Thursday’s Thoughts (Mid-season grades)

They’re baack! After being off-and-on for several weeks, Thursday’s Thoughts returns.

The Red Wings officially started the second half of the season and it looked a lot like the first half—a loss in a shootout.

It doesn’t matter, apparently, if the Red Wings play at home, on the road, or outdoors in the snow—they’re destined to lose if the game goes beyond 60 minutes.

But the loss in the Winter Classic aside, it’s time to give out some grades. I won’t do individual grades; I’ll leave those to the newspaper beat writers who watch the players up close every game.

Special Teams. After a fast start, the power play has settled to right around the league average (18.7 for Detroit vs. the NHL avg. of 18.2). The lack of right-handed shooters doesn’t help, but the main culprit has been not enough traffic, consistently in front of the opposing goalie. That, and the Red Wings still tend to want to make that extra pass—a holdover from their Cup days, when tic-tac-toe was more than just a children’s pastime.

The PK, however, has remained consistently strong. Detroit kills off 84.6% of its man disadvantage situations, while the league average is 81.8. The strength here has been with guys like Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and Darren Helm (when healthy).  What’s troublesome is that the Red Wings have been on the PK 20 more times (156-136) than they’ve had a power play. Thank goodness they kill penalties well.

Overall grade: B

Offense. The Red Wings have scored 109 goals, good for 17th out of 30 teams. In the first month or so of the season, getting secondary scoring was like pulling teeth. Injuries and players falling short of expectations contributed to that. But so did the lack of players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Jurco, who all joined the big club from Grand Rapids well after the season started. Since the addition of those young players (mostly out of necessity due to injuries), and with Helm returning, secondary scoring has seen an uptick.

Still, Detroit’s production has been hamstrung by awful years from Stephen Weiss (now out indefinitely with a sports hernia), Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary, to name three. Offensive-minded defenseman Danny DeKeyser, another player slowed by by injury, has fallen back to the pack a bit after a wicked start to his NHL career last winter and spring. He still has a high ceiling, but he needs to find the consistency that so many young players—especially those from the college ranks and who are not used to playing 82-game seasons—struggle with.

Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk continue to be the big guns, but they have gotten some more help as of late. Daniel Alfredsson is doing well for a 41-year-old youngster. Johan Franzen remains his lovable, streaky self. Todd Bertuzzi still has soft hands, though his numbers don’t show  it. You may disagree, but TWW says that Justin Abdelkader could be a key player in the second half. The MSU grad—who ironically scored at the Big House on Wednesday—has the skill and toughness to be a 20-goal, 100 PIM guy.

Overall grade: C+

Defense. This isn’t a grade of just the defensemen. It’s overall defense, and this is pointed out because the forwards are just as guilty as anyone of committing turnovers, whether in the neutral zone or the defending zone. The Red Wings are outshooting their opponents, 1267-1198, but it’s quality chances allowed where the team struggles. The team GAA is 2.53, and the 120 GA ranks 22nd in the league. When was the last time the Red Wings ranked so low in goals against? Just last season (though truncated), Detroit was fifth in goals against, with 115 in 48 games. This year, the Red Wings have surpassed 115 in seven fewer games.

Kronwall remains the team’s best defenseman, but he has gotten help from Jonathan Ericsson (injured), Brian Lashoff, a pleasantly surprising (after a slow start) Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl. Lagging behind are Kyle Quincey and DeKeyser. But the unit, despite the elevated GA, has the potential to be a solid one if they stick together. Ericsson was extended in November, which is good news. A right-handed shot would be great on the blue line, but that might be nitpicking.

Overall grade: C+

Goaltending. Wasn’t this figured out, finally, when Jimmy Howard signed his six-year extension last year? Howard made the Olympic team, but he’s been anything but stellar this season. For a time, backup Jonas Gustavsson was playing far better, but Gus has cooled off. Petr Mrazek, in a handful of games, has been OK. But let’s face it: Howard is the no. 1 guy, but he has not played anything close to it since they dropped the puck on opening night. There have been a few occasions where it’s looked like Howie is ready to put it together, but then he has a relapse. The shootout loss in the Winter Classic provided more fodder for the Howie Haters. The Leafs’ two goals in the shootout were both hard shots along the ice—one between the pads and the other to the stick side. Howard actually played well in the WC. Both of Toronto’s regulation goals were kind of fluky.

But the bottom line is that, as Howard goes, so will go the Red Wings, ultimately.

The team save percentage is a pedestrian .910. Howard’s is .907, and his GAA is a too high 2.72.

Grade: C-

Coaching. Mike Babcock has had to reach deep into his bag of coaching tricks this season. Besides line juggling, Babs has tried coddling, prodding and even calling people out publicly. Nothing has worked for any length of time. Consistency has eluded the team. Early in the season, Babcock said it looked like the team had no coach at all. Too often the team has come out sluggish, and way too often it has blown two-goal leads. It’s tempting to suggest that the team might be tuning the coach out, but injuries have been pervasive, so it’s maybe not fair to judge the coaching the same way as in other, more healthy seasons.

This might be Babcock’s most difficult year, personally—something that he would never admit right now. It sure is testing his coaching chops.

The move to the East came in the nick of time; no way do the Red Wings contend for a playoff spot in the West this season.

But if the young kids keep getting better, and the sick bay shrinks, and all those guys can come together at the right time, i.e. peak late in the year, then the Red Wings won’t be a team others would want to face in the playoffs, should Detroit qualify. The Olympics break may help the injury situation. But it still comes back to the goaltending situation—as usual.

Grade: B-

Overall team grade: C+