Last year the Detroit Red Wings showed flashes of dominance that we have not seen since the Wings' back-to-back finals years.
They boomed off to a 17-4-2 start, and lead the NHL and Western Conference for almost all of 2010. The new year came and with it followed injuries and inconsistent hockey that resulted in seemingly endless three- and four-game losing steaks.
Lackluster defense and a little bit of a sophomore setback for Jimmy Howard had the Wings eventually fall to third place. For the second consecutive season they failed to reach the 50-win category, and once again were eliminated in the second round.
Probably the biggest difference between this year's teams and last year's team is defense. This is the primary reason I think Detroit is poised for a Cup run this year.
Last year, the Wings ranked 23rd in the league in goals against. This year the Red Wings are currently ranked in the top five.
Now the penalty kill still needs some work, but the defense has made probably the biggest turnaround out of every team in the NHL. The defense seems to be smarter with the puck and commits many fewer turnovers.
This turnaround is definitely a collective effort by all the Wings defensemen, but one major reason the defense is playing so well is because of the acquisition of Ian White. Ironically, defense was probably the biggest issue concerning fans going into this season. Losing Brian Rafalski was tough and he is still missed, but this Red Wings group is no doubt better this year.
White brings a physicality and toughness that the Wings were missing last year, and his offense has taken off much more than anyone would have expected. He has 20 points in only 37 games (very Rafalski-like numbers) and is a plus-24 (second-best among defensemen).
Now, let's not get confused—his intention was not to "replace" Rafalski. But his addition has added an element the Wings were missing.
Funny fact: Ian White makes less money the Jonathan Ericsson...yikes.
I was one of many excited for the return or Jiri Hudler last year. He put up 57 points the year before his departure to Russia, and was still only a youthful 26 years old. The Red Wings lacked depth in the 2009-2010 season, so I expected his return to result in great success.
I was dead wrong. He was awful. He put up only 37 points and a minus-seven rating.
This year looks much better. He has 27 points in only 40 games and is contributing at a much higher frequency. He still has a quite a bit of issues though. He can be lazy, slow and seems to get most of his points off rebounds and deflections. Nonetheless, he is putting up more points, which is very good in two ways:
1. Points from him mean goals for the Red Wings. Not complaining how he gets them.
2. The more he scores, the higher his trade value goes. He may very well be wearing another jersey at the end of the year, and the better he is doing, the more the Wings may get for him.
Another reason the Wings are better is because Valtteri Filppula is finally becoming a star. He has shown flashes of brilliance but has been inconsistent and injury-prone his entire career. Now the 27-year-old finally seems to have it figured out.
A player on pace for 70-plus points at the cost of $3 million? A bargain to me.
Along with the defense, Jimmy Howard is probably the biggest reason for the Red Wings' great start so far. He has carried the load with the lack of a decent backup, and has played sensationally night in and night out—Vezina-worthy goaltending this year.
He leads the NHL in wins while posting a .924 saving percentage and a 2.05 GAA.
Jimmy was a question mark heading into the postseason last season, but ended up being the rock of the team. From that point on, there was no doubt in my mind that Jimmy Howard is ready to be a Stanley Cup-winning goalie.
The Mike Modano experience failed. Jiri Hudler was a bust. Several prospects just weren't quite there yet. And on top of that, secondary scoring was an issue all season and was almost nonexistent in the Red Wing-Sharks series.
This year all major secondary scorers have stepped up and fulfilled their role. Todd Bertuzzi, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and Danny Cleary have all done a good job finding ways to generate scoring.
This year the Red Wings also have a major surplus in forwards. Cory Emmerton, Chris Conner, Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist are just some of the young exciting forwards that the Wings have had fill in this year successfully. Having depth is something every championship team needs in order to successfully make it all the way to June for the finals.
And don't forget about Darren Helm, Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader. The Red Wings have all the necessary depth to go deep in the playoffs
I say this comparatively. This year there have still been some unfortunate injuries. But the injuries this year pale in comparison to the last two seasons.
Last year, Pavel Datsyuk (who was on pace for 100 points at the time) suffered an injury in December and missed a third of the season. Several other key role players missed chunks of the season as well.
Two years ago had to have been the most injury-plagued season in history. I felt like a more fitting name for the team would have been the "Grand Rapid Wings." The Wings seemingly threw out a JV team for many of their games.
This year has been much better. Datsyuk hasn't missed a game, but that streak unfortunately ends tonight with a injury that is said to be not serious. Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen have all stayed healthy as well.
That's all I can ask for.
So what do we have on our side? A top-five defense, top-five offense, depth, Pavel Datsyuk (in my mind, the best in the world) and Jimmy Howard.
And to cap it off, over $5 million to play with before the trade deadline.