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The Red Wings’ Empire Is Crumbling

On April Fools’ Day in 1990, the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers skated for the final game of the season at The Spectrum in south Philly. Captain Steve Yzerman banged home a goal late in the third period to earn the Wings a 3-3 tie, ending Detroit’s campaign with 70 points and a last-place finish in the Norris Division. Soon after, the 1989-90 Red Wings cleaned out their lockers and parted ways for the summer.

In the nearly 10,000 days since then, Detroit has played 2,035 regular-season games and employed 246 players. It’s gone through three captains, four general managers and six head coaches. But the one constant throughout the last 25 full seasons of Red Wings hockey has been extra action in the spring — and often deep into the summer. Detroit hasn’t missed the postseason since that April day in 1990, a mind-boggling run that beats any playoff streak outside of hockey1 and is tied for the third longest in NHL history. (That it has come partially during the NHL’s salary-cap era is especially impressive.)

But it could all come screeching to a halt this season. With a 22-21-10 record, Detroit currently occupies last place in the Atlantic Division, five points out of the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot with seven teams ahead of them. According to Hockey-Reference.com’s playoff simulator, the Red Wings have just a 7 percent probability of continuing their run for a 26th straight postseason. Every streak has to end eventually, but how did Detroit go wrong after so many years of success?

Perhaps the Red Wings’ most distinctive hallmark during their playoff streak has been a focus on puck possession. Even as teams won through superior playmaking and shooting talent in the 1980s and early ’90s, Detroit loaded up on ex-Soviet stars who’d been trained to take care of the puck. In doing so, the Red Wings anticipated the direction that the game would head in the future, building their dominant teams of the 1990s less on the premise of aiming pucks past the league’s rapidly improving goaltenders and more on the basis of simply controlling the flow of play. These days we measure that control through Corsi percentage, the share of even-strength shots a team directs at the opponent’s net (as opposed to vice-versa) after adjusting for score effects and other factors.2 Although we didn’t know it at the time, the Red Wings were dominating Corsi back when Corsi was just a guy, not a metric.

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No NHL team averaged a better Corsi than the Wings from 1991 to 2016, and the team even ranked fifth in the statistic as recently as two seasons ago. But the next generation has fumbled the torch on the handoff, and Detroit’s fabled possession machine has eroded badly in recent seasons as its stars have aged and departed.

Gone are such advanced-metric idols as Pavel Datsyuk, whose 58.1 percent on-ice Corsi3 ranked second among all NHL players from 2007-08 until his retirement from the NHL last summer, as well as Brian Rafalski (fifth), Tomas Holmstrom (10th), Mikael Samuelsson (14th) and Nicklas Lidstrom (19th). (Fifteenth-ranked Johan Franzen is also technically on the Red Wings’ long-term injured reserve list, but is unlikely to ever play again.) In the wake of that mass exodus, Detroit has fallen to an unheard-of 25th in the NHL in Corsi, according to PuckOn.net’s calculations. Only three players who have regularly skated for the Red Wings this season — forwards Anthony Mantha and Tomas Tatar, and recently waived defenseman Alexey Marchenko — have been on the ice for a Corsi greater than 50 percent (i.e., on the ice while Detroit possessed the puck more than the opponent). Even Henrik Zetterberg, normally one of the best possession-drivers in the game, has a mere 49.9 percent mark this season, with his relative Corsi, which measures how much he influences play relative to his teammates, dropping 12 percent from what it was during his best seasons.

