Detroit – The Red Wings would have mercifully reached the end.
If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t struck, Saturday night, likely before a festive Little Caesars Arena crowd, the Red Wings would be closing out their regular season against Tampa Bay.
Considering the present circumstances, it would have been fun, wouldn’t it?
As it stands, the Red Wings’ last game was March 10 against Carolina, a 5-2 Hurricanes victory at LCA.
Two days later, the NHL paused its season.
Officially the Wings have 11 games left on their schedule, having already clinched the NHL’s worst record (17-49-5).
“This whole season has been a character test, it’s been a character-building season,” said forward Dylan Larkin after a late-season loss.
After winning three of their first four games – and briefly sparking high hopes among fans – the season went completely downhill.
The Red Wings were officially eliminated from making the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season on Feb. 21.
“We’ve had a tough year,” said coach Jeff Blashill in early March. “It’s not like all of a sudden we were out and we have this new challenge we have to face.
“So you kind of reset.”
The Wings had three losing streaks of at least eight games, the longest being 12 games from Nov. 14 to Dec. 10. They added two six-game losing streaks, for good measure.
What Blashill was pleased with, though, was that the Wings were able to shake off the losses and played competitively. The work ethic was largely there on a game-to-game basis.
“What (we were) able to do is we’ve been able to have a ‘next game’ and ‘next shift’ mentality, not worried about the previous 10 games, not worried about the previous 50 games,” Blashill said. “All that matters is the game (that night).”
Few analysts expected the Wings to have a winning season. But not many expected the season crater the way it did.
But a perfect storm of events contributed to the Wings’ free-falling.
Long-term injuries to forward Anthony Mantha and defenseman Danny DeKeyser (who only played eight games) led the way to the Wings missing 289 total man games lost to injury. On a team with little proven depth, it was too much to overcome.
The Wings ranked last (31st) on the penalty kill (74.3 percent) and 29th on the power play (14.9 percent), as the specialty teams rarely proved to be a positive.
Andreas Athanasiou was counted on to duplicate his 30-goal season, but instead only scored 10 in an injury-plagued season before being dealt to Edmonton at the trade deadline.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard had a dismal 2-23-2 record, with a sub-par 4.20 goals-against average and .882 save percentage. The team defense in front of Howard wasn’t very good, but Howard didn’t make key saves, either.
Veterans such as forwards Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen and Valtteri Filppula, plus defensemen Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green (who was traded to Edmonton at the deadline), were either injury-plagued or ineffective for much of the season.
“We’re all here because we like competing, we like to win,” Nielsen said the night the Wings were eliminated from the playoffs. “It’s just been a long year. We come to work every day and work hard and try to keep our head high, but it hasn’t been fun every day.”
One big issue remaining for general manager Steve Yzerman heading into next season will be the status of Blashill. The organization has the option to pick up the remaining year on Blashill’s contract, but hasn’t officially done so.
Yzerman expressed confidence in Blashill’s performance, under a difficult season, in a press conference after the trade deadline.
“I've enjoyed working with him,” Yzerman said. “When I came in last summer, we talked about our team, what my expectations were, what we hoped to do. It’s unfair to judge Jeff Blashill on our team's record. I put this team together, I had expectations for the year. I don’t think this is a playoff team, honestly, a lot of things would have to go right for us to be a playoff team. That hasn’t happened.
“Jeff has done a very good job, he and his staff with these players. It's been a very difficult season and they’ve managed it very well and coached the team very well under very difficult circumstances.
“I'm not going to make any decisions on anything until the season is over. We’re going to sit down and go over it, but Jeff has done a good job. I’ve enjoyed working with him and as of right now, I don’t plan to make a change, so read into that what you want.”
But first, before any coaching or roster turnover, this season needs some sort of completion.
The NHL is intent on having a playoff season – if at all possible, and awarding the Stanley Cup. The regular season would also be completed in a perfect scenario. But with the calendar clipping along, and the NHL not wanting to infringe on a full 82-game next season, there’s not much runway left.
Still, Blashill and his staff are preparing to complete this paused season.
“We’re planning for anything that can happen,” Blashill said. “We have to be prepared that if at any point, the NHL says to us that we’re going to resume, we have to be prepared for that.
“Having a skeleton in place of how we would attack those days of a potential mini-camp, we’re doing that.”
Where the Wings stand
Where the Red Wings stand among the NHL’s 31 teams:
Record: 17-49-5, 39 points (31st)
Goal differential: minus-122 (31st)
Goals per game: 2.00 (31st)
Goals for: 142 (31st)
Goals against: 265 (31st)
Power play: 14.9 percent (29th)
Penalty kill: 74.3 percent (31st)
Shots per game: 27.1 (31st)