Seven Storylines in Detroit Sports to Keep an Eye on


Ivan Martinez, Sports Editor

Summer can be a strenuous time for fans of professional sports. From the final whistles of the NBA and NHL finals in June, to the opening kickoff of the NFL season in September, America is faced with the most entertainment-starved stretch of the year. With all due respect to the MLB, PGA, and ATP, casual fans of professional sports will hardly be overwhelmed by their options in the coming months.

While it may seem like pro sports are settling in for hibernation, there are still a plethora of stories to be found if you are willing to look for them. With that in mind, here are the top seven storylines close to home that you may want to keep an eye on during the summer, ranked in order of least to most intriguing.

  1. Can the Pistons avoid making the wrong kind of history?

It has been six years since the Detroit Pistons have taken part in the NBA playoffs. In that time, Pistons fans have had to endure a stretch in which their team went 172-304 (.361 win percentage) and finished no higher than tenth in the conference.

If second year Coach Stan Van Gundy does not act fast, the Pistons will miss the playoffs for a franchise worst seventh year in a row. Following his first year at the helm, the Pistons aren’t exactly trending in the right direction. From 2013 to 2014, the Piston went from being ranked 15th in the league in points per game, to 19th, as well as going from the 6th best defensive rating to the 10th.

Despite a somewhat promising season in 2014, Van Gundy squandered the Pistons’ late playoff hopes by going 9-17 in the last 26 games of the season. The Pistons are fortunate to play in a significantly weaker conference (the Western Conference’s sixth seed had a better record than the Eastern Conference’s second seed), but that will not be enough to earn a playoff spot unless some major steps are taken.

  1. Can the Lions survive the new extra point rule?

The 2015 NFL season will introduce a new mechanic to the game. The extra point following a touchdown will now be snapped from the 15 yard line, rather than the 2 yard line, thus extending it from a 19 yard field goal to 32 yard field goal. This was done in an effort to bring more excitement to the game.

In 2014, extra points were made over 99% of the time, whereas field goals from the 30-35 yard range were made about 90% of the time. This could be bad news for the Lions who, last year, made a league worst 66% of their kicks. While the Lions did convert on 83% of field goals from 30-39 yards, last year’s inconsistency may lead Coach Jim Caldwell to look for a new solution.

One such solution may be to simply forego the extra point entirely. While the extra point was moved to the 15 yard line, the two point conversion remains at the 2 yard line. With hard hitting runner Joique Bell and towering receiver Calvin Johnson, why not go for two? It will definitely be interesting to see how this develops throughout the offseason.

  1. Can the Tigers finally return to the top of the mountain?

It’s been 31 years since the Tigers won the World Series, and the fans are starved for another. The Tigers have found recent success, making the playoffs each of the last four years and appearing in the World Series three years ago, but a championship has eluded them.

About a third of the way into the 2015 season, that doesn’t look to be changing soon. The Tigers currently rank seventh in their conference and third in their division. However, with plenty of baseball left to be played before autumn, and being ranked third in hitting and sixth in fielding, winning the World Series is not out of the question. Stranger things have happened.

  1. Has the age of Mrazek begun?

Have the Red Wings reached the end of an era? For the last ten years, Jimmy Howard has been the man in net for the Red Wings. Recent struggles, however, suggest that maybe the Wings are ready to move on.

This thought is in no small part fueled by Petr Mrazek’s rise to stardom. Mrazek played hero during the regular season, filling in admirably while Howard was injured. He then earned the starting nod for the opening round of the playoffs when Howard struggled late in the season. Mrazek’s performance varied from mediocre to inspired, as you might expect from a rookie goaltender. However, Mrazek did well overall, blocking 172 of 186 shots saved (.925 save percentage) and shutting out the Lightning in games 3 and 5.

Averaging 2 goals allowed per game, Mrazek kept Detroit in the series and nearly led them to the second round. While many would be tempted to begin the transition to Mrazek as soon as possible, recent history suggests Howard isn’t going anywhere.

When Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in the postseason for consecutive years, many called for him to be replaced, but Coach Mike Johnston was rewarded when Fleury delivered one of the best seasons of his career the following season.