Detroit’s decline isn’t just about a drop-off in possession rate. The Red Wings have bled talent up and down the ice for years, going back to their post-lockout high-water mark of 124 standings points in 2005-06. Here’s how their roster changed each season since then, according to incoming and outgoing goals versus threshold (GVT), a metric that estimates each player’s value over a hypothetical replacement player in terms of goals added per 82 games:

NET GVT ADDED VIA…
SEASON PREVIOUS GVT NEWCOMERS HOLDOVERS DEPARTURES SEASON GVT
2006 199.2 +32.6 +32.0 -45.7 218.1
2007 218.1 +22.7 -4.2 -58.2 178.4
2008 178.4 +22.1 +35.7 -35.8 200.4
2009 200.4 +28.3 -50.3 -3.8 174.6
2010 174.6 +15.9 -8.2 -46.9 135.4
2011 135.4 +8.5 +5.3 -3.8 145.4
2012 145.4 +9.7 +28.9 -12.2 171.8
2013 171.8 +5.9 -14.8 -25.1 137.8
2014 137.8 +10.2 -24.7 -8.3 114.9
2015 114.9 +3.8 +25.7 -3.8 140.6
2016 140.6 +22.9 -45.5 -8.7 109.3
2017 109.3 +15.1 -12.9 -22.7 88.8
Net change in goals versus threshold (GVT) for Detroit Red Wings

Abbreviated seasons prorated to 82 games.

Source: hockeyabstract.com, Hockey-Reference.com

Simply put, the talent coming in hasn’t been able to keep pace with the talent going out — and nowhere is Detroit’s drain more evident than on the blue line. The Red Wings used to be able to pencil in the likes of Lidstrom, Rafalski and Mathieu Schneider for 50 to 60 points a season, with significant contributions made in quarterbacking one of the league’s top power-play units. This year’s Wings, though, have the worst power play in the NHL and the league’s fourth-worst group of offensive defensemen, according to GVT. (Where have you gone, Paul Coffey?) Although some of their weak shooting percentage with the man advantage is bound to improve with better luck, Detroit’s D corps is contributing about half as much GVT as the team got from its defensemen during the playoff streak, with nearly two-thirds of the blueliners’ drop-off coming specifically on offense.

And it isn’t as though the rest of this season’s roster has picked up the slack. Goalie Petr Mrazek has been one of the worst in the league, and Detroit’s forwards have been mediocre at both ends of the rink. (They rank seventh-worst in offensive GVT and 10th-worst on defense.)

In the past, the Red Wings were able to phase in a few promising young forwards every time one of their veterans declined or left the club. When Yzerman’s point totals dipped in the mid-1990s as he focused more on checking, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Keith Primeau provided an offensive spark. When Yzerman, Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan left the club in the mid-2000s, Datsyuk and Zetterberg were there to carry the torch. But although Tatar, Mantha, Gustav Nyquist, Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou have all shown flashes of potential, none has emerged as a star on anything approaching the level of a Fedorov or Datsyuk.

Without those kinds of star turns, Detroit might be starting up a new playoff streak — one of the “drought” variety. Although there’s still plenty of time for the club’s recent draft picks to develop, the Red Wings as they’re currently constructed aren’t an especially young team — they have the NHL’s 12th-oldest roster — and they certainly aren’t a good one. The NHL is a league designed for parity, so Detroit’s record probably won’t stay outright bad for long, but it might also be awhile before we see the Wings restored to their former glory.

If so, it’s all the more reason to appreciate the playoff dynasty Detroit built over the past 26 years. Thanks to shrewd drafting, trades, player development and a forward-looking vision of the game, the Red Wings built one of the best teams in hockey year in and year out for two and a half decades. For a whole generation of Motor City fans, greatness on the ice is all they’ve ever known. It’s a remarkable legacy, even if, like every great empire, it eventually collapsed.

CLARIFICATION (Feb. 9, 2:34 p.m.): Since this article was originally published, a sentence has been rephrased to reflect the fact that Alexey Marchenko is no longer on the Red Wings’ roster, though he did have a Corsi greater than 50 percent during his time as a regular skater for the team this season.

Footnotes

  1. The longest playoff streak for an NBA team is 22 seasons, by the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1950 to 1971. The longest for MLB is 14 seasons, by the 1991-2005 Atlanta Braves. The longest for the NFL is nine seasons, by the 1975-83 Dallas Cowboys and 2002-10 Indianapolis Colts.

  2. For seasons after 1986-87 and before 2005-06, this number can be estimated using a team’s shots for and against, its power-play and shorthanded chances, its record and its goal differential.

  3. At 5-on-5, adjusted for score effects and zone starts.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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