When the Detroit Red Wings opened the 2016-17 NHL season with back-to-back losses, it seemed to be a harbinger for a long, grueling campaign. The organization had come under fire for how they handled the offseason, opting to sign veteran free agents instead of pushing their own prospects up the food chain.
Detroit’s recent five-game win streak seems to have bought it some time in the eyes of many around the league. The Red Wings entered this season as a bubble team–a squad most assumed would flirt with a Wild Card spot instead of pushing for an Atlantic Division banner. Over their last five contests, they’ve proven to be capable of stringing together wins even when the best players aren’t performing up to expectations.
That has to be a huge relief to Ken Holland and the rest of Detroit’s brass.
The Red Wings are slowly but surely becoming Dylan Larkin’s team. He’ll be the centerpiece around which they build for the next decade plus, but Detroit hasn’t needed him to carry them offensively so far this season.
In fact, the 20-year-old sophomore didn’t score his first goal of the season until this past Tuesday, seven games into 2016-17.
In years gone by, seeing a key contributor go that cold could have ended in ruin. Or at least in losses. Instead, the Red Wings have counted on their depth to get wins, and so far that has been working.
It’s a subject matter that Today’s Slapshot’s own Chris Oddo wrote about earlier in October, and at that juncture, it was clear that getting scoring from all four lines would be important.
With Pavel Datsyuk in Russia, an aging Henrik Zetterberg on the roster and Steven Stamkos deciding to stay in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings needed to be able to roll four lines to stay afloat in the ridiculously competitive Atlantic Division. They have managed to do that through seven contests, drastically improving on an offense that only produced an average of 2.55 goals per game last season.
Only seven teams in the NHL scored less frequently than Detroit a year ago, and all seven of those squads failed to make the playoffs. If the Red Wings wanted to prove their doubters wrong this season, it was going to be with an improved offense. And so far they’ve managed to score almost a full goal more per contest in 2016-17.
But it’s not all good news.
The offense is incredibly unsustainable based on what we know about how shooting percentages tend to shake out over the course of an entire season.
Last year, the New York Rangers had the highest shooting percentage in the league with an 8.95 percent during 5-on-5 play. Through the first seven games of this season, the Red Wings are converting on 11.04 percent of their shots at even strength.
We mention the Rangers here to help illustrate how far the Red Wings would have to fall to be the best shooting team in the NHL. Two percentage points might not seem like much, but odds are good that Detroit will sink a bit farther towards the middle of the pack as the season progresses.
That’s illustrated by their absurdly high PDO (essentially a proxy for luck), which stands at a staggering 106.3 This number will, without question, drift back towards the league average (100) and Detroit’s offense will eventually suffer as a result.
That isn’t to say that the Red Wings can’t continue to surprise people by putting together win streaks like the one they are on right now.
This is a team that is riding high on averages that will inevitably come crashing back down. Mike Green probably isn’t going to finish the season as a point-per-game player, Darren Helm won’t push towards 50 goals like he’s projected to right now, and Thomas Vanek won’t finish north of 90 points.
Despite the wins, this is still a team that has a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs. Even with the five-game win streak, the Red Wings are sitting in third place in the Atlantic, with the Ottawa Senators only two points back in fourth place.
If Detroit falls out of the Atlantic bracket and into the Wild Card race, things will get even dicier as they’d currently need to fight teams like the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins for a playoff berth.
This has been a great start for the Red Wings, and locking up all 10 possible points across five contests is a fantastic confidence builder for the team. Don’t think Detroit is going to get off easy the rest of the way, though, or that this group has put all of their challenges to rest.
If anything, the work is just getting started in Hockeytown.