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January 9th, 2018

 

The envelope please: Here’s five can’t-miss

predictions for Red Wings in the second half

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Ask most Red Wings fans before the season began how they would feel if their team was within five points of Chicago in the overall standings – and just six behind two-time defending champion Pittsburgh – at the halfway mark of the season, and most would admit to feeling pretty good about their team’s chances.

 

Then mention that at the same point in the standings, they’d be 19 points behind the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, and those same fans might well choke on their pizza.

 

But that’s exactly where the Wings stand after 41 of the 82 games of the inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena: Mired in mediocrity at 17-17-7, for 41 points. Which after last season’s profoundly disappointing finish is actually a step up – albeit a very small one. After 41 games last season, they were 17-18-6, for 40 points.

 

But a one-point improvement is a lot better than what’s happening with some other of Detroit’s longstanding rivals. Consider Chicago; Like Detroit, if the Stanley Cup playoffs began after 41 games, the Blackhawks would be among the playoff wallflowers. And the Penguins needed an overtime victory Sunday for the point that enabled them to claim the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Their hold on it is tenuous at best.

 

Conversely, in easily the best storyline of the 2017-18 season, Vegas ranks second overall among the 31 NHL teams with 60 points, just three behind league-leading Tampa Bay, which has a game in hand. In other words, at the halfway point of the season, the Golden Knights are a virtual lock to make the playoffs in their maiden season.

 

That’s one prediction for the second half that I offer with some confidence. Here are a few more:

 

Andreas Athanasiou will continue to drive his coaches and teammates batty.

            For sure, all those breakaways with that lightning speed can electrify the crowd and change a game. But at what cost? Athanasiou’s ice time has been an issue since the Wings brought him up from Grand Rapids a few years ago.

Ice time is earned on the basis of talent and trust. And just when he established himself as someone who should rank among the team leaders in ice time, with linemate Dylan Larkin, he pulls something like he did Sunday against Tampa Bay.

The Wings were trailing 1-0 and battling for the puck along the sideboards in their own zone. Confident that his teammates would win possession, he turned up ice. They didn’t, and he was at the blue line when Tyler Johnson – Athanasiou’s responsibility – skated to the left corner of the crease for a shot that beat Petr Mrazek. That gave the best team in the NHL a 2-0 lead that felt insurmountable, even with more than 45 minutes left to play. It was.

“Double A” is a fan favorite, to be sure, but only because many fans simply miss that kind of irresponsible play that irks coaches and teammates who understand that there simply is no margin for gross errors like that.

 

Gus Nyquist will finally actually earn that big paycheck.

            The 28-year-old Swedish winger is on the third year of a four-year deal that pays him $4.75 million a season, which makes him one of the most overpaid players in the game. In the first year of that deal, Nyquist produced just 17 goals, 10 fewer than his previous two seasons, among 43 points. Last season, he had just 12 goals among 48 points.

After 41 games this season, he already has 14 goals, though he has assisted on just eight others. For the size of his paycheck, Nyquist should be pushing 30 goals and 60 points, like he did in his first full NHL season, 2014-15, when he had 27-27—54.

 

The Wings will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

That’s something they haven’t done since 1983 when they drafted Steve Yzerman with the fourth overall pick. It’s taken a 7-5-2 run (which followed a seven-game winless streak) to pull the Wings within shouting distance of a playoff berth. That may provide the carrot needed to get them through another 41 games that will start feeling like Groundhog Day by the end of the month.

Seriously, if it takes 95 points to make the playoffs – like it did last season – the Wings will have to play 13 games over .500 the rest of the way, say 24-11-6.

Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

And that’s not the worst thing that could happen to them, especially if wind up near the bottom again and have an opportunity to draft one of the most dynamic young defensemen in recent history. The lower Detroit finishes in the standings, the better their odds to win the lottery for the first choice.

So less is more if you get my drift.

 

Detroit will be a seller at the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline.

            Mike Green is the Red Wings’ version of the Tigers’ J.D. Martinez: A lock to be traded for precisely the same reasons: He makes a lot of money, he’ll an unrestricted free-agent at season’s end, and he’ll command more than the Wings are willing to pay – even though, at 33 when the next season begins, he still has a lot of good hockey left.

            Also, he’s precisely the kind of defenseman that teams who believe they have a serious shot at winning it all in June covet. He can play a regular shift in any situation – and his righthand shot from the blue line can make a good power play great. Best of all, for the Wings, Green will bring the Wings a nice return in the trade market. Certainly, more than the Tigers got for Martinez.

            Goaltender Petr Mrazek, considering how poorly he’s playing in the little opportunity he’s had this season, will fetch next to nothing. The Wings couldn’t give him away last season, and his stock continues to decline.

One intriguing name starting to surface in rumors: Athanasiou. Why? For some of the reasons noted earlier. Also, he didn’t endear himself to the Wings’ brass and ownership when he went to Europe in a contract dispute to start the season.

 

 

The seat under coach Jeff Blashill – and GM Ken Holland, too – will stay warm.

            Deserved? Debatable in either case. Just when it looked like he’d lost his team, Blashill has gotten the Wings to play some of their best hockey in a couple of seasons. But this team reeks of inconsistency, and another drought approaching that 0-10-1 streak of a month or so ago will have the wolves howling for his job again.

            Truth is, though, Blashill has been asked to make chicken soup of chicken droppings with this team, which has featured erratic goaltending, one of the weakest defense corps in the NHL and a group of largely overpaid, underperforming forwards.

            And that is on Holland, who after 20 years at the helm is on the last year of his contract. However, his future is determined will tell us a lot about Chris Ilitch’s stewardship of this franchise. If Holland is kept on and continues to resist the same kind of necessary ground-up rebuild that the Tigers are undergoing, it could be that many more years before the Wings rise to prominence again.

 

-30-

 

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