What a season for the Detroit Red Wings, putting up probably their most improbable run into the post season in their last 23 years. Adversity was in no short supply this year, making a run into the post season extremely difficult and prompting fans to wonder if the longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances in pro sports (22) might finally come to an end this year. Injuries were the main issue at hand for the Wings this season, with the team having lost over 400 man games to injury, placing them at the top of the league in this category. No team came close to the Wings in terms of having to deal with injuries this season. Due to this, the Wings were forced into a massive youth movement, dressing and incredible 9 different rookies, Alexy Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet, Landon Ferraro, Teemu Pulkkinen, Mitch Callahan, Adam Almquist, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan. Truly remarkable, especially for a team that likes to, in the words of GM Ken Holland, “over ripen” their prospects in the minor leagues.
The last time the Wings hadn’t competed in a playoff run was in 1990 and this resilient squad got better and better down the stretch and began to believe. The immense breakout of rookies, Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar immensely aided the process towards the end of the season with clutch plays by the two when it mattered. So many different parts interconnected to keep this improbable run alive, and now we will take a look at 10 crucial elements that aided this team in making the playoffs once again this season. Enjoy!
10. “The Monster” Stepping Up
One underlooked factor in this improbable run has been the play of backup goalie, Jonas Gustavsson. When Jimmy Howard went down due to injury, the monster offered the Wings an opportunity to win every night, making some timely saves down the stretch. In 25 starts this season, Jonas managed to win 16 of those games along with only 5 regulation loses. The monster additionally put up career numbers in goals against, as well as save percentage. Gustavsson’s play over the season was a very undervalued reason for the Wings picking up points when injuries began piling up; the monster gave the Wings a chance to win in many games. His contributions were certainly a key point in this injury-filled year for the Red Wings.
9. Howard Stepping Up When it Matters
The Red Wings goaltender will be the first one to admit he has not had his finest season. Howard’s numbers have been rather average in comparison to seasons past. One crucial factor the Wings relied heavily on Jimmy for towards the end of the season was stability in net. When it mattered, Howie delivered for the Wings and stole games, particularly against conference powerhouse teams such as the Penguins and Bruins. After a disappointing start, Howard went on a run towards the end of the season winning 7 of 10 starts along with 4 in a row. At an extremely crucial time, Howard stepped up his game big time and salvaged a tough season for not only himself, but his team as well.
8. Zetterberg Carrying the Team in the First Half of the Season
While players were going down on a nightly basis during the first half of the season, one thing that stayed consistent was the play of captain Henrik Zetterberg. The guy literally put the team on his back while injuries piled up and new young faces constantly entered the locker room. Zetterberg was the heart and soul of this team during the first half of the season, not only with his play on the ice (he’s still close to the top of the team in every offensive category despite playing only half the year) but as well as off the ice, mentoring the youth on how to be a pro every day. The captain’s contributions cannot be forgotten, without his dominant play early on in the year, the Wings could have kissed their playoff hopes goodbye rather quickly.
7. Adding Legwand at the Deadline
The Red Wings GM, Ken Holland knew making a move at the deadline was crucial in order to give his team a chance to continue their improbable run. A huge need for the Wings at the time was a reliable centerman. Johan Franzen filled in as the top line center, despite being a natural winger; the Wings management group knew a reliable center was key if the Wings were to survive. Holland filled this need within minutes of the deadline, ending by adding veteran center and hometown boy, David Legwand from the Nashville Predators. The former 2nd overall pick from Detroit Michigan offered the Wings exactly what they needed, a veteran center that can play with and without the puck. Legwand adjusted nicely and allowed the “Mule” to play his natural wing. David was a huge boost to the Wings playoff chances.
6. The Walk-On Luke Glendening
If one year ago someone would have gone up to this hometown boy and told him he’d be playing for the Red Wings, he would have probably laughed. Luke was signed by the Wings’ AHL affiliate in the 12-13 season, as pretty much a walk-on. A year later he is playing a crucial part in the Wings push to the postseason. The 24-year-old has embraced his role as an essential checking line center for the Wings, playing in crucial penalty kill situations and as well late in games. Wings coach, Mike Babcock called Luke one of the most competitive players he has ever coached, and that’s certainly saying a lot when you think about all the players Babcock has coached throughout the years. Luke won’t put up flashy numbers, but what you can expect from him is constant agitation and competing to win every night. Glendening was rewarded for his fine play this season with a new three-year contract extension.Truly a great underdog story for this player.
