Red Wings are bad, but will they be worst in franchise history?

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

The locker room was quiet — no music, no laughter — similar to how it’s been after most Detroit Red Wings games this season.

Victories have been in short supply for the Red Wings and Saturday night in Ottawa was no different — a 4-3 shootout loss. At 15-47-5, the Wings have by far the worst record in the NHL. They have 35 points, and going into Sunday’s games, the second-worst team, Los Angeles, was outdistancing the Wings by nearly 20 points, as the Kings had 54.

The NHL season has expanded over the years, going from 48 games to 70 to 80 to its current 82. Still, the 2019-20 Red Wings team is among the worst in franchise history for points as well as win percentage.

How dire is it? The 2019-20 season could go down as the worst in franchise history.

The Wings have a .261 winning percentage — the third-worst ever. The 1985-86 Red Wings went 17-57-6 (in an 80-game season, compared to 82 now) for a .250 percentage, and the 1976-77 team went 16-55-9 (also an 80-game schedule) for .256.

However, the worst season for any NHL franchise is safely out of reach, set by the 1974-75 expansion Washington Capitals, who went 8-67-5 for a .131 winning percentage.

This Red Wings team has 15 games left to avoid the label of “worst ever” in Detroit, but they also face the NHL’s toughest schedule for remaining games, according to The Wings face Steve Yzerman’s former team, Tampa Bay (41-19-5), three more times before the close of the season.

Of the 15 games left, only one (Chicago) is against a team out of the playoff picture.

“We put ourselves in this position,” said goaltender Jonathan Bernier, one of the few bright spots for the Wings this season. “We just have to compete until the end.”

The NHL season has expanded over the years, going from 48 games to 70 to 80 to its current 82. Still, this Red Wings team is among the worst in franchise history for points, as well.

The Wings’ 35 points are tied for last with the 1937-38 team that went 12-25-11 on a 48-game schedule.

These Wings need seven points over their final 15 games to finish ahead of the 1985-86 team (40 points) and the 1976-77 team (41 points), among teams that played at least 80 games.

Regardless, forward Anthony Mantha believes there is an opportunity to salvage something from this season.

“It doesn’t get tougher than that (the schedule),” Mantha said. “That’s for sure. You’ll see who wants to hang their skates early and who wants to finish the season strong.

“It’s going to be hard; we need to be ready. We need to focus even more and take a step forward and play good hockey.”

To avoid history, the Wings will need to close strong, like the 2018-19 team, which went on a six-game win streak late in the season, but hurting the organization’s draft lottery odds in the process.

Coach Jeff Blashill also sees this final month as an opportunity to head into the offseason in a positive frame of mind.

“You end the year feeling good about yourself,” Blashill said. “Every day to me is a little bit of a new day and you get a chance to go and have a new day. So why wouldn’t we want to do that with wins?”

‘Extreme motivation’

Barry Melrose, an ESPN hockey analyst, was a veteran in his final season on that 1985-86 Red Wings team.

He’d eventually become a coach in junior hockey, the minor leagues, and eventually the NHL. Melrose took life lessons he learned from that disastrous 1985-86 season.

The most important?

“Losing sucks,” Melrose said.

Jimmy Howard has had a rough season, and there is no letup with only one of 15 remaining games against a team out of the playoff picture.

Melrose, and other veterans, knew there was at least promise of better days for the Red Wings at that time. Yzerman was in his third season with the Red Wings.

“Us older guys on that team realized that we weren’t going to be there when this became a good team,” Melrose said. “You’re looking around the room and seeing young guys like Lane Lambert, Gerard Gallant. Steve Yzerman was going to be here for a while and he was going to be built around.”

After the 1985-86 disaster, Jacques Demers was named coach of the Red Wings, then Bryan Murray and then Scotty Bowman. The Wings would make the playoffs in 15 of the 16 seasons under those coaches, with three Stanley Cups.

Melrose thinks there’s hope for the current Red Wings team, though he’s convinced the turnaround won’t arrive as quickly.

“They’re bad,” Melrose said. “They haven’t hit a lot of home runs with draft picks. They’ve got some good young players, but you’d think, with (former general manager) Kenny (Holland) drafting, and Stevie now there, they’d find that diamond in the rough.

“You can’t make mistakes when you’re in that situation (in the top half of the first round).

“I don’t see a turnaround tomorrow for the Red Wings. I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel just yet.”

Melrose can sympathize with this season’s team on a variety of levels.

“Losing is tough,” Melrose said. “People are proud, players are proud, and you’re the laughing stock of the league, the worst team in the league. What you take out of it is, you never want to go through something like that again. It gives you extreme motivation.

“That season (1985-86) was something that stuck with me when I got into coaching. Stuck with me the rest of my life. I just didn’t want to go through something like that again.

“That’s what the young guys on this team can take forward.”

‘Part of the process’

Yzerman suffered a broken collarbone in 1985-86, and it limited him to 51 games.

Now, he’s managing a roster that is slogging through nightly defeats. The Wings have had losing streaks of 12, nine, eight and six games this season. They’re currently on a five-game skid.

Having to go through this experience, Yzerman said last week after the trade deadline, can be a learning experience for the youngsters on the roster.

Steve Yzerman's job is to make the Red Wings a winning franchise again.

“It’s all part of your career and it’s all part of the process,” Yzerman said. “It doesn’t do anybody good to feel sorry for themselves or for us to feel sorry for ourselves as an organization. We know what we have to do.

“But for the players, it’s tough. Again, I've gone through the experience after '85-86. It was my third year in the league, it was a terrible year. I got injured personally; it was a terrible year for our team.”

Yzerman did make a point as to how quickly things can change for an organization.

The next season, the Wings made it to the conference finals, losing to the Edmonton Oilers.

As quickly as things can go south, things can rebound, too.

“Things changed in a hurry,” Yzerman said. “Now I’m not predicting that for next year. But you get ready, every year brings new hope, and every offseason brings hope and the players get psyched up and dust yourself off and away you go again.”

Wrong side of history

Worst winning percentage in Red Wings history:

.250 – 1985-86 team, 17-57-6 record (80 games)

.256 – 1976-77 team, 16-55-9 record (80 games)

.261 – 2019-20 team, 15-47-5 record (15 games remaining in an 82-game schedule)

Bottom of the barrel

Worst point totals in Red Wings history:

35 – 2019-20 team, 15-47-5 record (15 games remaining in an 82-game schedule)

35 – 1937-38 team, 12-25-11 record (48 games)

38 – 1939-40 team, 16-26-6 record (48 games)

40 – 1985-86 team, 17-57-6 record (80 games)

41 – 1976-77 team, 16-55-9 record (80 games)

Twitter: @tkulfan