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Just how terrible are the 2019-20 Red Wings?

Arun Srinivasan
Contributor

There’s a thin line between well-executed tanking and being an outright embarrassment. The 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings are treading it dangerously.

Despite the league thriving on parity, the Red Wings are a ghastly 12-38-4, currently on a nine-game losing streak with no end in sight. Detroit has just one win in regulation this calendar year, a 4-3 victory over the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens on January 7.

Detroit going nearly two months without a regulation win would almost be cause for relegation in other sports. They’re in historically awful territory and we’re here to determine where they rank among hockey’s all-time worst teams.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’re excluding expansion teams.

Perhaps it’s a function of increased parity, but among teams that played a minimum of 70 games, only the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers and 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche qualify among the worst 50 teams ever.

With this in mind, it begs the question: where do this year’s Red Wings rank among the worst teams of the millennium?

Using pace as a predictive tool at this point of the season isn’t the best indicator of future performance, but as it stands, the Red Wings are indeed on pace for a 43-point season, which ranks as the 24th-worst total ever among teams that played a minimum 70 games. The only team of this past century that finished anywhere near where the 2019-20 Red Wings project are the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, who finished with a 22-56-4 record and 48 points.

Let’s take a quick look at fewest goals scored, shall we? OK, it’s not as pathetic! With 111 goals through 54 games, Detroit is on pace for 169 goals this season, which would be the 30th-worst total ever. And while some of Detroit’s contemporaries fared worse - namely, the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres (150, 5th-worst), 2014-15 Sabres (153, 12th worst), 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes (165, 22nd-worst) and 2016-17 Avalanche (165) - it’s hard to argue that any team has been as consistently dreadful in all facets of the game.

Points percentage is likely a better metric, and it’s still bleak: Detroit ranks as the 30th worst-team of all-time, without any of the qualifiers above. The only other team this millennium that even comes close in this regard, is once again, the 2016-17 Avalanche, comfortably above the Red Wings in 49th place. Even the 2013-14 Sabres, who might be the most popularly derided team of the internet era, cleared the .300 mark with a .317 winning percentage. This is truly the bottom for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises.

It’s worth adding that the Red Wings’ 207 goals allowed is by far the most gruesome mark in the league this season, but because this is no longer the 1980’s, they aren’t in historically awful territory, even if adjusting for era would put them among the worst ever. Detroit is on pace to allow 314 goals with no end in sight — Jimmy Howard has been the NHL’s worst goaltender by some margin — and it would indeed by the most goals allowed by any team since the turn of the century, with the god awful 2005-06 Penguins as a close comparison, having surrendered 310 goals.

Oddly enough, the 2016-17 Avalanche might inspire confidence as a model to follow, much to the chagrin of Red Wings fans longing for the days where Steve Yzerman would lead his team in one of hockey’s greatest rivalries against Joe Sakic’s Avalanche. Yzerman and Sakic have to watch from the press box now, with the former waiting to make his imprint on a hopeless Red Wings team, the latter proving himself to be one of the NHL’s smartest executives, finessing the Avalanche out of the basement.

In fairness to Yzerman, he took over a completely barren roster in 2019 and has proven himself to be one of the NHL’s smartest general managers in building the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning. But there’s a distinct difference between tanking openly and making the best of your assets, as opposed to letting the team completely rot for a year, in hopes of winning the Alexis Lafreniere Sweepstakes.

It’s worth considering, too, that the 2016-17 Avalanche never seemed to be in as dire straits as this year’s Red Wings, as their young core of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Barrie (traded last summer for Nazem Kadri) were in the infancy of their careers. Matt Duchene was leveraged as a trade chip the following year for a package that returned Samuel Girard — who is still somehow just 21 years old and a 2018 first-round pick that was deferred to 2019, where the Avalanche selected Bowen Byram fourth overall.

This year's Detroit Red Wings might be the worst team of the past two decades. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Can anyone realistically see the core of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri and Anthony Mantha making the type of seismic jump necessary to catch the Avalanche’s group developmentally? It takes a gigantic leap of faith, and it could be argued that Yzerman’s mastery of the draft, the salary cap, and the impending arrival of Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield or the top prospect of their choice could alter the trajectory of the franchise. As a one-off year, however, it doesn’t get much worse than this.

This has been an all-time awful season from the Red Wings and we shouldn’t quickly forget how their tanking efforts devolved into an outright embarrassment.

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