Dear Red Wings end-of-season notes: 2020-21 vs. 2019-20, looking ahead

Red Wings ice better team defensively with decent goaltending, but fail to score goals consistently while special teams flounder

Detroit Red Wings forward Jakub Vrana is seen during an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon) (Paul Vernon, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Detroit Red Wings finished the 56-game 2020-21 season with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on May 8.

That means the Red Wings ended the season tied for points (48) with the Blue Jackets as the teams “battled” for last place in the Central Division. Detroit’s 19 wins bested Columbus’ 18, slotting the Red Wings in at 7th out of eight teams in the division and leaving the Jackets in the final spot.

There is a lot to dig into about the Red Wings -- this is a brief overview of how the 2020-2021 season went in comparison to the previous season. I think you’ll have to keep in mind how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the league, teams and players individually.

The Red Wings went through a period in January when a serious amount of players were in and out of the lineup due to COVID protocols. That’s unprecedented, to be sure, and cannot go unmentioned.

The team also suffered a significant amount of man games lost due to injury, specifically the loss of forward Tyler Bertuzzi who only played nine games with the team before his exit. He underwent back surgery at the end of April. Captain Dylan Larkin also missed part of the season due to injury.

The stats: 2019-20 vs. 2020-21 Red Wings

What we’re looking at in this table is a team that focused on defense first a lot of nights. You see some improvements from the historically bad 2019-20 season, not the least of which is the overall winning percentage (0.275 vs. 0.429).

Historically speaking, that 0.429 still places this 2020-21 season within the 20 worst Red Wings seasons dating back to the 1920s, based on winning percentage. The franchise posted a 0.429 winning percentage one other time back in 1961-62 (23-33-14) -- they missed the playoffs that year despite Gordie Howe’s 77 points (33 goals, 44 assists) in 70 games played.

Anyway, back to current day: The Red Wings saw a significant decrease in goals against per games played between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. That stat stands out from the table, supporting GM Steve Yzerman’s own assessment in February that the 2020-21 Red Wings were better defensively and harder to play against, overall. That’s how they mustered two more wins this season with only 56 games to play.

In terms of offensive, yes the team saw a slight increase in goals for per game in 2020-21, but that 2.23 goals per game was still second worst in the league. They reallllly couldn’t score at times. There was a stretch in January/February where the Red Wings scored an average 1.625 goals per game over an eight-game losing streak. Not great.

As far as special teams go, the Red Wings improved on the penalty kill while experiencing a dismal (DISMAL) season on the power play. Hilariously, Detroit’s 11.4% (up from 6.7% in February) on the power play was only second-worst in the NHL -- the Anaheim Ducks finished with a power play percentage of 8.9% this season. Yikes.

And to be clear: The 78.7% on the penalty kill is still bad relative to the rest of the league, as is the 8.7% net power play percentage, which is the team’s power play goals for minus its shorthanded goals against, then divided by its power play opportunities. The Red Wings’ special teams were BAD, all around. This is part of what made them so miserable to watch on some nights this season.

Goaltending stats

Jonathan Bernier posted a .914 save percentage this season, earning 11 of the Red Wings’ 19 wins. That’s up from his .907 save percentage in 2019-20.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about the Red Wings goaltending -- Bernier was a beast when he was healthy in 2020-21. The 32-year-old goalie’s contract is expiring this summer, and I would guess Detroit will make a pitch to keep him around at least another season. Who else is there?

Goalie Thomas Greiss also remains under contract through next season, meaning the team could have the exact same tandem in the crease for 2021-22. Greiss posted a solid .912 save percentage, but only earned 8 wins this season. Compare that to Jimmy Howard’s 2 wins and .882 save percentage in 2019-20, and I think we can call that an improvement. Greiss also earned two shutouts, however, and would have had a couple more if the Red Wings could have scored in regulation or overtime instead of losing in a shootout. Greiss is 35 years old now.

Calvin Pickard is the only other goalie who saw time between the pipes this season for Detroit. He appeared in six games -- 2 wins and 1 loss to his credit and a .874 save percentage. That is less than ideal, albeit a very limited sample size. Pickard, 29, becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

The Detroit goaltending depth chart is ... lacking. I went over this earlier this season -- worth reading back.

Moving forward: Contracts and the coach

Yzerman will have an opportunity to shed some very pricey contracts (relatively speaking) this offseason. There are nine players on Detroit’s current NHL roster who will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, and another 10 restricted free agents -- most notably newcomer Jakub Vrana. We’ll have to take a closer look at who could be staying or going.

Moreover, Stephen Weiss’ (yeah, remember him) buyout ends at the end of this season -- that was $1.6 million against the cap in 2020-21. And Henrik Zetterberg’s $6 million contract will come off of the injured reserve list.

Add that to the sales made at the deadline -- Anthony Mantha, for instance -- and the Red Wings are positioned to be way under the cap, as they have been for a couple of seasons now. The difference at this point is a better view of some of the younger players’ values heading into a new season.

We also have to find out what Yzerman’s plan with the coach is. Jeff Blashill’s contract ends this summer. Blashill signed a two-year extension right before Yzerman took over as GM in April 2019. Is this the coach Yzerman wants to help bring in his draft picks moving forward?

Note: The 2021 NHL Entry Draft will be held on July 23–24. The draft lottery is scheduled for June 2. There will be two drawings in the lottery this year as opposed to three.

Subscribe to my Dear Red Wings newsletter for in-depth offseason coverage this year. It will be a fun one as we wait to see what exciting prospects like Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider can bring to the roster in the fall.