Red Wings' feel-good start losing momentum as dynamic duo fades

The Detroit Red Wings were one of the most surprising teams in the NHL in the first few weeks of the season, but they've fallen back to earth.

At the outset of the 2023-24 NHL season, the Detroit Red Wings were on top of the world.

On the morning of of Oct. 24 — precisely two weeks after opening night — Detroit sat at 5-1-0. The team had scored twice as many goals (30) as it had allowed (15).

High-profile offseason addition Alex DeBrincat led the NHL in goals (eight) and points (12). Team captain Dylan Larkin was rolling alongside him with 11 points of his own.

Free-agent signings on the blue line seemed to be paying off as well. Justin Holl led the NHL in plus-minus (+9), and Shayne Gostisbehere was helping an old-school two-defenseman power play thrive.

The Red Wings looked like a team that was ready to make a little noise after six straight losing campaigns following Pavel Datsyuk's final season in 2015-16. Since then, things have rapidly gone downhill for Detroit.

In their last eight games the Red Wings are 2-4-2, and while a win over the Boston Bruins was an impressive highlight, the last few weeks have been grim.

That starts with the dynamic duo of DeBrincat and Larkin. The pair combined for four points in the overtime loss that began the team's current cold streak, but they've only produced four points in the seven games since.

Red Wings forwards Dylan Larkin (71) and Alex DeBrincat have cooled off after their hot starts. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Red Wings forwards Dylan Larkin (71) and Alex DeBrincat have cooled off after their hot starts. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images) (NHLI via Getty Images)

Part of that decline can be explained by shooting luck. In the first seven games of the season, DeBrincat and Larkin scored on 24.5% of their attempts on net. In the last seven contests that number sits at 2.2%.

The drop-off can also be explained by a power play that has ground to a halt. In the first six games of the season, Detroit had the second-best power play in the NHL (39.1%). Since then, that unit ranks 27th (11.5%). DeBrincat, in particular, has always been fairly reliant on 5-on-4 production, and he's not getting any right now.

It was always unfair to assume these two could drive a top-of-the-class offense considering neither had ever topped 80 points entering 2023-24, but they seemed to be making beautiful music together early on.

That made it easy to believe their partnership could help each player elevate their game. Although that could still happen, it's no longer fair to assume it will. They might just be two first-line-caliber offensive weapons rather than a pair destined to tear up the NHL.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to look at Detroit's early-season success and pick it apart. The team scored on 16.04% of its shots in its first six games, while getting a save percentage of .915 from a goaltending tandem of Ville Husso and James Reimer that projects to be below average.

It also killed penalties at an 87% clip despite a relative lack of proven defensive talent. That number has dropped to 71% in the last eight contests.

While Detroit was outshooting teams by an average of 1.9 shots per game in the first two weeks, that wasn't enough to explain its massive goal differential.

Just as it might've been unfair to jump on the Red Wings hype train early, it would also be silly to assume that their recent slump is 100% reflective of what they are. As per usual, the truth lies in between.

Unfortunately for Detroit, some of its early success was rooted in things that will be difficult to replicate. The Red Wings' full-season statistics combine their best and worst efforts and the totals aren't particularly encouraging.

Through 14 games, the Red Wings have been outshot by a narrow margin at even strength, but their opponents are getting superior chances. Detroit ranks in the bottom third of the league in expected goal rate (46.90%, 23rd), scoring chance share (44.08%, 26th) and high-danger chance rate (45.86%, 24th).

Those issues can be overcome by excellent special teams play, but the Red Wings don't feel like a sure thing to excel on either unit based on their recent results. Another way around a middling possession game is stellar goaltending, but as good as Reimer has been early, it's worth remembering both of Detroit's goalies are coming off rough seasons.

The Red Wings have shown two sides of themselves this season, playing like both a juggernaut and a bottom feeder.

While Detroit isn't as strong or weak as it's looked at any particular moment, the team seems more likely to end 2023-24 looking more like recent Red Wings squads than those of the Datsyuk era.