The numbers for Jimmy Howard (8-10-8, 2.67 GAA) are below the standards he's set in Detroit. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
The Red Wings are at the midpoint of their season. What’s gone right to this point in their season, what’s gone wrong, and what can the Wings do to ensure a spot in the postseason? Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News breaks down the playoff outlook.
The move to the Eastern Conference was supposed to be positive in many ways — travel, weaker opposition, better chance for the playoffs.
The travel has been nice. But making the playoffs isn’t going to be as easy.
A never-ending slew of injuries has decimated the lineup, and several key players haven’t played to potential.
A key word around the locker room in recent weeks has been “traction” — stringing together a stretch of victories to separate the Red Wings from the rest of a pack of teams battling to get one of the two wild-card spots.
But it hasn’t happened.
“We have to get going,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “We’ve said it too many times this year. It’s up to us to play better.”
Teams such as Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal slowly have separated themselves from the Red Wings for the first three automatic playoff spots in the Atlantic Division.
There’s time, obviously, for the Red Wings to still catch those teams. But at this point, simply solidifying one of the two remaining wild cards in the East is a near-term goal.
What's gone wrong
More than anything, injuries. The Red Wings have lost 187 man-games to injuries this season — with many of those players vital to the lineup.
Players such as goalie Jimmy Howard, defensemen Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser, and forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss and Darren Helm have all missed chunks of time thus far this season.
“We just haven’t had all of our people,” coach Mike Babcock said.
Luckily, though, for the Red Wings, young players from Grand Rapids have come up and done a good job of salvaging the Red Wings season, and enabling them to stay afloat.
Also, young players such as DeKeyser and forward Tomas Tatar have found permanent spots in the lineup.
The offense has been affected greatly because of injuries, with the Red Wings ranking 20th in goals (2.54 per game) and the power play (16.7 percent).
For the Red Wings to win these days, said Babcock, they need structured defense, hard work, and steady goaltending.
The reason: They simply aren’t scoring enough goals.
Who is to blame
When the Red Wings decided not to re-sign forward Valtteri Filppula, an unrestricted free agent last summer, they decided to pursue Weiss.
They also had forward Daniel Alfredsson, who has largely met expectations.
But replacing Filppula with Weiss just hasn’t worked out.
While Filppula is on pace for a career-best season, Weiss has struggled badly.
He was signed to a five-year, $24.5 million free-agent contract (Filppula received five years at a total of $25 million from Tampa Bay), and thus far, Weiss had four points (two goals, two assists) in 26 games before going on the injured list (sports hernia).
Weiss isn’t alone.
Forwards Daniel Cleary (four goals) and Mikael Samuelsson (one goal) have struggled.
Cleary was re-signed early in training camp, forcing a logjam on the roster. But his offense has largely dried up this season.
Samuelsson has been relegated to fourth-line duty or being a healthy scratch.
Ultimately, as important is goalie Jimmy Howard (8-10-8, 2.67 goals-against average) hasn’t played to expectations.
As Babcock has said, consistent goaltending from Howard is, and will be, crucial.
What's gone right
The Red Wings appear to have found a legitimate player in forward Tomas Tatar (10 goals, nine assists), who has provided steady offense since entering the lineup.
“He’s been a huge addition for us,” Cleary said. “He’s a puck hound, tenacious on the puck, and competitive. It’s another good player we have.”
Young players such as Tatar and Gustav Nyquist have seemlessly transitioned onto the Red Wings roster this season.”
Tatar has made a seamless transition from the minor leagues to the NHL, all the while injecting the locker room with some energy.
“That’s the kind of locker room we have, we treat the young kids real well and ease them into the transition,” Cleary said. “Their youthful exuberance is great to have around.”
Forwards Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco and goalie Petr Mrazek have supplied production when promoted from Grand Rapids.
All were key parts of the Griffins winning the Calder Cup last spring and appear very close to being regulars on the NHL level.
“The guys who’ve come up from Grand Rapids have done a great job,” Zetterberg said. “They’ve played with a lot of grit and speed.”
Goalie Jonas Gustavsson (11-3-2, 2.39 GAA) kept the Red Wings afloat when Howard was struggling to win games.
Who needs to step up
For the Red Wings to win games the way they are currently constructed they need good defensive structure — and they need Howard to stop pucks.
If Howard plays to the level of his previous seasons, the Red Wings are going to be competitive. But the concern is, he’s been too inconsistent.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Howard said. “You just come to the rink every day and get better and have a good, positive mind frame.
“None of that has changed.
“Everyone goes through bouts like this through their careers. It’s frustrating but you have to find a way (to get through it).”
Players such as Datsyuk, Franzen, Alfredsson, Weiss and Helm have to get healthy and inject a lineup in need of offense.
The Red Wings must play better at Joe Louis Arena. They are 6-10-7 at home, an incredibly poor record for a team that usually has dominated at JLA.
Somehow, the Red Wings need to stay healthy the rest of the season.
That’s been easier said than done, for whatever reason.
There’s also the concern about the Olympics.
The Red Wings have nine players off this roster headed to the Olympics in Sochi.
It’s debatable whether that will be a positive or negative later in the season, having played another two weeks of intense, elite-caliber games a half a world away.
But Babcock maintains it will help.
“I can’t imagine anything better for you than have the opportunity to play in the Olympics,” said Babcock, who is coaching the Canadian team, of course. “If we try to turn anything of that into a negative, I’m not buying it.”
“They’ll come back energized and ready to go ...and the rest of the guys will be coming back from Hawaii, or somewhere, and they’ll be energized, too.”
Will they make the playoffs?
I picked this team to finish third in the division. That’s probably not going to happen.
Boston looks to be the class of the Atlantic, while Tampa Bay and Montreal have shown to be quality teams able to stay competitive, despite key personnel losses.
But I’ll stick to the preseason prediction of the Red Wings at least making the playoffs — although I do so with much less confidence than I had.
For whatever reason, they continue to be plagued with injuries, and the offense even at full strength didn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Babcock, though, remains optimistic.
“The bottom line is we have to keep plugging and keep getting better,” Babcock said. “I wouldn’t bet against us.”