They tried really hard. That’s really the best thing you can say about the Red Wings’ relatively close but still inevitable 3-1 loss to the Lightning on Thursday night. The Wings hung with the Bolts throughout the whole game, but eventually found themselves outdone by just a top-notch performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy and a wide-open Steven Stamkos game-winner. It was one of Detroit’s better nights so far this year, honestly, but I guess it’s not too hard to earn that faint praise when you’ve played as poorly as the Red Wings have to start the season.
Detroit is winless in its opening seven with two points, and around the league only the Florida Panthers—who’ve played three fewer games—also have that zero in the win column. But before you think the Panthers and Red Wings are in any way equal: Florida has a respectable goal difference of -4, while Detroit is twice as bad as anyone else with their despicable -18. Detroit was once the destination team every ring-chasing veteran aspired to play for. Now, the local paper has been reduced to writing about how the Red Wings look too sad after they allow goals. I can’t even call them a trainwreck, because trainwrecks are shocking and unpredictable.
Everyone on this roster is either too young or too old. In the latter category, there’s guys like pointless offseason acquisition Thomas Vanek, spiraling money-eater Frans Nielsen, and local kid Justin Abdelkader, who’ll be on the Red Wings’ payroll for the rest of eternity because he was technically around when they last won the Cup. (Darren Helm is another recent beneficiary of Ken Holland’s infamously deranged loyalty to veterans.) Most horrifically, 34-year-old Jimmy Howard is still a regular starter in net even though everyone thought he was crab meat two years ago, because every Detroit attempt to hit on a fresh young replacement has whiffed.
Here is everything good about the Red Wings right now: Tyler Bertuzzi’s hair; Dylan Larkin’s passing; Andreas Athanasiou’s speed; the promising play of rookie defensemen Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski in a microscopic sample size; and, arguably, Anthony Mantha’s scoring ability, even though the kid’s only found the back of the net once so far this year. Throw in the 18-year-old minor-leaguer Filip Zadina—whom I’ve become more and more desperately hopeful about as the Red Wings’ season starts to look even worse than feared—and maybe, just maybe, this team could scrape its way back to 30 wins and stay above at least one of the other butt teams in the division. That’s a best-case scenario.
I would never, ever advocate purposeful losing—it’s a massive insult to anyone who invests time and money in this team—but for real, the Red Wings’ best and most promising player right now is probably Jack Hughes, the freakishly dominant American teen who’s already almost a lock to go number one in next year’s draft. As good as Larkin is as a playmaker, and as good as Mantha might be as a goal-scorer (we’re kidding ourselves if we think the defensively challenged youngster Athanasiou is anything much above average), the Wings still need several more pieces to become competitive, and a fully realized Hughes would provide almost all of them. This season is going to be hell—and with Detroit’s depleted core of blue-liners there should be at least a few more 8-2 defeats on the horizon—but Hughes would be a worthy reward for a year of suffering. Until then, man I just really would like to see the Wings at least beat the Panthers on Saturday.