Why should we believe in the Detroit Red Wings?
Greg Wyshynski: As the poster in Fox Mulder's office read: "I Want To Believe." I want to believe while watching the Red Wings (9-8-2) that we're watching a burgeoning star in 23-year-old Anthony Mantha, who has more than half the points (19) that he scored last season (36) in 41 fewer games. I want to believe that Dylan Larkin is having the rebound season we hoped for him. I want to believe that Henrik Zetterberg gets one more run. And that Jimmy Howard is as good as that .930 save percentage.
Alas, I can't. They're better than expected, fun to watch and at the very least have momentarily quieted the talk about coach Jeff Blashill's job security. But they're a slightly-below-average possession team, a little leaky defensively and I don't expect Mantha to finish the season with a 20.4 shooting percentage. If nothing else, they've offered hope for the future, which is great, because they might still be mired in salary-cap hell in 2018-19, with Larkin and Mantha both coming off entry-level deals.
Emily Kaplan: This week, I spent time with Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz for a larger project I'm working on. We began talking about the challenges of sustaining success, and Wirtz said this: "I always looked at Detroit, the 25 years straight they were in the playoffs. That is the hardest thing: consistency. Because that's the ebb and flow of sports, you draft low when you win and you draft high when you lose." Consistency, we agreed, can be achieved through stability. It's about resisting knee-jerk reactions when there's a small blip in the plan. It's about trusting the culture you built. I believe in the culture Detroit has built over the last three decades. I believe that system has staying power, even given its current state.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland has been on the job since 1997. He's the second-longest tenured GM in the league (but, it should be noted, Nashville's David Poile beats him by a mere nine days). Mike Babcock (10 seasons as coach) and Pavel Datsyuk (14 seasons) have moved on from Detroit. Last season, it seemed like the Red Wings stumbled without Datsyuk's leadership.
As Wirtz noted, Detroit found itself without elite homegrown talent after picking at the bottom of the first round for so long. In the hard-cap era, teams rely so much on the draft. Even with some late-round gems, the Red Wings just don't have the talent to compete with the NHL upper class -- immediately, that is.
I'm encouraged by the resurgence of Larkin and also very intrigued by the potential of Andreas Athanasiou. If the Red Wings end up stinking again this season, they might be just one or two elite picks away from competing again. They just need to plug in the right guys, because the framework for success has already been built. And I'm hopeful ownership don't impulsively knock it down.
Chris Peters: I don't know that I believe in the Red Wings as being much more than a team that will finish in the lower middle of the pack. I do think, however, that fans in Hockeytown have reason to be excited about Larkin's resurgent season and Mantha's breakout scoring.
These are supposed to be the guys Detroit leans on long-term based on its draft status and the glimpses they've shown so far in their brief professional careers. Wings fans have had to wait to see Mantha show the scoring prowess that made him a star in the junior ranks, but with a pair against Calgary and 10 on the season, he appears headed for a big season. Meanwhile, after Larkin took a step back in his sophomore season after a strong rookie year, he appears to have righted the ship. Mantha is up to 19 points and Larkin is at 18 after each recorded three points against the Flames.
What matters most at this point is whether or not GM Ken Holland believes in these Red Wings and how he wants to play out the rest of the season. Looking at Detroit's roster and its long-term salary-cap outlook, I don't think the Red Wings should be looking for short-term pieces for the sake of contending now. Be happy about the improved play and get excited about the young players playing this well, but keep the focus on long-term improvement.