The Nine Year Itch?

The NHL has a way of sugarcoating a team’s record.

Thanks to its doling out of points to teams that lose, you’re left with some deceiving metrics.

Take the Red Wings. Please.

They are 9-6-7, which looks like they’re three games over .500. But looks, as we have mentioned, can be deceiving when you’re talking about the NHL’s funny math.

The Red Wings have played 22 games, and won nine. There—that’s bottom line talk.

The NHL’s way of record keeping means that 9-6-7 is a nice way of saying you’re 9-13. The only difference is that on seven occasions, it took you five minutes and some change longer to lose.

Yes, the league gives teams a point for losses in overtime/shootouts, but that’s hardly something on which to hang your hat.

The Red Wings have lost seven straight games, albeit in a crooked line sort of way. You can try the league’s sugarcoating and call it a “winless” streak, if that helps you sleep at night. But the truth is, the Red Wings have lost seven in a row. Let’s be honest here.

It’s a tight bunch right now—squeezing the sticks a little harder, making passes in a tentative nature, looking at each other in that “I thought you had that guy” sort of way, as the red light goes on behind Jimmy Howard once again.

They’re playing without confidence, having little fun on the ice. It’s like they’re behind 1-0 when they come out of the tunnel.

I’ve watched the Red Wings since 1970, so I remember when the hockey in Detroit was a nightly train wreck. The decade of the ’70s is something you’d like your mind’s eye to forget. And the 1985-86 season was hard on the eyes too.

So it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen a Red Wings team this unsure of themselves.

It’s time like these when we go to the captain for an answer to the question, “Hey, what’s with you guys?”

“I think we’re more like robots out there now,” Henrik Zetterberg told the curious media after last night’s 2-0 stinker against the Nashville Predators at the Joe. “We’re not being creative when we get our chances. We have to get back to playing the way we should. Go out and relax a bit and enjoy the moment. I think we’re not enjoying playing out there.”

OK, so that’s the diagnosis. But how to fix it, doctor?

The Red Wings aren’t getting their butts kicked. The losses haven’t been blowouts, though the 2-0 loss to Nashville was zombie-like.

“I thought we competed but we didn’t generate,” coach Mike Babcock said after the Preds game. “You’ve got to spend more time in the offensive zone.”

So the losses have been of the close-but-no-cigar variety. With seven OT/shootout losses in 22 matches, that means that about a third of the time, the Red Wings do just enough to lose the game. Yes, they get a point when that happens, but see what a 9-6-67 record will get you. That’s 85 points and likely far out of the playoff picture.

The Red Wings need a win in the worst way. It doesn’t matter right now how they get it. They’ll take a goal deposited by the opponents into their own net on a delayed penalty at this point, or the lights getting into the other goalie’s eyes. Anything.

I posed this question to Matt Hutter, Bleacher Report’s featured Red Wings columnist.

Are the Red Wings tuning Babcock out? This is Babs’ ninth year behind the Red Wings bench, after all. More than enough time for a message to get stale.

“That could be the case, to an extent,” Matt told me via Facebook.  “However, I think it’s the leaders of a team that are the barometer for a coach’s ‘freshness’. That is, if your leaders aren’t performing and buying into your system anymore, it’s probably time for a change. That isn’t the case as I see it. Z, Pav, Kronner…all seem to be on the Babs Bus.”

Good point.

Mike Babcock

But I can’t help but wonder if a coach who’s been at the same place for nine years, might not have some difficulty getting through on occasion.

The Red Wings haven’t made a coaching change mid-season since they fired Harry Neale on December 30, 1985 and replaced him with Brad Park, which was the equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

It’s not the team’s style to change coaches, period—and certainly not with the season going on. So if a change is to come, it likely wouldn’t occur until next summer, if at all.

I’m not suggesting that Babcock is the problem, per se. It might just take a couple of wins to right the ship. But when you’re at one place for almost a decade, and most of the key players have been there at least as long as you have and longer, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but it could breed tone deafness.

This is likely the most adversity Babcock has faced as Red Wings coach—certainly in the regular season, last spring’s mad dash to the playoffs notwithstanding, as it came during a truncated season.

You can say it’s early. You can say that at least the Red Wings were cobbling together some points during this period of lethargy. But the points are fool’s gold. The 2-0 loss to Nashville might have been the low point of the season thus far.

We’ll see, in the next couple of weeks, how Babcock and his players deal with this mess. The season could be riding on it.

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