Detroit – On Nov. 10, 17 games into their season, the Red Wings stood 8-8-1, in fourth place in the Atlantic Division, one point out of a wild-card playoff spot.
Their goal differential was minus-1.
Not a fine performance, but it met expectations. The Wings were a team on the bubble, despite ample predictions they would not make the playoffs.
They had just finished seven of eight games on the road and had played only five at home since the start of the season. But they could look at the schedule and see 13 of the next 15 in their new home, Little Caesars Arena.
Make or break time began the second week of November.
The stretch ended Friday with the Red Wings lying four points behind the Bruins for the playoffs, while Boston had three games in hand.
Their goal differential is minus-17.
The Wings went 4-5-6 in the 15-game stretch, ending with their second win in regulation in four weeks, 3-1, over the Maple Leafs.
Instead of improving playoff prospects, the 15 games proved a profound puzzlement.
It also provides a signpost.
The rebuilding on the fly fashioned by Ken Holland and the rest of his management team beginning six seasons ago after the consecutive retirements of Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom has yet to slow the decline of the club’s performance, let alone provide evidence of a turnaround.
Having chosen to compete for the playoffs while fashioning scant revitalization of the lineup, the Wings long ago lent considerable credibility to the argument they have frittered time.
The continue to do so.
By not leaving the playoffs to clubs better able to support the effort, they are not playing young players as much as they should.
They have not advantageously moved one of their goalies.
They have not stripped the roster of a bit of its congealed salary fat.
Move to the future
Instead, the Red Wings are precisely where they were 13 months ago, increasingly a long shot for the playoffs and a team whose most constructive moments are when Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha receive time on ice.
Larkin is playing a lot. Mantha is playing more, and Athanasiou is sometimes, too. It should be even more, and not a sometimes thing.
Despite the organization’s dubious thoughts about how playing Tyler Bertuzzi and Joe Hicketts will affect the club’s performance, they should be playing regularly in Detroit and not Grand Rapids.
Other than Bertuzzi’s wrist injury, they both should have been in the lineup to start the season.
Bertuzzi and Hicketts will play for the Wings someday. It is time to let them make their mistakes and get them out of the way, just as Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha continue to do.
It is how young players improve.
It is how franchises move into the future.
The organization is not doing what it should, on various fronts, to hasten the course.
By not playing Petr Mrazek every third game out of the gate this season, they deprived a talented young goalie of a regularly-scheduled opportunity to get his career back on track. Doing so also would have improved the club’s chances of deriving some reconstructive benefit from trading one of their two talented goalies.
Mrazek’s six did not plays (DNP) from Oct. 22 to Nov. 2 and the four from Nov. 11 through Nov. 19 are all exercises in going with the hot goalie, Jimmy Howard.
A wise move, perhaps, if the standard is making the playoffs.
If the standard is creating the next Stanley Cup contender in Detroit, however, it is imprudent.
Meanwhile, Mrazek can play well, and he will play well, again. But not without the minutes.
Having both goalies going well has been the key to trading one of them in a way most advantageous to rebuilding the Red Wings for 18 months. It might have been the best way to make the playoffs, too.
If all they can fetch for Mrazek now is something like a third-round pick, his career will have been miserably managed by the Wings.
With such obvious rebuilding measures lower in priority than making the playoffs, the sense the franchise is not moving in the right direction grows.
What the future holds is utterly vague.
Thoughts that Holland might be in his last season, by his own volition or the decision of the franchise, and Jeff Blashill’s inability to get this roster to win consistently for two seasons, raise questions about who will be rebuilding the Red Wings in five or six months.
During a recent broadcast, Paul Woods, who has been part of the franchise since his speedy days on a wing during The Dead Wings era, praised Blashill’s ability to remain self-possessed during some recent postgame media conferences.
The observation was apt.
It underlined how dire the circumstances of the Red Wings became, during the critical juncture.
All kidding about it aside, Blashill’s increasingly desperate invocation of “the process” and how the players must cleave to it is precisely all he can do, unless he and management start putting development before winning hockey games.
As the last 15 games demonstrated, they are not winning enough, regardless.
That they can perform the coach’s methods – “the process” – with considerable success and still lose, is all the more evidence the Wings should deploy whatever young talent the organization has on board.
If it produces losses and only a slightly elevated chance of drafting a star, so be it. A byproduct of the initiative will be the greater development of any young talent they may have in Grand Rapids and more time on ice for the young guys already in Detroit.
The opportunities and need to accelerate rebuilding has been obvious for a while. The last 15 games should make the necessity clear to all.
A team seeking to establish an identity for two seasons does not quite know what it is, even now, beyond its desire to play fast and with “the process” Blashill seeks to habituate in them.
That plainly is not enough.
It is unlikely to be more so in the coming days and weeks.
When they get it right almost continuously through a game, they can still lose. They have done precisely that in six of their nine one-goal losses this season.
It feels as though the Red Wings have better ways to use their time.