As the Detroit Red Wings reach the 41-game mark of their season on Monday night, Ted Kulfan provides a midseason report.
Dylan Larkin: He’s growing into a leadership role while also becoming more of a consistent offensive force this season. Larkin is shooting the puck, he’s playing with speed, and looking like a dangerous No. 1 center. He keeps taking steps forward in such a promising career.
The rookies: Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski aren’t even 21 and they’ve been regulars from opening night and looked very comfortable in the lineup. Add the contributions of Christoffer Ehn and, recently, Filip Hronek, and the Wings look to have promising pieces with these youngsters.
Jimmy Howard: Several years ago, Howard looked on the verge of leaving Detroit and maybe becoming a backup somewhere. How he has transformed his career and become the undisputed No. 1 at this point in his career is a testament to his character. An unrestricted free agent on July 1, would the Wings deal him at the deadline, then re-sign him as a free agent?
Can’t overcome injuries: The Red Wings have had plenty H2of key injuries — Danny DeKeyser, Mike Green, Anthony Mantha, Darren Helm, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson — and simply haven’t had the depth to overcome them all. They need everyone on board to have a chance.
Special teams: The power play and penalty kill were areas the Wings sought improvement. But at the halfway point, the power play is ranked 20th and the penalty kill 23rd, and there’s been little appreciable progress year-to-year. Injuries haven’t helped, but it needs to get better.
Home record: Little Caesars Arena has become a touch more difficult for opponents, but not nearly enough. The Wings have only won eight games at home (8-9-3), fans still spend too much time anywhere but in their seats, and actually possessing a home-ice advantage continues to be an elusive element in Year 2.
Dylan Larkin: You can make a strong argument for goaltender Jimmy Howard, but Larkin gets a slight edge for his consistency, production, versatility and continued improvement. There aren’t many sure-fire building blocks on this roster, but Larkin is unquestionably one.
Nick Jensen: Jensen didn’t have a great training camp, and found himself a healthy scratch on opening night before four rookie defensemen. Not exactly a good way to start. But maybe it was a wakeup call, because Jensen returned to the lineup the next night, played well, and hasn’t stopped since. He could be a good bargaining chip at the trade deadline.
Three reasons to be optimistic
Goaltending: Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier have provided the Wings with quality goaltending nearly every game, or at least a chance to win, which is all a team can ask. If Howard is traded, this could change. But if he stays, there’s no reason to believe this will become a problem area.
Young players’ development: Players like Larkin, Bertuzzi, Athanasiou, Mantha, Rasmussen, Cholowski, among others, have shown enough progress to give the Wings reason for optimism in the future. There’s plenty of room to grow, but the opening steps continue to be taken.
More draft picks: The Wings have 10 picks heading into June’s draft, and are likely to have quite a few more given the pieces they could trade at the deadline (Nyquist, Howard, Daley, Glendening, Vanek, Jensen, etc.).
Three reasons to be pessimistic
Veterans need to play better: Veteran forwards such as Nielsen, Vanek, Abdelkader and Frk didn’t do enough to overcome numerous injuries to the defense in October, and their production hasn’t been good enough overall through 40 games. The Wings have needed more.
Too many teams to pass: If you are still thinking playoffs, well, we’ve seen this before the last two seasons. The Wings are 12 points from Buffalo for an automatic playoff spot, and nine points from Montreal for a wild-card — and only two points from the basement. There are too many teams to pass. And this time, the Wings have already played more games than anyone in the conference. They’re in a tough spot.
Record within the division: It doesn’t help that the Atlantic Division is arguably the deepest in the NHL this season, and the Wings are only 4-7-3 within the division.
Gustav Nyquist: Nyquist is a free agent in July, and there are plenty of prospects to move into the lineup beginning next season. The Wings aren’t likely to be interested in a long-term, big-money contract. Nyquist has played good hockey and should garner a nice return in trade.
Niklas Kronwall: He’s been a respected veteran for many years in this organization but is in the final year of his contract, and he’s gotten everything out of that body he could. The Wings will be lesser by not having his professionalism.
Ken Holland/Jeff Blashill: Holland has one year left on his contract, Blashill’s contract ends after this season. There are the constant rumors surrounding Steve Yzerman’s likely return to the organization. Holland and Blashill’s futures remain a bit murky. How the second half plays out should shed more clarity.