Five things the Red Wings need to make the playoffs

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The improved play of center Andreas Athanasiou could give the Wings a boost  in their attempts to get back into the playoffs.

Detroit — Nobody is expecting it.

The analysts who cover hockey across North America, the oddsmakers, or analytic people who who project team and individual performances to the minute point.

Nobody sees the Red Wings making the playoffs this season.

Be it the roster being too old or too young or simply not good enough, reasons are many and varied.

It won’t be easy, obviously.

The top three teams in the Atlantic Division earn automatic playoff spots — and Tampa, Toronto and Boston appear to have locks on those three spots. All three are good enough to win the Stanley Cup.

MoreTyler Bertuzzi, the 'hockey player,' in important role for Red Wings

And Florida, which missed earning a playoff spot by one point last season, appears stronger on paper, and could sneak into the top-three of the Atlantic.

It won’t be easy.

But if these things happen, maybe, just maybe, the Wings can shock the world and end their streak of missing the playoffs at two seasons.

Internal improvement

Much of the talk when the Red Wings cleaned out their lockers last spring, then through the summer, was about internal improvement.

If the Red Wings are going to surprise people and make a charge up the standings, it’s going to have to start with individuals simply getting better.

During the preseason, there were signs of that potentially happening.

Foremost was the play of forward Andreas Athanasiou.

Craving more ice time for the past couple seasons, Athanasiou was given ample playing time during exhibition games — and will likely receive similar playing time given the retirement of Henrik Zetterberg — and responded with some dazzling games.

Anthony Mantha talked about getting to 30 goals. Dylan Larkin took a major step in 2017-18, and could take another this season. Tyler Bertuzzi has room to grow as a player.

Those are the young players who the Wings are building around.

Center Michael Rasmussen leads a group of rookies that should make an impact for the Red Wings this season.

The rookies go gangbusters

It used to be first-round draft picks of the Wings would get years to learn the pro game before reaching the NHL.

That’s not necessarily the case anymore.

More: Wings send Zadina to GR; Rasmussen, Cholowski, Ehn earn spots

Forward Michael Rasmussen (2017) and defenseman Dennis Cholowski (2016) played their way onto the roster with outstanding preseason play in September, dominating in the Prospects Tournament and carrying that performance through exhibition games.

Both players have looked unfazed by the NHL and if they continue their impressive performances, it would help the Wings considerably.

The goal is to give Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard a few more breaks than he had last year so he doesn't wear out by the second half of the season.

Elite goaltending

For any potential playoff team, the need for quality goaltending is a must.

Jimmy Howard had an outstanding first half last season, but faded as a heavy workload possibly might have had an effect, what with Petr Mrazek and Jared Coreau struggling as Howard’s backups.

The Wings signed free agent Jonathan Bernier in July and are optimistic the combination of Bernier and Howard will provide elite goaltending on a game-to-game basis.

Bernier helped lead Colorado into the playoffs last season when goaltender Semyon Varlamov was injured.

Dominate one-goal games

The Red Wings lost 27 of 37 one-goal games last season — 14 in regulation, 13 in overtime or shootout (10-14-13).

If they can get that number closer to .500, and add eight or nine points to the win column, that would be a huge start in climbing back into the playoff race.

Increased offense from the likes of Athanasiou, Larkin, Mantha, and production from the rookies, should help.

But, the Wings can’t afford any slippage defensively while thinking offense.

Improve on special teams

Neither the power play or penalty kill was good enough last season.

For any hope of the playoffs, both units have to improve dramatically.

The power play continued to be a disappointment, ranking 24th, forcing the team to replace assistant coach John Torchetti with former Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma.

The Wings did score nine shorthanded goals, but the unit struggled badly, somewhat because of injuries, and ranked 23rd in the league.

Playoff teams, generally, have both units in the top-10, meaning there’s plenty of work to be done. @tkulfan