Detroit's Daniel Alfredsson, left, and Johan Franzen, try to get the puck past Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec in the second period, but couldn't and the Red Wings went on to lose another game in a shootout. Nevertheless, they're still only three points out of first place in the Eastern Conference. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — The Red Wings just lost their fourth game in a row, their sixth consecutive and 10th straight overtime game at home, and Mike Babcock said he is encouraged.
And he should be.
Such circumstances for the Red Wings are unusual, to say the least, in recent decades. But the fact of the matter is that through 19 games, at about the quarter-pole of the 82-game season when coaches and players say they more readily know what kind of team they have, the Red Wings were three points out of first and tied with the Bruins in second in the Eastern Conference.
Not bad for a team still very much in transition, with a developing young defense and a few forwards just entering, or re-entering the lineup.
Despite several issues identified by Babcock, general manager Ken Holland and the players — let alone the fans — as hindering the best Red Wings performance, they have not done badly, and recent performances evidence improvement, despite resulting in only one point garnered from losses in overtime.
“We didn’t win, but we played good,” Babcock said after the 3-2 shootout loss to the Jets on Tuesday.
“We didn’t get that second point, but I like the way we played and it’s going in a positive direction.”
Indeed, for long stretches, it looked like one of the Red Wings games from before the salary cap. They had the puck continually and gave it up infrequently. They tilted the ice against the Jets, badly outshooting them and yielding relatively few shots. Their power play got untracked. And, while they failed to score enough, they generated a bushel of chances.
That said, at about the quarter-pole, issues remain concerns: getting enough offensive push from the defensemen; secondary scoring from the forwards; playing a full 60 minutes, and 65 when required; giveaways; the power play; and the depth of the roster.
How deep are the concerns, despite their current success?
Look at it this way, if the Red Wings had remained in the West, they would have entered play Wednesday in 10th place, two points ahead of the Jets and out of the playoffs.
■ Offensive defense
When Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the greatest defensemen in the game, disembarked for Sweden in 2013, everyone associated with the Red Wings, from the Ilitches to the fans, knew things would change.
Perhaps we did not fully understand it would be more telling offensively than defensively. From a transition game that is sometimes significantly slower to the occasional lack of quarterbacking on the power play, Lidstrom’s contributions on offense are now more easily measured — and thoroughly missed.
After their first loss to the Lightning at Joe Louis Arena in 19 seasons last weekend, Babcock pointed to Tampa Bay’s speed and Detroit’s inability to counter.
“Their speed with our inability to move the puck maybe from the back here today made us slower, and I thought they were the quicker team today,” he said, explaining another recent overtime loss at home.
Absent the acquisition of a veteran puck-moving defenseman in the offseason or during this season, the answer must come from the current corps of defensemen. And the fact of the matter is that as difficult as it is to play defensively as a young defenseman in the NHL, generating offense clearly compounds the complexity.
Suffice to say that when and if any two or three players — Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith, Brian Lashoff, Xavier Ouellet and Adam Almquist — become consistent offensive forces, the transition from defense to offense, the exits from the defensive zone and progress through the neutral zone will become more like Red Wings hockey and the team routinely will generate more offense.
The difficulty with that proposition is that it may not happen this season, or next — such is the development pattern of young defensemen.
■ Secondary scoring
The lagging process of launching the offense may well have an impact on anyone other than Henrik Zetterberg (10), Pavel Datsyuk (9), Todd Bertuzzi (5) and Daniel Alfredsson (3) scoring a goal.
But it does not matter.
If the other forwards do not more adequately support the quartet, who have combined for 27 of the 47 Red Wings goals, the team will not persist near the top of the East or have much success in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to help Pavs and Z.,” said Darren Helm, who returned to the lineup after a long absence.
Alfredsson is on a pace for only about 12 goals, but has 11 assists.
Stephen Weiss clearly must play more to recover his top form, after missing all but 17 games last season with a wrist injury and surgery. And now, Weiss is out injured and will have to work to re-enter the lineup.
After providing scoring punch in the playoffs last season, Daniel Cleary has but one goal and two assists and is a healthy scratch. Frequently a healthy scratch, so much so that he has played in only seven games, is Mikael Samuelsson, 36, who scored 18 three years ago, and 30 the year before.
■ Play 60, maybe 65
Consistency is defined in the NHL as playing with the same energy, concentration and fortitude on every shift.
A team “in flux” sometimes has some difficulty doing that.
It comes with more experience and truly understanding what it takes to win.
“It is frustrating because some of the games, I think, we’ve done enough to get two points, but somehow we ended up without them,” Zetterberg, the captain, said after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Stars on Nov. 7.
It is something veteran players dictate to younger ones, and sometime must remind themselves to do — play hard and smart every shift of every game, every minute of every period.
Because in the NHL, letdowns often mean pucks in your net.
“That one was obviously a big disappointment,” Niklas Kronwall said of the same game. “We did enough good things to win that game, but for some reason, we kept giving up timely goals, for them.”
Similarly, after the loss to the Lightning, Babcock stressed a juncture in which the Red Wings were, again, lax after playing so well.
“What I didn’t like is when we lost our composure... and we gave up chances for no reason,” Babcock said.
■ Giving it away
At times, the Red Wings seem to have fed the puck to opponents more than to themselves.
The number of games in which they have had more than a dozen giveaways was alarming, and they have the eighth most in the NHL entering play Wednesday.
At one point, it was so bad that Babcock said before the developing corps of defensemen could concern themselves about their “structure” or proper deployment, they had to stop giving the puck away.
If the problem is truly remedied, the Red Wings play will continue to improve.
But especially with the inexperience along the blue line, the problem requires continual attention.
The problem is easy to perceive, but nearly impossible to solve.
When Franzen, Weiss or Jonathan Ericsson went down with injury, there was an immediate impact on the level of play.
The return of Helm helps.
The Red Wings hope to stay healthy. But the loss of any key player would be huge, as the Lighting is about to find out playing without Steven Stamkos for two or three months.