By: Will Burchfield
Theories vary as to why the Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years this season, but Frans Nielsen thinks the team lacked the required toughness.
“I think, for the most part, some nights we basically got outworked,” Nielsen said. “And that can’t happen in this league. You have to show up every night.”
Nielsen, a nine-year vet and Detroit’s lone All-Star this season, has a good grasp on what it takes to win in the NHL. By his estimation, the Red Wings weren’t long enough on grit.
“One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not going to be pretty every night — sometimes you have to dive headfirst in front of a shot. It’s gonna hurt to win, and some nights we just didn’t pay the price,” said Nielsen.
The Red Wings have a number of small, skill-minded forwards and are prone to playing an overly fancy game. Nielsen bemoaned their inability to adopt a different style of play this season when the situation called for it.
“We just couldn’t get away from that skill game, and when it was off everything was just going wrong,” he said. “We gotta learn how to win when we don’t have a good night, how to grind it out and do it the hard way.”
Nielsen doesn’t doubt the team’s skill level. Nor does he think the system is flawed.
“We just gotta bring a little more mean attitude and play harder and do it a little more simple sometimes. Those are my takeaways from the year,” he explained. “I know they always had a tradition of playing nice hockey here with a lot of skill guys, but I think we gotta learn how to play the other side of it, too.
“You can’t skill your way through this league today. It’s too hard.”
(Ironically, former Red Wing Tomas Jurco said the team’s style of play was too simple after being traded to the Blackhawks. And some fans would likely agree.)
Over the course of the season, Nielsen felt the Wings stiffened up. He pointed to Dylan Larkin as someone who was “competing every night and working his butt off in the last half of the year.” And he thinks the team slowly embraced Jeff Blashill’s blue-collar philosophy.
“I think Blash did a really good job of it coming in, starting to enforce a little bit more simple style of play, getting pucks in behind their defensemen and trying to bang them more, but I think it took a little time for guys to adjust and buy into it. When he came in and talked, he said the right things, but we gotta buy into it in the room,” Nielsen said. “It basically comes down to us players, if we’re prepared to pay the price that it takes to win today.”
After signing a six-year, $31.5 million contract with the Wings last summer, Nielsen entered the season with high expectations. Those expectations were shattered, he said, when the team missed the playoffs.
“It’s been disappointing, absolutely. But there’s some really, really good pieces in here, so it’s not like I think we’re going to come back after the summer and go through this again,” Nielsen said. “I really believe this group can do something, we just have to learn from this and figure it out.”