bleeding once it starts,” Wings forward Luke Glendening said after Tuesday's 5-1 loss at Winnipeg.

But Blashill’s not above blame here, nor should he feel secure in his job despite that contract extension he signed last spring. If it’s simply a club option for the 2020-21 season, as The Athletic reported last month, then Blashill really is in the same spot he was in a year ago. Only now he’s working for a new boss in Yzerman, who certainly sounded impressed with Blashill back in September when he praised his organizational skills, his open-mindedness and his track record. But, the GM also noted then with a smile, “We just started and we haven’t lost a game yet, so everything’s hunky-dory.”

Firing line

It is decidedly not at the moment. And it’s worth noting that since Blashill’s team last won a game, five other NHL head coaches have been fired or forced to resign, though only three of those pink slips — in Toronto, New Jersey and San Jose, which dumped Peter DeBoer on Wednesday — were due to their team’s on-ice performance.

With a loss Thursday at home in a rematch against the Jets, the Red Wings would own one of the 10 longest losing streaks in NHL history. Already, it’s the league’s third-longest streak in the last 20 years, and one shy of the franchise record of 14 set in 1981-82, the season before late owner Mike Ilitch bought the team in the midst of the “Dead Things” era.

And with just 17 points in 32 games, this current group is on pace for 44 points — and 18 wins — this season, which would put them in some awkward company, way down there with first-year expansion teams and the woeful '85-86 Wings.

Yzerman lived through that himself — broken collarbone and all — and was named the Wings’ captain that next season. Everyone expects a similar transition here with Larkin, who has taken another step forward with his overall game this season even if the statistics don’t show it. He also showed some fight in the recent loss to Pittsburgh, leading a late rally that ultimately came up short. And after Tuesday's loss, Larkin pushed back against the notion this team is accepting its fate.

But coming up short on a regular basis does accomplish one other goal, even if it's one no one wants to admit.

The Wings haven’t had any lottery luck since their playoff streak ended a few years ago. They dropped from seventh to ninth at the draft lottery in 2017, from fifth to sixth in ‘18 and from fourth to sixth last spring. But after this horrific start, they’ll probably be a lock for a top-four choice in 2020, with a 50-50 shot at a top-three selection — assuming they finish with the NHL’s worst record — and a 35-percent chance at one of the top two picks in next June’s draft, where most analysts have winger Alexis Lafreniere penciled in as the No. 1 choice. 

Until then, we can expect more aggressive moves from Yzerman. He has made three trades in the last six weeks or so, acquiring young players in need of fresh starts — forwards Robby Fabbri and Brendan Perlini and goalie Eric Comrie — in exchange for players and prospects who didn’t have much of a future in Detroit. The Fabbri deal looks like a steal at this point, and in Comrie the Wings might’ve found their backup for next season as well.

Beyond that, though, Yzerman seems to be practicing the patience he was preaching all spring and summer. The Wings’ last six first-round picks are now all in the AHL, after Wednesday’s moves to send winger Filip Zadina, who had three points in his last four games despite limited ice time, and defenseman Dennis Cholowski, who had another rough outing Tuesday, down to Grand Rapids

Those transactions suggested more to come, and Zadina should be back soon. But whatever happens next, what the Wings need right now probably isn’t a firing or another trade.

“Right now, we’ve got to find a way to win a hockey game,” Blashill said. “We gotta find a way to get some confidence and moxie back into us. We’re not a good enough team right now. The only people that can change that is us. There’s no secret answer.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Bringing up the rear

Where the Red Wings rank in the 31-team NHL this season:

Points: 17 (last)

Goals: 2.09 per game (last)

Goals against: 4.00 per game (last)

Shots: 28.8 per game (tied for 27th)

Save percentage: .876 (last)

Penalty kill: 72.5 percent (last)

Power play: 14.8 percent (27th)

Lotsa losing

The Red Wings have lost 12 consecutive games. Here are the longest losing streaks in one season in NHL history.

17: Washington Capitals, 1974-75

17: San Jose Sharks, 1992-93

15: Philadelphia Quakers, 1930-31

14: Kansas City Scouts, 1975-76

14: Detroit Red Wings, 1981-82

14: Quebec Nordiques, 1990-91

14: Ottawa Senators, 1992-93

14: Buffalo Sabres, 2014-15