5. Youth Beginning to Shine at the Back
Each game, the Red Wings defense seems to get more and more comfortable, particularly with youngsters Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith. After having struggled a little early on in the season, Brendan’s game has improved immensely, providing a great defending game and creating danger up the ice. Smith’s improved game throughout the year has been evident through his ice time, as he seems to be logging more and more every night. DeKeyser as well has enjoyed a more prominent role at the back, playing in all situations, from the penalty kill to the power play. Towards the end of the season, aside from Nick Kronwall, no player averaged more ice time than Dan DeKeyser. The 24-year-old is looking to be a mainstay at the back for the Wings for a very long time.
4. Kronwall’s Play
Niklas Kronwall, like the great Nick Lidstrom, goes about his business so quietly on a nightly basis. The Wings veteran has been the team’s backbone all year long, missing only 2 games the entire season. The guy has been a rock at the back end, playing against the opposition’s best, while logging more minutes than any other Red Wing every night as well. Kronwall’s veteran leadership has been crucial, especially his managing all the new faces that entered the wings line up this season. Nik’s play on the ice speaks for itself, as he leads the Wings with 48 points. Kronwall could become the first Red Wing defensemen to lead the team in points since Hall of Famer, Paul Coffey in the 94-95 season. Kronwall’s play was definitely crucial in this run towards the postseason.
3. The Kid Line
One of the most crucial factors of Detroit’s improbable run this season has been the emergence of the kid line, featuring Tomas Tatar (23), Riley Sheahan (22) and Tomas Jurco (21). These kids, as did the Red Wings, got better and better every game and began to receive more and more responsibilities throughout the season, being relied on to score in crucial times. Every night the kids gave the Wings a big boost with their up-tempo style and burning speed. How fitting it was that this line scored the game-tying goal against the Penguins, to earn the point that would clinch the Wings’ 23rd straight playoff appearance. At such a young age Tomas Tatar is already beginning to blossom as a stud, winning the MVP in his team’s Griffins Calder Trophy victory last season. Tatar has been crucial in giving the Wings a chance to win every night, along with his two line mates who as well were a part of that championship Calder Cup team last year. What a year for the kids in Detroit.
2. Nyquist Breaking Out
No player broke out more so this season in Motown, than the speedy Swede Gus Nyquist. Nyquist carried the team on his shoulders in the second half of the season, scoring goal after goal on an almost nightly basis, as well as scoring at crucial times, leading the Wings with 6 game-winning goals on the season. Not too bad for a player who started the season in the AHL and was not able to be called up because of cap constraints. Are the Wings ever happy they got to finally call him up after he played 15 games in Grand Rapids. Gus led the way offensively for Detroit, scoring 28 goals in only 55 games, the closest to him is another young gun Tomas Tatar with 19 goals. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, Nyquist also got it done defensively, leading the team in plus-minus amongst active players on the team. A dream start to what looks like a promising career for Gus Nyquist, one of the biggest storylines in Detroit this season.
1. Babcock’s Coaching
Red Wing fans will be the first ones to tell you, none of this would have happened if not for the outstanding coaching of Mike Babcock. The Wings bench boss could have easily packed it in when his 2 franchise players Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg went down to injury, but he decided not to. Instead he got his team to believe in his system and more importantly, believe they were good enough to compete with any team on any given night, despite their youth and injuries in the line up. Babcock never made any excuses and he executed as well as he could with what he had at his disposal. For Babcock, his main concern was opportunity; opportunity for someone new to step in and make a difference, and this is exactly what happened with so many fresh new faces this season. The team bought into what Babcock was selling. Mike believed in this team all year long and still believes heading into the postseason that his team will be “a tough out” for any opponent. Perhaps, we have seen Mike Babcock coach his best year ever, winning a Gold Medal in Sochi, playing a defensive minded system and bringing his depleted Red Wings back into the playoffs for a 23rd straight year. Not to bad, I’d say. When asked about how it has been, coaching all these young players this season, he responded in typical Babcock fashion, “I’ve never had this much fun in my career.”