On the other hand, the Red Wings will be led by a new coach this season, and the pressure to win will be immense. Folks here in Hockeytown expect a winner, and if Howard struggles early, the new coach may be tempted to switch to Mrazek. The coach’s decision at goalie could be one of the deciding factors of his success, but more on that below.

  1. Will Matthew Stafford finally deliver as the franchise quarterback?

Matthew Stafford is the Lion’s franchise quarterback. This is no longer up for debate. Stafford has a $53 million contract, $43 million of which is guaranteed. You do not give that kind of money to a transition quarterback. The question now is, when will he start playing like a franchise quarterback?

Last year Stafford ranked 18th in yards per completion, 22nd in completion percentage, and 16th in TD-INT ratio (all stats among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts). Those are mediocre numbers for anyone, let alone a sixth year veteran with receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at his disposal.

To his credit, Stafford did play behind an offensive line that gave up the fourth most sacks, while also dealing with a new Offensive Coordinator. With Joe Lombardi entering his second season as OC, however, Stafford will be expected to produce in the same way Drew Brees produced in his time with Lombardi. That means winning a Super Bowl. Stafford has too much talent around him to continue to flounder.

Johnson is still a top 3 talent at his position, and Tate was an early candidate for league MVP before Johnson returned from injury. Failure to win a Super Bowl, or at least win a playoff game, could mean a loss of faith from the front office. As the old saying goes, the NFL stands for Not For Long when you play poorly.

  1. Can the Red Wings’ new coach lead them to a 25th straight playoff appearance?

If the stories are to be believed, and there is much evidence to suggest they should, Jeff Blashill will be named the Red Wing’s new Head Coach.

Following three years as Head Coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins in the minor league, Blashill is set to become the second youngest Coach in the NHL, at the age of 41. The question is, does he have the experience necessary to lead the Red Wings to a 25th straight playoff appearance?

Blashill is hardly on his own, stars Pavel Datsyuk, Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg, Luke Glendening, and Darren Helm are all expected to return. However, the Wings have struggled to make the playoffs these past few years, often rallying behind ex-coach Mike Babcock to lead a late season playoff push.

Without that experienced leadership at coach, will the Red Wings struggle to find a rhythm? Off the heals of Mrazek’s impressive playoff performace, the decision at goalie will likely define Blashill’s inaugural season. In a league that is constantly getting more and more impatient, snapping a run as legendary as Detroit’s playoff streak may be cause for exile. It is not unheard of for a coach to be fired just one year after being hired, and Wings fans are hungry for a championship, not a month of watching from home.

  1. Can the Lion’s defense survive the loss of Ndamukong Suh?

Teryl Austin has his work cut out for him. Ndamukong Suh was an absolute force last year. 8.5 sacks and no forced fumbles may sound like an average stat line, but make no mistake, Suh was a beast.

Suh regularly took on double and even triple teams, allowing fellow linemen and linebackers to get home to the quarterback. Thanks to Suh drawing extra blockers, the Lions’ defense managed a whopping 42 sacks, 8th most in the league. Suh’s constant pressure on the quarter back, as well as his superb run stuffing ability, led to Detroit allowing 17.6 points per game (3rd best), 300.9 yards per game (2nd best), 69.3 rushing yards per game (best in the league) and intercepting 20 passes (tied 3rd best).

Without a doubt, Suh was Detroit’s MVP of 2014. Now he’s gone. Suh has moved on to, ahem, greener, more lucrative, pastures with the Miami Dolphins. Suh wanted to become the highest paid defender in NFL history, and the Dolphins obliged to the tune of $114 million.

Now lacking Suh, and Nick Fairly for that matter, Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin is tasked with keeping his defense from collapsing sans Suh. Though quarterback Matthew Stafford has struggled of late, he succeeded thanks in large part to the dominance of the defense.

If Austin’s defense derails in year two of his tenure with the Lions, Austin, Stafford, Head Coach Jim Caldwell, and GM Martin Mayhew are just a few people who may be looking for jobs come January.