Thursday’s Thoughts

What will we around Detroit do with ourselves in April and May if the Red Wings fail to make the playoffs?

That hasn’t happened since 1990, in case you’d forgotten.

I suppose we could take in more Tigers games, but Comerica Park keeps itself packed all season, even with the fan base splintering over to playoff hockey at the Joe.

It sure will be strange, if the regular season ends and the Red Wings are on the golf course the next day.

In order not to think that way, you must have faith that the Red Wings, currently in a dogfight with six other teams for the two wild card spots in the East, can get hot just in time to have spring hockey once again in Detroit.

It won’t be easy.

There are 29 games remaining—16 on the road, 13 at home. So the Red Wings are going to have to continue carry the water away from JLA, as they’ve been able to do for the most part all season, if they’re to accumulate the points needed for post-season play.

Under the NHL’s new playoff format, the top three teams from each division automatically qualify for the playoffs. Then there are two, at-large wild cards, regardless of division.

Right now, the Red Wings have 57 points. The two highest-ranking teams after the six automatic qualifiers—and thus wild cards if the playoffs started today—are Montreal with 61 points, and Detroit and Carolina are tied with 57 points. Three teams have 56 points (Ottawa, Columbus and Washington), and New Jersey has 55.

Crazy!

It’s only going to get crazier as the season nears the final leg. No team looks to be able to separate itself from the pack. As always, the race for the playoffs is likely to go right down to the final buzzer of the season.

The Red Wings, buoyed lately by strong play from the kids from Grand Rapids, are sure to be getting healthier shortly, as several injured veterans re-join the cause.

But don’t kid yourselves. There’s a real possibility that we won’t be able to enjoy the Red Wings playing Eastern time zone playoff games until 2015, at the earliest. Only a four-game winning streak at the end of last year’s truncated season kept the 22-year playoff streak alive.

It’s a race on several fronts. Not the least of which is the race to get players back into the lineup before any potential drop in the standings occurs.

Last year was a frantic finish. This year’s is sure to be every bit the same. But the Red Wings are far and away the least healthy team right now among the six who are in a logjam. If that changes, they should still be the favorites to be playing spring hockey yet again.

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Thursday’s Thoughts: Second Half Preview

Road, sweet road. Or, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like the road.

The Red Wings are right where they like to be—as far away from Joe Louis Arena as possible.

Their five-game road trip continues tonight in San Jose, where they have yet to play this season, thanks to the NHL’s gerrymandering.

With the second half of the season in full gear, it’s time to look at areas that will be key to the Red Wings’ success in 2014.

1. Home ice. This has been belabored but the team’s Jekyll and Hyde thing with home and away ice is strange, to say the least. I get anomalies, but the difference in the Red Wings at home versus on the road defies that. It smacks of something mental. Believe it or not, I submit that the Red Wings feel defeated before they step onto their own ice, which is crazy talk but also crazy enough to be true. A reversal of fortune at home is crucial to overall team success in the second half.

2. Health. “The glass is half full” person will tell you that things can only get better when it comes to getting guys back from sick bay. The Red Wings are still several key cards away from a full deck, but the situation does seem to be slowly righting itself. Figure that sometime in February, after the Olympics, the Red Wings will (finally) be dressing their full complement of players. Just in time to make a playoff push.

3. Goaltending. Jimmy Howard has to prove himself all over again, and while this isn’t what the Red Wings thought they were signing up for when they inked Howie to that 6-year extension last winter, well here we are. Maybe the Olympics break will help take Howie’s mind off his (so far) below par season. But make no mistake: the Red Wings’ fortunes still start and stop with no. 35 between the pipes.

4. Daniel Alfredsson. The Gallant of free agent signings to Stephen Weiss’s Goofus. Alfie is 41 years old and it will be interesting to see whether his body can keep up in the second half, or if it will start to run out of steam. He’s had a nice, if not spectacular season so far, and with the Red Wings goal-challenged, they will need everybody on deck in 2014.

5. The Olympics. This affects every team in the league in some way, shape or form, but it might affect the Red Wings more, as they have a boatload of players heading to Sochi. In other words, the Red Wings will be, technically, one of the least-rested teams coming off the Olympics break. Will this be a factor?

