This is not a season of high expectations for the Detroit Red Wings. But it is, still, a season of high optimism. After five straight years in an unfamiliar spot out from the playoffs, one of the NHL’s cornerstone franchises has finally started to reap the benefit of tanking: exciting young players with high ceilings actually playing for the team. In Detroit’s first game of the 2021–22 season, each of the first two first-round picks from GM Steve Yzerman’s era in the front office—2019’s Moritz Seider and 2020’s Lucas Raymond—made their official NHL debuts. And just seven games into the year, as the Wings sit comfortably with a record of 4-2-1, the results have been nothing less than spectacularly unexpected.
Wednesday night’s 3-2 comeback win over the Caps on the road was a good one, punctuated with an overtime goal produced by the three most crucial men in Detroit’s future. Seider held the puck on the neutral zone and attempted a pass to Dylan Larkin at the blue line. Larkin stumbled and lost possession, but the puck was nabbed by Raymond. Lucas retreated, turned around, and then confidently sped his way back towards the Washington net. He passed to Larkin on his left, and Detroit’s captain aimed and fired towards the far side of the net. In a blink, the Red Wings had their third goal in a row and two points from the night.
The 25-year-old Larkin has been The Guy on this franchise ever since his promising rookie year as a teenager in 2015–16, but despite what’s been desperately needed by his team he’s generally played more to the level of a complement to a superstar (who hasn’t existed) than a true No. 1. In this season, however, he’s enjoyed a hot start with that new “C” on his jersey. Aside from the OT winner—easily the most consequential of his three goals through his first six—Larkin has also piled up the assists on what’s been a stellar top line for the Red Wings. He’s got five on the year so far, including three of them in Detroit’s win over Chicago on Sunday.
On three different occasions, the goal-scoring beneficiary of those assists has been the teenager Raymond, who’s getting top line minutes right out of the gate and has lived up to the role magnificently. Heading into the year, it wasn’t even initially clear if the fast, playmaking two-way winger would even start the season in the big show, but he’s immediately made himself indispensable with four goals and four assists, including a freaking hat trick in that Chicago game. The only other Detroiters to get four points in a game as a teen? Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman.
The early-season rookie stats show that the Calder Trophy could very well come down to Raymond vs. Seider, who’s at the top of the leaderboard for assists with six. Though only a year older, Seider has had a longer runway for hype since being picked by Yzerman, as his stellar play in the Swedish league earned him defenseman of the year honors and served suffering Wings fans with loads of mouth-watering highlights from overseas. He too has not disappointed at either end of the ice as an NHL rookie. At 153 minutes, he’s earned more playing time than any skater on the Wings this year—a reflection of a mature ability to contribute in all situations, offensive or defensive, and also of coach Jeff Blashill’s philosophy that his kids will benefit from being thrown into the deep end.
“I don’t want Seids to be a good player, I want him to be a great player,” Blashill said last week. “And we’re going to push him to try to become a great player.”
And though the two Red Wings rookies might be competing for year-end awards, there appears to be nothing but good vibes between them. I am personally and professionally obligated, in talking about both Luke and Mo, to include this video of them clapping in unison.
The elephant in the room, however, is Tyler Bertuzzi, Detroit’s other top-line winger. From a purely statistical standpoint, the 26-year-old with the long hair and the gap in his teeth has been brilliant, carrying the Wings to a point on opening night against the defending champs by scoring four goals and adding five other points across five other games. The Wings, though, have played seven games, and the reason why Bertuzzi couldn’t make the trip to Montreal is that he is the only active NHLer who refuses to get vaccinated against COVID, making him unable to travel across the Canadian border. As part of a team that plays nine games up north this year, it’s a petty and selfish choice for Bertuzzi to make. And as a resident of a state where over 23,500 people have been killed by the virus, it’s something much worse.
That is, really, the one frustrating black mark on what has otherwise been a wonderful beginning to the Red Wings’ season. When last season’s big trade acquisition, Jakub Vrana, went down for months because of a shoulder injury suffered in preseason, I braced myself for another miserable year like the several before it. But while Vrana’s injury served as a reminder that a rebuild is messy, unpredictable business, the performances of Raymond and Seider have helped suggest that Detroit, finally, has made some progress on it.
This is not to say that the Red Wings have suddenly found themselves with a Cup contender. But they do indeed have specific units that are working extraordinary well. The Raymond/Larkin/Bertuzzi trio, per Natural Stat Trick, has led to the Wings outchancing opponents 29-14 in the 45 minutes they’ve been on the ice at even strength together, compared to an 81-104 scoring chance deficit without any of them. Similarly, the D pairing of Seider and veteran new arrival Nick Leddy holds a 28-19 advantage in that category while on the ice in nearly 70 minutes of even-strength action, vs. a 62-73 disadvantage when they’re both off.
The Wings are going to need to play well for at least another month before the conclusions can get bolder, but what they’ve given fans in this small sample size feels like more than enough for now. In the past three years, it’s taken the Red Wings a minimum of 13 games to reach a mere four wins, and last year it took 16! This time around, they got there in seven. Yes, of course, there are still 75 more to go. But finally, with Raymond and Seider actually wearing the uniforms, that dream of future success feels just a bit closer.