January 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Red Wings are a lot of work in progress

Detroit -- They wore red and they skated beneath rows and rows of banners. But these are not the Red Wings you know, quite literally.

They have a lot of work ahead, more than they realized, and it's becoming obvious with every weak rush, every turnover, every injury. It's hard to find a recognizable face or a familiar pace these days, and it might take a while to get any better.

This was a home opener with a nice start, a feisty finish and little in between. The Stars beat the Wings, 2-1, Tuesday night, and the sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena didn't have much to cheer about. Hmm. Maybe that's the genius of the Wings' half-off deal on draught beer, one of several attempts to win fans back. Welcome them home, then pickle them into patience.

Sorry, but that's all the Wings can do right now, pushing forward without their usual assortment of stars, not to mention eight players sidelined with ailments ranging from groin pulls to flu. They're 1-2 and have been outshot and outhit, and sometimes have no idea what to do with the puck.

No D in the D

The Wings are 0-for-15 on the power play, and in their first three efforts against the Stars, they collected precisely one shot. Dallas had four short-handed shots and several prime chances. Jimmy Howard kept it close with an outstanding effort, and he'll have to do a lot more of that with Detroit's leaky, inexperienced (and occasionally awful) defense.

"It didn't look like we had zip," Mike Babcock said. "I thought the power play was terrible. We passed it around and passed it around. One thing is, when we had Nick (Lidstrom) and Homer (Tomas Holmstrom), one shot the puck and the other was at the net all the time. We'll get it fixed."

They don't have much time to get it fixed. Injuries are a reality in the lockout-shortened season, and there's no time to lament missed chances. Rookie Damien Brunner is providing a spark, and the Wings need more from others. He scored with 3.4 seconds left in this one, after tallying a dazzling winner in the shootout in Columbus the night before.

Against Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen, the Wings didn't generate nearly enough. Valterri Filppula clanked a puck off the post and Henrik Zetterberg narrowly missed numerous times, leading a late charge as the Wings outshot the Stars, 20-6, in the third period.

"We were forcing plays, one and done all the time," Zetterberg said of the power play. "We think too much instead of working for second chances."

Awaiting reinforcements

Right now, the Wings are struggling to do more with fewer bodies. It will help when Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson and Jonathan Ericsson return, some as soon as Friday night. Depth up front was supposed to be their strength, but we haven't seen it yet. Gaping uncertainty on defense was supposed to be their weakness, and we've seen that.

How stark is the current reality? Before the game, the Wings honored the newly retired Holmstrom, who spent 15 seasons tipping in goals and causing net-front mayhem. He wasn't a star but he was an invaluable element on loaded teams — and he played on the fourth line.

These days, the Wings are lucky if they can cobble together two lines.

Pavel Datsyuk is a creative force but he needs to be an offensive force with the absence of scoring options. Same with Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. If the Wings are to survive this season with playoff streaks and dignity intact, their best players have to be great, because more great players aren't on the way.

In fact, the Wings had to use two defensemen — Brian Lashoff and Kent Huskins — who weren't on the roster three days ago. Huskins, 33, woke up as a minor leaguer in Norfolk, Va., Tuesday morning, then got the call and caught a flight to Detroit. Then he gobbled down some pasta and gobbled up 15 decent minutes of ice time.

Some admirable efforts, but you can't win with a roster full of grinders and role players. As tenacious as Holmstrom was, the Wings would not have won four Stanley Cups if he was forced to be a heavy-minutes guy. Fans love the fighting spirit of Jordin Tootoo, and they should, but they miss some scoring spirit.

I think the Datsyuk-Zetterberg-Brunner line could be very productive, and that's where the Wings pin a lot of their hope. Helm's return should provide a speedy boost. This isn't all on that shattered defensive corps, either. The forwards have to be more responsible, with the Wings giving up way too many breakaways.

Lidstrom is not walking through that locker room door. Neither is Holmstrom or Brad Stuart. This was the Wings' third game in four nights, and while the arena was mostly full, there wasn't much for the fans to buzz about.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't get it done for our fans," Babcock said.

"We're a team in flux, as everybody knows, but we're gonna get better. We'll be just fine."

They'll have to get considerably better to reach the fine stage. And as everybody knows in this truncated season, there isn't much time to get it done.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Pavel Datsyuk, here keeping the puck away from Jordie Benn, provides the Red Wings with some much-needed skill on a suddenly ordinary roster. He had an assist on the Red Wings’ goal. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
More Bob Wojnowski