Thumbs up or thumbs down on Red Wings’ 2017-18 outlook?

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The Wings sent a statement on what they think of Petr Mrazek when they exposed him to the expansion draft. How will he respond?

Are the Red Wings any better?

That’s a question that was asked often by fans last weekend after the team signed veteran free-agent defensemen Trevor Daley and Luke Witkowski, seemingly improving Detroit’s blue line.

Daley was the bigger signing, a key member of Pittsburgh’s two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, a veteran presence who should stabilize the Red Wings in many ways.

But do Daley and Witkowski constitute enough of an upgrade to believe the Red Wings can make the playoffs, one year after seeing their playoff streak end at 25 seasons?

Many argued that Daley’s addition, combined with the lineup the Red Wings have returning, could be enough to get into the playoffs.

But there’s no denying that the Wings were non-factors at the top of the free-agent pool, leading to skepticism about things being any better than 2016-17, when Detroit finished 16 points out of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The ages of many key Red Wings, including last year’s leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg (36) and Daley (33), could be red flags.

There will be excitement over christening the Red Wings’ new home, Little Caesars Arena, and there’s always a certain level of optimism about each new season.

But this team missed the playoffs last season — and has largely the same cast coming back.

Are you optimistic, or not?

Five reasons for optimism

1. The defense is likely to be better

Signing Trevor Daley, though not a blockbuster move, should upgrade the defense. Daley is an accomplished veteran who was a key piece for a two-time defending Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh. That means, and says, a lot about a player. His veteran presence on the ice, his ability to transport the puck, should help the Red Wings get out of trouble. Daley isn’t an impact player. But in this lineup, he’s a big help.

Jimmy Howard

2. The goaltending should be more than adequate

Jimmy Howard was real good last season. There’s no reason to think Howard will slip substantially in the months ahead. The wild card is Petr Mrazek. He was exposed in the expansion draft, and then some dirty laundry was aired about his lack of work ethic and being an attitude problem. A lot will depend on how Mrazek responds. If Mrazek returns motivated and wanting to prove people wrong, the Red Wings are likely to have the same goaltender who was so dominant two seasons ago. Having two goalies on their “A” games every night on the schedule goes a long way toward a lot of victories.

3. They shouldn’t lose as many man-games to injury

The Red Wings lost 307 man-games due to injury, illness and suspension last season. Six players missed at least 20 games, while 22 games missed at least one game. That total of 307 games is up from 288 man-games lost during the 2015-16 season. It’s difficult to imagine that number going up for a second consecutive season. The odds usually even out, and it likely will not be as high this season. Losing players to that extent cuts into a team’s depth, puts young players in roles they aren’t ready for, and largely makes the lineup ineffective. The Red Wings don’t have the depth they used to have to adequately cover up that many personnel losses.

4. They won’t have as many players enduring off-seasons

When you scan the Red Wings’ statistics from last season, there aren’t many players who you can say had seasons that were as good, or better, than expected. Henrik Zetterberg, Jimmy Howard, Andreas Athansiou, Anthony Mantha, Tomas Tatar, Mike Green, Nick Jensen. That’s about it. Everyone else had a down year statistically, or from what was expected of them. It’s just not probable that so many players will again go downhill in the same season. Some, like Riley Sheahan, had a downright fluky bad season.

5. The Eastern Conference is down

The NHL’s Eastern Conference looks a little less daunting than it did several weeks ago. Two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh lost several character players, and that could affect chemistry. Washington isn’t as deep, losing players to salary-cap issues. Montreal, Ottawa and the New York Rangers all lost valuable people out of the lineup. The Red Wings have a lot of teams to jump, but at least the opportunity is there.

Five reasons for pessimism

1. It’s largely the same, stale roster

This is basically the same core from the last few seasons, and the results over that span have been less than overwhelming. It all bottomed out last season, as the Wings missed the playoff for the first time in 25 seasons. The Wings had very little roster turnover, so why should fans expect dramatically different results?

Henrik Zetterberg

2. Age could be an issue

For the Wings to even think about the playoffs, they will need significant contributions from players who are on the wrong side of 30. Henrik Zetterberg will be 37 by opening night. Frans Nielsen is 32 and must have a better all-around season. Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm both turned 30 and must rebound. Niklas Kronwall is 36 and playing on one good knee. It makes it that much more important that the under-30 crowd step up their games.

3. There aren’t many prospects in Grand Rapids ready to help

Tyler Bertuzzi appears to have a spot in the lineup sewn up, but it’s unlikely Bertuzzi will have a big role immediately. Tomas Nosek appeared to have a slightly larger role ready for him, but was claimed by the Vegas Knights in the expansion draft. The AHL champion Griffins might be supplying some intriguing help in another season or two, but after Bertuzzi, there probably aren’t any players ready for the big time in 2017. That includes 2015 first-rounder Evgeny Svechnikov, who needs more seasoning in the minors.

4. It’s difficult to imagine Henrik Zetterberg being any better

The Red Wings captain really had an incredible season, leading the team in assists (51) and scoring (68 points), playing every game, and willing the team to victories certain nights. Several days after the regular season begins, Henrik Zetterberg will turn 37. Realistically, one can’t expect Zetterberg to duplicate his 2016-17 season, particularly from a health standpoint, as he battled back issues earlier in his career. Let’s put it this way: If Zetterberg is the team’s leading scorer again next season, that probably will be a bad sign.

5. Making playoffs would require a big leap

Boston earned the final automatic playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and Toronto the final wild-card spot in the East — each with 95 points. The Red Wings had 79 points. That’s 16 points, or eight full games, behind the playoff cut line. Five teams were between the Red Wings and Toronto. That’s a lot of teams to jump over and some of those teams, on paper, improved themselves more than the Red Wings. New Jersey finished last in the East with 70 points, essentially five games from leapfrogging the Red Wings. And the Devils did improve this offseason.