Detroit — Last season, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar proved they can play in the NHL. This season, they are demonstrating their performances were no one-season deal.
Now it is about how good they can be, and for how long.
Tatar and Nyquist provide the Red Wings with scoring depth that supports what Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have delivered for more than a decade, the drive train of the offensive attack.
After staking their claim last season, questions posed in October included whether Nyquist and Tatar would persevere or retreat, and would the promise fade under increased attention from opponents?
Three months in, questions answered.
Peter Laviolette, the veteran NHL coach, whose Predators were the second consecutive team towards the pinnacle of the league to start a game against the Wings flaming hot, only to cool last week, said he does not see a lot of them.
But he knows what he need to know.
"We spend a lot of time in the west and this is my first time seeing them — but, terrific hockey players," he said after the 5-2 loss to the Red Wings Saturday. "They're very talented skill guys and good depth underneath their top line."
Nyquist began the scoring against Nashville, when the Wings might have suffered a letdown after a long road trip and perhaps their biggest win of the season against the Blues.
Tatar started the play, and later added two goals.
Then on Sunday, down 3-0 early to the lowly Buffalo Sabres, Nyquist scored first again, and Tatar tied it nine minutes later.
They both added assists and keyed a huge comeback, capped by Zetterberg's sixth career hat trick.
The Red Wings finished the weekend a point behind the Lightning for first place in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points ahead of the Panthers, the top-ranking team not qualifying for the playoffs.
It is a better performance than most expected, and a good portion of the credit is due Nyquist, 25, and Tatar, 24.
The progress of their NHL careers, after long seasoning in Grand Rapids, appears seamless. But how good can they be?
On pace to produce big offensive seasons in their second long seasons, it is reasonable now to begin to gauge the full potential.
Nyquist is on a pace for a 32-goal season.
He is second in the NHL with 10 power-play goals, and has four winners. And he is hot recently, with 15 points, four goals and 11 assists in 12 games.
Tatar is on pace for 38 goals. He has six on the power play and five that won games. In the same 12 games, he has nine goals and three assists.
Some on social media already envision them skating with Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, potentially "the next big things," who also belong to the Wings as they play in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor respectively.
But for the coach, it is about the process. And Tatar and Nyquist remain early in their progress in the NHL.
"They're good players, they've just got to turn into good pros now," Babcock said. "They've got to learn to work every single day, and do it right all the time. And if they do that, and they stay hungry and they're really driven, they'll become good pros."
As for the success, so far, this season, it does not seem to have changed their outlooks or approaches.
In their way, Nyquist and Tatar share the credit for not falling off, this season, in the face of more scrutiny from opponents.
"I think it goes for a lot of the younger guys, that we get noticed a little bit more," Nyquist said. "We're not catching anyone off guard anymore, I don't think, as much as we did last year.
"So, I think we've all done a pretty good job. I think we've all taken steps and shown that we can play."
Besides, Tatar said, teams still need to watch others.
"I just think we've got such good players in the locker room, I don't think they would watch me or Gus," Tatar said on the afternoon before his two goals and an assist helped cool off the Predators.
"I know we're scoring goals, but still, there's players in the locker room like Hank and Pav. We have really good players, and it's just hard to focus on one guy."
Beyond Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Sheahan and Justin Abdelkader are making significant contributions, and Darren Helm's offense is increasingly consistent.
"You've got to be kind of all over the team," Tatar said.
"I think it's just, this season, we are playing good as a whole team and it's showing in our points, too — as individuals."
Nyquist said he understands that responding to increased defensive pressure can improve their play.
"I think it's a good thing because it makes you become a better player out there and work harder," he said."You know you've got to show that you can play every day in this league.
"So, doing anything differently? I don't think so. Playing last year and coming into this year, I just wanted to continue to play my game and try to improve."
A key to the success, as it has been in Detroit under Babcock and Scotty Bowman before him, is executing the various systems – aka "Red Wings hockey."
Properly executed, both young players say, it helps secure success — as a team, and individually.
"Obviously, we have great systems," Nyquist said. "We're pretty good at controlling the puck, I think. We want to be a puck possession team.
"It's hard for the opposing team to get chances against you. So, obviously, the system protects us a little bit.
"It's been working good, I think."