Approaching the quarter-pole of this season, the Detroit Red Wings had a respectable 23 points in 19 games, but their performance has been a cause for concern in Motown.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for the Wings, opening with five straight victories, then a six-game winless skid, followed by four straight wins, back-to-back losses against St. Louis and San Jose, then consecutive wins over Los Angeles and Anaheim.
Following the loss to San Jose, their fifth-straight on the road, coach Mike Babcock told the press he intended to have a meeting with his players to determine if they wanted to be a good team or not, placing the onus on them as a group to improve.
In the short-term, Babcock’s challenge to his players has paid off, as the Wings subsequently won their next two road games.
One reason for the Red Wings’ problems is the play of star centers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk has 15 points in 19 games, but was held scoreless in almost half of them, while Zetterberg has only nine points over the same period.
In a recent interview, Datsyuk didn’t mince words, calling his performance this season “awful” and acknowledging he had to improve.
Wings GM Ken Holland recently told the Detroit Free Press his club’s inconsistent play wouldn’t force him into the trade market, pointing out they’re still in “the thick of the pack” in the Western Conference standings.
Holland said he expects his team’s performance to pick up once Datsyuk and Zetterberg round into mid-season form, but they’re now in their 30s (Datsyuk is 33, Zetterberg 31) and the physical toll of their intense, two-way style of play could finally be catching up with them.
The Red Wings have an aging core and lack depth in quality young stars capable of stepping up as the older ones fade.
Of course, the same concern was expressed nearly 10 years ago, as long-time Detroit stars such as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan approached the twilight of their careers, yet the Wings proved doubters wrong as Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Johan Franzen blossomed into stars in their own right.
Thanks to their long-term contracts, this trio won’t be going anywhere, but they need help in the near future as their careers begin to wind down. The concern is there are no younger versions of them in the system to one day replace them as seamlessly as they replaced Yzerman and Shanahan.
Left winger Valtteri Filppula, 27, continues to frustrate with his inconsistent offense, while 32-year-old right winger Dan Cleary is also having a poor start.
Right wingers Todd Bertuzzi, Tomas Holmstrom and Jiri Hudler, along with defenseman Brad Stuart, are eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Hudler, 27, has been a major disappointment since returning from a stint in the Kontinental League in 2009-10.
In all likelihood, 41-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history, will retire after this season and leave a huge hole on the Wings’ blueline. Skilled puck-moving blueliner Brian Rafalski retired last spring and his absence is still being felt.
Hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall, 30, has become a strong all-round defenseman, but isn’t capable of filling Lidstrom’s big shoes.
Jimmy Howard, 27, has settled into the starting goalie role, but could use a more dependable backup, as Ty Conklin has been a disappointment so far.
Twenty-somethings Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Darren Helm are strictly checkers, not top-six forward material.
Holland will be patient with his team this season, though one shouldn’t rule out a move or two near the February trade deadline.
But with several aging veterans expected to depart next summer few, if any, young stars will be able to succeed Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg – and with more than $23 million in available cap space next summer, expect Holland to commence a roster overhaul in the off-season.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.