Dispelling The Notion of 'Bad Wins' And 'Bad Points' For The Red Wings

Lose For Hughes sounds nice, but at what cost?

Will Burchfield
February 22, 2019 - 12:09 pm

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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The Edmonton Oilers hit the NHL jackpot in 2015, climbing two spots in the draft lottery to steal #generationaltalent Connor McDavid with the first overall pick. This was it. The long-suffering franchise finally got the guy it needed. The Oilers were ready to win.  

They finished second to last in the league the next season. They’re on track to the miss the playoffs for the third time in four years with McDavid. They’re still not ready to win.

The Toronto Maple Leafs hit the next jackpot in 2016, holding down the top spot in the lottery to draft #generationaltalent Auston Matthews. This was it. The long-suffering franchise finally got the guy it needed. The Leafs were ready to win.

They surged up the standings the next season to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. They’re on track to get there for the third year in a row – three-for-three with Matthews – and they’re positioned as a legitimate Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

The difference between Toronto and Edmonton has very little to do with McDavid and Matthews. They’ve both lived up to the billing. It’s much more a reflection of the players around them. Where the Oilers haven’t developed (or acquired) enough talent to supplement McDavid, the Maple Leafs have surrounded Matthews with a group of young stars coming of age at once.  

(A little helping of John Tavares doesn’t hurt, either.)

And should the Red Wings hit the jackpot this summer and land Jack Hughes, what will we say a few years from now? Assuming Hughes pans out (and more on that in a minute), will Detroit be prepared to take advantage? Or will it wind up like Edmonton, a jackpot winner wasting its good fortune?

So much of that depends on right now, on the players in front of us, on the games the rest of the way. To those fretting about Detroit’s place in the race for Hughes, stop. (If the lottery has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that the final standings will probably be squashed by a couple ping-pong balls.) The marginal shuffling of odds is not what should concern you between now and the end of the season.

What’s paramount is the ongoing bloom of the Red Wings’ young players, regardless of wins and losses and the team’s place in the standings. Frankly, a few extra wins wouldn’t hurt.

Like the one last week against the Senators, a 3-2 victory on the strength of two goals by Andreas Athanasiou. With Detroit jockeying for position in the lottery with Ottawa, a small portion of critics frowned: “bad win.” Those same critics overlooked the fact that Athanasiou’s big night gave him 20 goals for the first time in his career, no small thing for a 24-year-old forward coming into his own.

A few days later, the Wings roared back from a four-goal third-period deficit in Philadelphia to steal a point in overtime. “Bad point.” But starring that afternoon were 23-year-old Tyler Bertuzzi, who got the comeback started with the first goal, and 24-year-old Anthony Mantha, who finished it with the final two. Mantha broke a nine-game goal drought in the process.

Detroit picked up another “bad point” on Wednesday, this time coming from 4-1 down against the Blackhawks. Never mind that 22-year-old Dylan Larkin, the foundation of the future, had two goals and an assist on the night, or that Athanasiou picked up two more goals or that Mantha racked up four assists. Or that 21-year-old Filip Hronek, in his second game back from Grand Rapids, looked right at home.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here is (help) these young guys continue to grow,” Jeff Blashill said afterward. “I think our arch is headed in the right direction, but a huge part of it is their continued growth. If there isn’t continued growth then we won’t be good enough.”

The Red Wings have picked up a point in five of their past six games, the only outlier a 3-1 loss to the Flyers last Sunday. Detroit held the edge in play in that one, but Larkin, Athanasiou, Mantha, Bertuzzi and Hornek wound up a combined minus-7. If you want to bemoan recent results, start there.

If you’d rather look for positives, start here: of the 15 goals the Wings have scored in their last five games with a point, Larkin, Athanasiou, Mantha or Bertuzzi has been involved in 12.

Detroit’s mini-surge the past couple weeks has moved it from 30th in the league to 31st. What has that done to its lottery odds, if you must know? The Wings now have an 11.5 percent chance at the top pick, per Tankathon.com, instead of 13.5 percent. But as far as the odds go for Detroit, just know this: the No. 1 pick is highly unlikely, a top-five pick is almost a lock. And that’s not going to change in the final 21 games.  

(Even Ottawa, who’s in good shape to finish last with a three-point “lead” on the Kings and designs of a firesale ahead of Monday’s trade deadline, won’t be promised more than a top-four pick should it win the race to the bottom. And its odds of picking first overall will be a whopping 18.5 percent.)

By the way, what if – gulp­ – Hughes doesn’t live up to this potential? Oh, he’s got loads of it, but he’s a slight player, and he’s already been injured a couple times this season. Blashill himself has raised caution regarding Hughes’ “smaller-frame body” and his adaptability to the NHL game. What if the team that hits the jackpot this June doesn’t reap the rewards?

But we digress. (And we believe in Hughes, for what it’s worth.) Point is, there are more important factors to the Red Wings’ rebuild right now than where they may or may not end up on the draft board June 21. Because even if they luck into the first pick and even if Hughes is for real, it won’t matter if the team doesn’t have more good, young players around him. Confident players that are ready to win.

No, Detroit’s rebuild doesn’t hinge so squarely on this year’s draft. It hinges on the pieces that are already in place, especially those coming of age in the NHL. If the team languishes down the stretch, it might see its lottery odds jump a couple percentage points. It will also see the development curve of its young talent flatten out, just when it appears to be taking off. That’s something the Wings can’t afford, especially for a return that’s far from guaranteed.

Gaze a couple years into the future. There’s Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou and Bertuzzi. There’s Hronek and Dennis Cholowski. Squint just a bit more and Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno come into view. Together, this cast of homegrown players is leading the Red Wings back into the playoffs. Know who’s not in that image, because he’s not in the view before us? Jack Hughes. We’re better off worrying about the players who are here than those who probably won’t be.

McDavid, for all his hair-raising talent, has been no panacea for the Oilers. To an extent, the same could be said of Matthews for the Leafs. He and Mitch Marner joined a Toronto team in 2016 that already featured 26-year-olds Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, 24-year-old Zach Hyman, 23-year-old Connor Brown, 22-year-old Morgan Reilly and 20-year-old William Nylander, plus free-agent acquisition Frederik Andersen in net. Toronto’s woes would be cured by the collective.

There seems to be something similar happening in Detroit. The Red Wings’ trajectory is pointing up for the first time in several years. That owes to the progress this season of several individuals, progress that’s crucial to sustain, even if 11.5 percent craters to…9.5.

"There is that feeling where we’re building toward something," Dylan Larkin told 97.1 The Ticket. "We’re in games, whereas last year I felt we didn’t really have a chance or we didn't have any pushback in games, and this year we seem to come out and play really well and we’re in tight games.

"I think once we find that maturity in our game to find a way to win one-goal games or find a way to put teams away late in games, we’re just going to be a great team. In this time here, especially with all the young guys we have, it’s just going to help when we’re in a playoff series and we’re down and we need to come back (to know that) we’ve been through it before."

That’s a good point, straight from Detroit’s captain in waiting. Enough with the “bad” ones.