By: Will Burchfield
Henrik Zetterberg is always disappointed after a Red Wings loss, sometimes disgruntled. He’s very rarely disgusted, which made his interview following Detroit’s 4-0 loss to the Golden Knights on Thursday night an unwelcome anomaly.
“We can’t play like that if we want to win games,” Zetterberg said. “There’s too much poke-and-hope by a lot of players. If you want to be a solid, good player in this league and if you want to win something, you have to learn to play the right way. Poke-and-hope might get you 25, 30 goals, but you’ll never win anything.”
The Red Wings were outshot and out-chanced by the Golden Knights, in large part because a host of young players were cheating for offense, Zetterberg said.
“You have to play through your defense first. If you do that, we have guys in here who have enough skill to create enough chances. You can’t force and gamble all the time. You have to do it right, and eventually you’ll get chances. It’s not often you get chances when you cheat. Sometimes you’ll get rewarded, but not in the long run,” he said.
Of the Red Wings’ top nine forwards Thursday night, six were 24 years old or younger: Martin Frk (24), Andreas Athanasiou (23), Anthony Mantha (23), Tyler Bertuzzi (23), Dylan Larkin (21) and Evgeny Svechnikov (21). Together, they went minus-12.
Only one player within that group has played a full season in the NHL: Larkin. And he was arguably the only one above reproach Thursday night, at least in terms of bearing down on pucks. Of course, Larkin was guilty of a flat-out drive-by on the goal that sunk the Wings in overtime Tuesday night versus the Bruins, as he and Mantha allowed Brad Marchand to pick up a rebound in the slot and walk in untouched for the game winner.
“Yeah, that’s another example,” Zetterberg said.
Asked how long it takes young players to learn the importance of playing defense first, Zetterberg said brusquely, “Some longer than others.”
He added he hopes Thursday serves as a teaching moment.
“Because it’s not fun losing,” he said, “and if you want to keep winning you have to do things right.”
Jeff Blashill echoed Zetterberg’s sentiments, adding that certain players should be ashamed of themselves for their effort.
“Poke-and-hope hockey’s called 50-50 hockey. It’s a way to lose tons of games. To me, it’s a young mistake and we had enough young guys doing it for sure,” Blashill said, emphasizing the word each time. “You basically poke, you hope that you get (the puck) and if you don’t get it the (other team is) going to get a chance. Well, that’s not the way you win. You have no chance to win. You want to create chances without giving up chances. When you play poke-and-hope hockey you’re done.
“You have to go into battles, you have to slow yourself down, you have to get your nose over the puck, you have to make sure you play from the defensive side of the puck. You have to win the puck battles, and then you can play offense. Offense doesn’t come free in this league.”
For Red Wings fans clamoring for the team to incorporate more young players, Thursday was evidence of the perils of that approach.
“This is the reality of the growth of a hockey team. This is the pain that you endure at times when you’re asking some young guys to take over. This is the reality of it,” Blashill said. “I don’t think it’s a lesson that gets learned quickly either, especially when it maybe doesn’t come natural.
“If I remember right, when Zetterberg and Datsyuk came into the league, they had both played a good amount of hockey before they came in. They were older than what some of our guys are, for one, and they went to a team that was great. This is a different animal for these young guys, so will there have to be patience? 100 percent.
“Do I have patience? Yes. That doesn’t mean I ever lower the standard, so that means it’s a constant learning process, that means we have to work through frustration as a coach, and you have to keep understanding that our job as coaches is to show this team and individual players, especially young players, what it takes to be great on a daily basis.”
Both Blashill and Red Wings general manager Ken Holland resist the idea of a full-blown youth movement for the fact that, on some nights, the veterans are the only ones accountable. Without them, there wouldn’t be a standard.
“The guy that was great tonight, the guy that was unreal, was Zetterberg. And it’s over and over and over,” Blashill said. “That’s just the reality of it. That is what elite players do every night. It’s a hard league, and the difference between this league and other leagues, in other leagues you’re more talented than your opponent so you can get away with not playing at 100 percent. The best players in this league have to be 100 percent every night in terms of their competitiveness and their focus and their competition level, and it’s a lesson young guys have to learn.”
Blashill has defended his team after many losses this season, but Thursday was not one of those nights. The Wings didn’t deserve better than the fate they received.
“I’m a big believer that regardless of the outcome, when you work and compete and you pay attention to detail and you do the very best you can, you hold your head high all the time. I tell my kids that all the time. When you do that,” Blashill said, referring to Thursday night’s effort, “you better walk out slunked, with your head down, because that’s a joke.”