Say what you want about the 2017-18 Detroit Red Wings, but a large percentage of what made them any good at all flowed through Henrik Zetterberg.
Even at age 37, Zetterberg was excellent, finishing second on the team in points with 56, taking the hard assignments at 5-on-5, and helping Anthony Mantha and Gus Nyquist post scoring numbers that qualify as “respectable.” In the latter case, that’s probably not what you want at the price point, but in the former, hey, he’s a 23-year-old in his second full NHL season, so that’s pretty good.
The problem for the Red Wings now, though, is that it appears Zetterberg is not going to play this year (which probably spells the end of his playing career, at least in North America). Which creates a bit of a logistical nightmare for Detroit heading into 2018-19.
One thing Zetterberg did last year was get a lot the hard minutes against top defensemen from other teams, which freed up Dylan Larkin — he of the mammoth new contract and big production last season — to take on a lot of second-pair defensemen (the Brandon Carlos and Nikita Zaitsevs of the world). Even as Larkin, like most Wings players, started more of his shifts in his own end one wonders how much the loss of a safety blanket will affect him, because it’s not like the Wings have any other meaningfully difference-making centers on the roster.
Ballparking it here a little bit, that bumps Frans Nielsen up to the No. 2 slot, and maybe you argue he’s going to take on the top competition if Jeff Blashill gets the chance to hard-match. But even still, it’s worth noting that when Zetterberg was on the ice this season, the Red Wings outscored their opponents by 25, and when he was off the ice, they got outscored by 65. And that’s with Larkin having his, ahem, breakout season.
Moreover, Zetterberg was on the ice for 78 of Detroit’s 212 goals for — nearly 37 percent — and if you can see Nielsen, Glendening or, I don’t know, Darren Helm driving offense like that, well I have a brand new arena funded with public money to sell you. Which is, I guess, the problem. This team doesn’t seem like it has four NHL centers without Zetterberg, and you were already stretching that definition when he was healthy.
The Red Wings scored just 134 goals in about 3,385 minutes without Zetterberg last season (just 2.38 per hour of hockey, all situations, though they had a below-average shooting percentage even for a few of their top players). To put that number into perspective, that’s about the same as what the 2009-10 Edmonton Oilers posted when they won 27 games and finished with the worst record in the league.
I don’t think anyone was ever under the illusion that the Wings were going to be any good at all this year, even with Zetterberg, but this team now, officially could be troublingly difficult to watch. We can expect some more young talent to come into the lineup, sure, with Filip Zadina (not a center) and Michael Rasmussen more or less guaranteed slots in the lineup, but if you’re counting on Rasmussen to take shifts in the middle of the ice as a rookie, with this kind of support around him, it’s not farfetched to imagine him being eaten alive. Could Yevgeni Svetchnikov, who has barely sniffed the big club’s roster last year and didn’t look all that good when he did, become a legitimate full-time NHLer? Only due to lack of better options.
The situation on the wing is better, but not by that much. Zadina, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Thomas Vanek seem like legit middle-six NHL talents right now, at the very least, but can Nyquist and Mantha (who were Zetterberg’s most common linemates at 5-on-5, despite both being right wings) score at the same rates they did with Larkin or Nielsen? If they draw the Larkin assignment, then sure, it’s a possibility.
Mantha got a big chunk of his scoring in last season with Larkin on the ice and one assumes they’d remain together in Zetterberg’s absence. Put them with Athanasiou, who can also fly, and that’s your scoring line. Such as it is.
But then you’re in the weeds. With whom do you saddle Zadina? A guy with his skill level can probably score okay regardless, but while Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek don’t seem like ideal linemates given that skillset, you maybe don’t have better options.
After that, the third and fourth lines can more or less sort themselves out because they’re going to be trainwrecks, full stop. Any combination of Tyler Bertuzzi, Glendening, Helm, Nyquist, Abdelkader, Rasmussen, maybe Martin Frk or Yevgeny Svechnikov is an expensive and poor bottom-six in the NHL. While those players individually bring stuff to the table (Nyquist can score a bit, etc.), collectively they’re a mess.
And of course it all fronts an old and probably worsening defense. The youngest returning player on the blue line is — I’m not making this up — 28-year-old Nick Jensen, who even Blashill couldn’t pick out of a lineup and is only about six months younger than $5 million, sub-20-point Danny DeKeyser. Nik Kronwall is 37, Trevor Daley 35 on Oct. 9, Jonathan Ericsson 34, and Mike Green 33 on Oct. 12. Maybe a kid can weasel his way into that top-six, but also: Probably not! Which says a lot more about the prospects this club has anywhere close to NHL-ready than it does about the quality of the defense itself.
In net, well, you take your pick between Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier because I can’t imagine either one being some sort of difference-maker. If they get league-average goaltending as a group next season, I feel like it’ll be a minor miracle.
Again, I think everyone with even a passing understanding of the NHL had this club at the bottom of the league or pretty damn close to it. And given that there seems to finally be an understanding that this is a roster which should have been blown up a while ago, that’s the entire point.
Zetterberg’s inability to play next season not only assures they’re going to be bad, but that they could be near-historically terrible. This is the cost of drafting both late and poorly for much of the 2010s, as well as trading away picks on a regular basis in pursuit of keeping The Streak going.
Maybe at the end of the season, even without a Conference Final appearance since in the past decade, Wings fans would say it was all worth it to be constantly mentioned as one of hockey’s top franchises. But I’m willing to bet memories of a 100-point season in 2014-15 won’t be too front of mind during yet another Tuesday night blowout loss to Nashville in mid-February.
Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.