2021-22 Red Wings mixed rebuild hope with more growing pains

2021-22 Red Wings mixed rebuild hope with more growing pains
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how far are they from getting things right?. This time, PHT breaks down the 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings.

Honestly, it’s tricky to review the Detroit Red Wings rebuild, and where the 2021-22 season figures into the big picture.

A lot of it boils down to expectations, and time.

If you’re viewing from afar, you may mostly like what you see. Yet, if you’re a Red Wings fan, this rebuild (and much of the 2021-22 season) may feel interminable. Even then, it likely all depends on which Red Wings fans you ask.

How many more chances should Jeff Blashill receive?

Let’s begin with a fact that’s either stunning (if you barely pay attention to the Red Wings), something you know all-too-well (if the rebuild is beating you down), or a subject you get defensive about.

In mere weeks, Jeff Blashill will complete his seventh season as Detroit Red Wings head coach.

As of this writing, Blashill’s coached the Red Wings through 528 games, assembling a 200-256-72 record, good for a .477 points percentage. During that time, the Red Wings reached the playoffs one time, and won a single playoff game under Blashill.

Look through the coaching register for anyone who’s coached 500+ games, and you won’t see a ton of modern coaches* who’ve lasted so long with so little success. Even Mike Yeo — who feels like he’s on borrowed time with Philly — managed a .547 points percentage in a comparable 534 games coached.

* – Interestingly, former Red Wings coach Sid Abel managed the same .477 points percentage, and ended up coaching 967 games. Abel enjoyed much more playoff success, but maybe Blashill would too with an extra 400+ games to work with?

Of course, Mike Yeo and others stepped into more viable situations than Blashill did.

As Red Wings head coach, Jeff Blashill’s either been dealing with the dying days of that Detroit dynasty, or in the full grasp of the rebuild. To an extent, it’s not easy to grade his work.

Would Blashill be a great chef if the ingredients weren’t rotten? Or should we have seen more progress given just how long his run has been?

To make key steps from a rebuild to true competence (and then, ideally, actual contention), the Red Wings need to ask this question — frankly, they should’ve been asking those questions well before the 2021-22 season.

2021-22 season still shows a Red Wings team with a long way to go

If you rate the 2021-22 season based on progress from some key prospect-turned-players, there are some great success. We’ll get to Moritz Seider and others in a moment.

But if you remove the bumpers and bowl with the best, you’ll still end up with a lot of gutters. Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM charts tell a quick story: the Red Wings, frankly, weren’t very good at much of anything, overall, in 2021-22.

Again, if you tweak expectations, you can see signs of growth. Still, it’s fair to wonder if the Red Wings are growing enough. How long will they be content with baby steps? That circles back to the Blashill question: would a different coach produce leaps instead of incremental improvements?

Because the bottom line is that, by any measure, the Red Wings weren’t very close to playing like a playoff team in 2021-22. Even when they kinda sorta flirted with the playoff bubble for a while.

Young players represent a promising future, with some delivering in the present

Judging prospects isn’t all that different from thumbing through prospect reports before a draft. For all the excitement (or, conversely, raised concerns) about a player, it’s often tough to tell if potential will actually translate to production.

That’s one reason why the 2021-22 season brings a lot of hope to the Red Wings. In Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, the Red Wings already boast two prospects who are effective NHL players right now.

Seider a real gem

  • Seider checks some big boxes for sought-after defensemen. He’s big, mobile, and right-handed. Seider may even be more skilled than first expected (when he was as surprised as anyone to be selected sixth overall in 2019).

Interestingly, a bit of luck may exaggerate Seider’s nonetheless outstanding rookie season. Seider ranks in the 92.9% percentile in Evolving Hockey’s GAR stat, in the neighborhood of Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Hughes, and teammate Tyler Bertuzzi. By the expected goals (xGAR) version of that metric, Seider’s more modestly in the 74.8% (with quality players like Taylor Hall, and maybe a mild surprise like Trevor van Riemsdyk).

Really, though, that just indicates there’s room for debate between whether Moritz Seider’s been elite this season, or “merely” very good. Not a bad problem to have. Especially since he’s been thrown into the fire, averaging 23:09 TOI per night, and splitting his offensive and defensive zone starts almost exactly evenly.

Considering how difficult it is to find defensemen like Seider, it’s extremely promising that the Red Wings found one at age 21. That’s already translated into a blueliner who generated 46 points in 71 games, too.

Raymond already a promising forward

With both Seider and Raymond, you can nitpick them if you really want to. It must be emphasized that you can nitpick them as rising NHL stars, rather than prospects whose output remains merely hypothetical.

By underlying metrics, Lucas Raymond is what many would picture a promising young forward to be. His offense is dynamic, while his defense could use some work.

Importantly, the good outweighs the bad, including in that Hockey Viz chart above.

Ideally, Lucas Raymond can maintain that scorching offense while improving on defense. If not, a team can win with a high-event player when they’re creating more than they’re allowing. It’s exciting that Raymond’s already pulling that off.

More help likely coming

OK, so we touched on production from those with potential. Naturally, there remains room to picture different pieces fitting or falling from a Red Wings rebuild.

Even with the graduation of Seider and Raymond, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the Red Wings’ prospect pool seventh in the NHL. They boast fascinating prospects in big defenseman Simon Edvinsson, hyped goalie Sebastian Cossa, and playmaking forward Jonatan Berggren. Depth options could pan out with Joe Veleno, and others.

And the Red Wings continue to pile up extra darts to throw. They have an extra second-rounder in each of the next two drafts, and boast three fourth-rounders for the 2022 NHL Draft.

Most likely, the pivotal pick will be the Red Wings’ first-rounder for 2022 (likely to be in the top 10). But loading up on extra picks gives you more chances to find diamonds in the rough. The Red Wings have a storied history of doing just that, after all.

Questions from 2021-22 and beyond lingering over Red Wings, their rebuild

Actually, those extra picks helps to kick off some miscellaneous questions. After 2021-22, the Red Wings should ponder a few things:

  • Should they package some of their picks for more immediate help? Imagine an enormous Red Wings defense with Seider, a traded-for Jakob Chychrun, and (eventually) Edvinsson.
  • Unlike Seider and Raymond, Filip Zadina‘s producing mixed NHL results. Should they move on from the pending RFA? Is it too soon to do that with a 22-year-old?
  • How should they feel about Alex Nedeljkovic? His play plummeted after a hot start. The 26-year-old has one more year left at a $3M cap hit, so they don’t need to panic. But the clock’s ticking on a potential answer in net.
  • Can they get a healthy season out of Jakub Vrana? If so, can he flirt with 40 goals?
  • With 15 roster spots covered, the Red Wings are projected to have about $35.6M in cap space. How aggressive should they be in free agency? Would they be better off trying to land a big upgrade via a trade?

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  • How will they handle some fork-in-the-road choices? Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi rank among those who will need new contracts after next (2022-23) season. With the Raymond – Seider rookie deals up after 2023-24, certain costs should rise.
  • With those entry-level contracts in mind, is there a window where the Red Wings can really jump, thus exploiting those savings?
  • Again, where does Jeff Blashill fit in all of this? Sooner or later, they have to make bigger gains. Is Blashill the coach to bring them up a level? Sometimes the patience approach devolves into merely walking in place.

The Red Wings have aced a lot of the early tests of a rebuild, yet the 2021-22 season looms as a reminder. The biggest obstacles remain, so we’ll see if Detroit has the mix of skill and luck to clear them.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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