“Hopefully, I can get some points,” rookie defenseman Dennis Cholowski said, smiling.
Points on the credit card help. So do points in the standings. The Red Wings are 8-2-0 in their past 10 games and have the best record in the NHL since Oct. 27. Quite a difference from their first 10 games, when they were 1-7-2 and last in the League.
The Red Wings are still closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, 22nd in point percentage (.500), and play the Boston Bruins at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D+, NESN, NHL.TV). They’re 0-4-3 in their last seven and 2-10-5 in their last 17 against them.
But Detroit is about where it should be through a quarter of the season, and the start has reinforced the philosophy behind the rebuild: mixing veterans with younger players, trying to be as competitive as possible for short-term success and long-term development.
The Red Wings went 30-39-13 for 73 points last season, 13th in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the NHL. In September, center Dylan Larkin said, “There’s no reason why we can’t be an 80-point-plus team and right there fighting for a playoff spot.” With 20 points in 20 games, Detroit is on pace for 82 points and in the mix, at least, in the jam-packed East.
During their 1-7-2 start, the Red Wings played a hard schedule, losing to the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets, with a decimated defense.
Detroit was down 2,657 games of NHL experience on defense to open the season. Niklas Kronwall (983 games in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs), Mike Green (863), Jonathan Ericsson (686) and Nick Jensen (130) were out; Joe Hicketts (five), Cholowski (zero), Filip Hronek (zero) and Libor Sulak (zero) were in.
Jensen missed one game. Kronwall missed the first three games, Ericsson the first seven, Green the first nine. Trevor Daley, a veteran of 1,045 NHL games in the regular season and playoffs, was injured early in the third game and missed the next four games. Danny DeKeyser, a veteran of 405 NHL games in the regular season and playoffs, was injured early in the fifth game and missed the next eight games.
Those calling for the Red Wings to “play the kids” got their wish. Cholowski was a bright spot, but the other young defensemen were not ready to make an impact at the NHL level, at least not all at once. The team lacked confidence as a whole. Problems snowballed.
“When we had all those guys out at the same time, it put so much pressure on each one of those four young guys that were in, because they look over and they see another guy that’s a first-year guy, another guy that’s not played very much,” coach Jeff Blashill said.
During their 8-2-0 run, the Red Wings have had an easier schedule and a replenished defense. Directly, the veteran defensemen have helped Cholowski, who has been able to pair with a veteran, emulate Green and listen to pointers from Kronwall. Indirectly, they have helped everyone else too.
Detroit has gone from scoring 2.1 goals and allowing 4.0 goals per game to scoring 3.4 and allowing 2.4. Goaltender Jimmy Howard is 5-1-0 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in this stretch. Backup Jonathan Bernier is 3-1-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .933 save percentage.
“When good players like that come back in your lineup, you’re a little bit better team,” Blashill said, pinching his forefinger an inch from his thumb. “And it might just be a little bit better. But that might be the difference.”
The Red Wings have come back from trailing by two goals to win four times in the past six games. It’s bad that they are playing from behind too often. It’s good that they aren’t letting problems snowball and are gaining confidence that they can win. That’s the environment management wants for the development of the younger players, and that development is what’s most important in the big picture.
Larkin, 22, leads Detroit with 12 points (four points, eight assists) the past 10 games and 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 20 games this season. Forwards Anthony Mantha, 24, and Michael Rasmussen, 19, lead the Red Wings with five goals each in this stretch. Mantha had one goal in the first 10 games. Rasmussen, a rookie learning to use his 6-foot-6 frame at the NHL level, had none.
Forward Tyler Bertuzzi, 23, has 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 20 games. Forward Andreas Athanasiou, 24, has 12 (seven goals, five assists) in 16. Cholowski, 20, has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 18, not to mention what he earned on his credit card at the team dinner.
“It was pretty expensive,” Cholowski said. “But hey, it was a fun night, and we all had a fun time.”