Red Wings' bumpy start sees leaders come to the fore
Detroit — It was plainly a grab-your-boot straps moment, and the season had barely begun.
Returning from Florida, the Red Wings, who were injured, unfamiliar with each other, without Pavel Datsyuk and testing how much talent they really have, started 0-2.
For more than half of the first two games, they looked almost worse than their record.
It was time to shake off the stumbles and improve quickly.
They got it done Monday, rallying for a big 5-1 victory over the Senators, and some new leaders played their roles.
Across more than two decades of their success, in such moments, the Red Wings could count on a cluster of players Mike Babcock, their former coach, used to call “the leadership group.” But in a season of increasing transition, the leadership group is evolving, too.
Datsyuk is gone. Niklas Kronwall is around the room and working, but on injured reserve.
Henrik Zetterberg addressed the media after the loss to the Panthers. But he is recovering from an offseason knee injury and was not immediately available after the morning skate Monday.
“Those guys carried me for years, here,” Babcock said in the spring of 2015, shortly after announcing he would coach the Maple Leafs.
There are some new guys, now.
Justin Abdelkader is a new alternate captain.
In his second season, Dylan Larkin leads in more ways than scoring the most goals last season, including as the last man to leave the ice at practices, which he often is.
And the three veteran free agents, Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott either have been captain or alternate captain with previous teams.
The Red Wings guard has not changed entirely, but it is shifting.
Eight hours before the game Monday, the largest media scrums gathered around the available players arrayed in awkward semi-circles in front of Abdelkader and Larkin.
They faced a list of interrogations, which boiled down to: What is going on? How do you fix it?
In such situations, it is often important — sometimes critical — to say the right things, find the right words, set the proper tone. It can involve a balance of self-criticism and confidence, admission and assertion.
“We’re trying to focus on winning games, obviously,” Abdelkader said, adding that the Wings took themselves out of the first game against the Lightning with two bench minors for too many men and playing on their heels in Game 2 against the Panthers.
“I think we watched some videos this morning. We’ll be better.”
Indeed, they were. Mike Green collected a hat trick, Darren Helm scored two goals, and the Red Wings played mostly better team defense.
Larkin is 20 years old. But the aura of leadership is around him.
“It is frustrating, losing two,” Larkin said, responding to the Monday morning questions. “You know, you’ve got to look in the mirror, and look toward yourself.
“Tonight, we’re going to see a fast team. It’s an important game for us.”
And, the Wings would play like it.
Coach Jeff Blashill said his view is the leadership group remains fairly constant, with Zetterberg’s leadership and Kronwall still around as he continues trying to work his way back into the lineup.
“The one thing that ‘Z’ really gives the group is just a calmness,” Blashill said Tuesday. “There’s going to be tons of ebbs and flows through the year.”
It is a matter of relying on the old and letting the new circumstances affect things too, Ott said.
“We talk about getting better every single day and being good pros, like the leadership group in here, obviously, with ‘Z’ and ‘Kronner’ and ‘Abby’ starting it,” he said.
“But then you go with the new guys. ‘Van’ was a captain. Frans Nielsen was an assistant captain for a long time. I was a captain and an assistant captain.
“And you have the upcoming leadership group in here, too, with ‘Helmer’ and ‘Glennie,’ and even a young guy like ‘Larks’ can grab (sound) bites.
“So when you have guys that are transitioning collectively, you do it together.”
Veteran Red Wings, and even at least one in retirement, notice Larkin’s potential for leadership.
In a recent interview, Marty Pavelich, a veteran of the Red Wings four Stanley Cup wins in the 1950s, said Larkin appears like a captain in waiting.
Asked if he feels he can provide leadership, despite his comparatively lack of seniority, Larkin measured his response and credited others with helping show the team the way.
“A little bit,” he said. “I think if not vocally, then with my play. Anyone can lead, with that.
“You see guys like Darren Helm doing that now and ‘Vanner,’ even though he’s new, ‘Greener’ as well, stepping up.”
In a season with the potential of lots of ups and downs, the Red Wings got it headed in the right direction Monday.
An evolving leadership group helped hold the fort.
Red Wings at Rangers
Faceoff: 8 tonight, Madison Square Garden, New York
Outlook: The Rangers are 2-1-0 and have outscored opponents 14-10. ... LW Chris Kreider is off to a hot start (six points, three goals). ... G Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start.