6. The Power Play. When you have trouble scoring 5-on-5, a successful PP can help forgive that. After a strong start, the Red Wings’ PP has leveled off to around the middle of the pack (actually slightly below). If they can pick up the pace in this category, it will take a lot of pressure off having to score while at full strength.

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+

Thursday’s Thoughts

Thursday’s Thoughts returns after a two-week hiatus due to Thanksgiving and home obligations.

The Red Wings are staggering and are at a critical point in the season.

Right now their standing is OK—in third place in the Atlantic Division, which is a guaranteed playoff spot under the NHL’s new playoff format (top three teams in each division make the playoffs, plus two at-large wild card teams per conference). But it’s a tenuous third place, with the struggle to win at home and in shootouts still plaguing the team.

All that, plus an injury list that is growing like Pinocchio’s nose, and you have the makings of uneasiness.

The Red Wings got Pavel Datsyuk back the other night after seven games missed due to concussion-like symptoms, and Pavs celebrated his return by scoring a goal. But his EuroTwin, Henrik Zetterberg, is out until at least December 28 after the team moved Z to the long-term injured list.

Stephen Weiss is out indefinitely with a groin, Darren Helm remains out with a shoulder, and goalie Jimmy Howard “tweaked” his knee. Don’t forget defenseman Danny DeKeyser, still out with a separated shoulder.

You can crack all the jokes you want about Weiss being out (2g/2a), but his loss still impacts the team from a depth perspective.

The Red Wings are a perfect sample team for the age old question: Are you a glass is half-full, or half-empty person?

Half-full: The Red Wings can’t win at home, but the second half of their schedule is more road-heavy, where they are 10-3-2 so far this season.

Half-empty: The road success can’t possibly continue, and thus the Red Wings have squandered an opportunity by blowing so many games at home.

Half-full: The team has been able to stay in the playoff race despite a so-so season from their starting goalie.

Half-empty: Howard still hasn’t shown any real signs of coming out of his slump (despite a recent shutout on Long Island), and now he has a knee situation to deal with. And it’s almost Christmas.

Half-full: It’s good to get the injuries out of the way now.

Half-empty: What if the injuries don’t stop?

Half-full: The power play has been mostly good. Same with the penalty kill.

Half-empty: Special teams go in spurts; the team is due to slump in both areas.

Half-full: They’re still in third place, for goodness sake!

Half-empty: Other teams in the division are due to get hot.

So…what does the Red Wings’ glass look like to YOU?

Thursday’s Thoughts

Every Thursday I’ll give you my quick $0.02 worth.

Tonight’s tilt with the Dallas Stars at JLA kicks off an important four-game home stand for the Red Wings.

Not only is it four straight home games, but home wasn’t very cozy the last time the Red Wings appeared before their Hockeytown faithful.

In fact, the Red Wings are winless at home since October 15. The last three games on JLA ice have resulted in a tough 1-0 shootout loss to San Jose, a 6-1 hammering by the Ottawa Senators, and a much-ballyhooed 3-2 OT loss to the Rangers.

It was the Rangers loss, in which goalie Jimmy Howard was peppered for 40 shots, that got coach Mike Babcock’s dander up. The Red Wings then went on the road and had a very back-to-basics, successful 3-1 trip to Western Canada.

So here they are, back at home, and seeking to make some hay at JLA. We’ll see if the commitment to puck control, forechecking and attention to detail that we saw on the last road trip materializes at home, starting tonight against Dallas (7-6-2).

Tonight’s game marks the first in a stretch where the Red Wings play seven of eight at home, so this is a crucial point in a young season.

Thursday’s Thoughts

Every Thursday I’ll give you my quick $0.02 worth.

I was very impressed with how Mike Babcock had the RWs ready to play on Wednesday in Vancouver. There was urgency from the opening face-off, and they kept at it even after they fell behind, 1-0 in the first period.

This tells me that Babcock can still grab the players’ ears, after some eight years behind the RWs bench.

This was a game the RWs needed, and after Babs bitched and moaned for two days after the Rangers loss, I was eager to see how the team would respond in Vancouver to kick off a 4-game road trip that several players said came at a good time.

Well, the team responded very well and it shows that they’re still playing for Mike Babcock, all hands on deck.

Also great to see Patrick Eaves back in the lineup! Here’s hoping Darren Helm joins him soon!