As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Detroit Red Wings.
After years of wizardry as Lightning GM, Red Wings fans were ecstatic when Steve Yzerman came “home” as Detroit’s GM. Beyond Red Wings fans, most observers believed that Stevie Y was the ideal architect as the franchise finally embraced a rebuild.
Now, sure you can nitpick certain decisions and nondecisions here and there. But generally, when you zoom out, Yzerman’s lived up to the hype as a shrewd GM who’s perfect to rebuild the Red Wings.
Unfortunately, rebuilding an NHL team often means getting a lot of decisions right — and winning trades and drafts for multiple years. Sometimes you need a little luck, too, whether that comes to developing talent, or drafting high in the right first rounds.
From that perspective, the Red Wings remain a work in progress. And, judging by the 2020-21 Red Wings season and other recent years, that painstaking work can sometimes emphasize the “pain.”
What went wrong before their 2020-21 season
Here’s how bad the Red Wings’ luck was heading into the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery: the league gathered its executives to figure out a way to make sure more teams don’t suffer the Red Wings’ fate.
Simply put, many believe that the Red Wings deserved better than the No. 4 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft after slogging through a hideous 2019-20 season. Maybe some of that talk is a touch melodramatic, though, as plenty of prospect-watchers are excited about Lucas Raymond’s potential.
Even so, it’s fair to wonder if the Red Wings are navigating the occasional bump in the road when it comes to collecting those “blue chip” prospects who can really change your fortunes. (You know, someone like a … Steve Yzerman?)
Between injuries (see: Filip Zadina) to picks that will be debated for some time (Moritz Seider at No. 6 in 2018), to the massive disruptions from COVID, it’s tough to gauge the Red Wings’ progress when you get really granular about it.
And they might happen upon a No. 1 overall pick — or something closer to it — during a 2021 NHL Draft where it’s not so easy to identify the true top-level talent.
In other words, the Red Wings aren’t the latest version of the Penguins winning the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes, and “settling” for Evgeni Malkin as a No. 2 pick. Not yet, at least.
What went wrong during the Red Wings’ 2020-21 season
Rather than swinging too hard at free agents who wouldn’t move the needle, the Red Wings acted like a rebuilding team should. In other words, they outfitted their roster with stopgaps, and kept lanes open for younger players to gain experience.
That’s a good long-term view, yet in the short-term, it left this roster without much scoring talent.
It’s one thing when a high-octane defenseman leads your team in scoring. It’s another thing when Filip Hronek‘s 26 points tops all Red Wings. (Injured Dylan Larkin [23 points] and traded Anthony Mantha  finished second and third.)
Much like the talent-deprived Ducks, the Red Wings sported one of the worst power-play units in recent memory, converting on a paltry 10.81-percent of their opportunities.
When teams saw the 2020-21 Red Wings on their schedule, they weren’t exactly shaking in their boots/skates.
What went right
Naturally, the future provides more optimism than just about anything you’d see from the 2020-21 Red Wings.
But give the 2020-21 version of the Red Wings credit for not just rolling over, even amid a rebuild. While the Red Wings got crushed in a volume stat like Corsi Percentage (45.4), they actually generated more scoring chances than they allowed, including high-danger ones.
For a team making baby steps like the Red Wings, it’s promising to see signs of an improving structure as soon as 2020-21. Even if you do need to squint a bit.
Skeptics might chalk this up to taking the 2020-21 Red Wings lightly, but this is a team that boasts multiple wins over the Lightning and Hurricanes. It’s unclear if Jeff Blashill’s the right coach to raise this team from a rebuilder to a contender, but maintaining a professional drive to compete speaks well of him, and the rest of the staff.
All of that said … the things that went right still do revolve around the future. Yzerman got creative during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, using cap space to accrue picks. Most dazzlingly, he landed quality assets in the Jakub Vrana – Anthony Mantha trade. If Vrana is indeed just about as valuable (or even more valuable?) than Mantha, than that’s a slam dunk.
So, quite a bit went right, although fans watching on a night-to-night basis probably didn’t always feel that way.
Follow the Push for the Playoffs to keep track of the Red Wings’ 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds. Can the Red Wings add premium talent? Maybe they’ll eventually start using their trove of picks to try to pluck the occasional young player/prospect, too?
(After following Yzerman for a while, should we also expect the Red Wings to exploit the Seattle Kraken’s Expansion Draft to their advantage, too? Don’t bet against Stevie Y.)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.