Detroit Red Wings: Biggest Concerns for the 2013-14 NHL Season
There was a time, oh, maybe around the middle of last February, when the Detroit Red Wings seemed destined to spiral into the ground.
It seemed as if the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, mounting injuries and their herky-jerky offensive production were all going to prove too much for the once-mighty franchise to overcome in time to make the playoffs.
It was during a five-game losing streak last February that many Red Wings’ observers, including this one, thought it was best to simply accept the fact that there was going to be no playoff hockey in Motown come May (which of course, would usually be April except for the senseless lockout we were all forced to endure, but I digress).
But when May came, so did Red Wings playoff hockey. And the team that seemed destined to fail for much of the 2012-13 season quickly morphed into the team that seemed destined to succeed as they had for much of the 22 seasons prior.
Now, we all know how their season ended.
A 3-1 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks in the semifinals quickly evaporated, yielding a heartbreaking overtime loss in Game 7.
Still, no one, not even the most faithful of Red Wings fans, expected they’d see their team take the eventual Stanley Cup champs the distance in the second round.
It was an early exit, but the Red Wings were no longer a team in decline. Once again, they appeared to be settled into their well-worn position as one of the NHL’s best teams.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, that’s just where many pundits would put the Red Wings.
While not the odds-on favorites to win it all (for the record, Vegas has them at 16-1), there aren't many who would be shocked to see the Red Wings as the last team standing in June.
There is indeed reason to be hopeful about the Red Wings this season.
They still boast two of the best players in the world in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk; Jimmy Howard has put any of their goaltending questions to bed; and Mike Babcock remains as, quite possibly, the best hockey coach on Earth.
Nevertheless, every silver lining has a dark cloud (read it again, it makes sense), and the Red Wings are facing some potentially serious issues this season that could very well derail their return to the land of the NHL elite.
Darren Helm's Never-Ending Injury Status
It’s been nearly 18 months since Darren Helm has been a part of the Red Wings’ roster in any regular way.
A knee injury in March 2012 kept him sidelined for the rest of that regular season, but Helm fought back to be ready for the playoffs—only to suffer a freak wrist injury during his first shift back in Game 1.
A debilitating—and mysterious—back injury suffered the beginning of last year has kept Helm off the ice since then.
Just when it looked like Helm might be ready to make his official comeback at the start of training camp this summer, he suffered yet another injury, this time a groin pull, which has set his recovery time back to, well, who knows at this point.
Helm’s importance to the team is large.
His tenacity and puck-pursuit instincts are vital as the team’s would-be third-line center, but it’s his mind-boggling speed that remains his most lethal weapon.
Additionally, his presence provides the Wings with the opportunity to roll three, deep, offensively dangerous lines.
Without him, the Red Wings are a less formidable team.
No offense to Joakim Andersson, but if the Wings are forced to rely on him to anchor their third line, this team will be substantially weaker down the middle.
Are Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson Going to Find Their Way in Detroit?
Speaking of weakness down the middle, that was supposed to be less of an issue upon the signing of Stephen Weiss.
The long-coveted center once referred to as “Weisserman” (a nod to his ability being reminiscent of the Red Wing’s legend, Steve Yzerman) was brought in to be the second-line center Valtteri Filppula never quite turned out to be.
While I think little can be gleaned from a player’s preseason performance, particularly a veteran like Weiss, his virtual invisibility during training camp and through the Red Wings’ preseason schedule is a bit concerning.
Weiss still has tremendous talent, and he has 82 games to prove his worth. Still, his value to the team is a big question mark at this point.
The same cannot be said—well, not exactly—for Daniel Alfredsson.
The Ottawa-legend-turned-Red Wing is sure to deliver some spectacular plays throughout the season and contribute both on and off the ice.
However, his true value to the team is tied, for the moment, to his ability to gel with his new center, the aforementioned Weiss, and fellow winger Johan Franzen.
Detroit’s de facto second line is a beast on paper but has been as intimidating as a kitten on the ice.
While it’s true that Weiss and Alfredsson are adjusting to a brand new system, new teammates and a new culture in Detroit, their respective contracts suggest they’re just about at the end of whatever learning curve they’ve been afforded.
The Special Teams Play Has to Be a Lot More Special
A Detroit Red Wings’ power play was once something opponents could only pray to survive—at least for the first minute. Invariably, putting the Wings up a man would yield nothing but heartache and a goal-against for whatever unfortunate team was forced to endure it.
Lately, though, it looks as if most teams are looking to grab a short-handed goal when facing the Red Wings’ power-play unit.
Ranked 15th in 2012-13 and 18th in 2011-12, the Wings have not capitalized on their chances nearly enough to keep pace with the potential of their talent.
Similarly, their penalty kill has been less than inspiring.
Hovering around 81 percent effectiveness the past two seasons, Detroit’s penalty-killers have let games and points slip away far too often during that span.
Red Wings’ assistant coaches Bill Peters and Tom Renney will need to inspire the penalty-killing and power-play units, respectively, to greater heights, or Detroit’s middle-of-the-pack special-teams play will continue to hamper their success this season.
How Green Is the Defense?
At the end of last season, the Red Wings’ defense came together just at the right time.
What looked like a hopeless patchwork of inexperience for much of the season suddenly became a fortified wall of strength toward the last two weeks of the season and into the playoffs.
While Detroit’s known quantities in Niklas Kronwall, Kyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson provided largely solid play throughout the year, it was the surprising development of both Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith that buoyed the blue line just at the right time.
Late-comer Danny DeKeyser (a free-agent acquisition straight out of Western Michigan University) was easily the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the season.
DeKeyser’s superb skating, low panic level and heads-up passing belied his complete lack of NHL experience, and his addition to the Wings’ lineup in mid-April instantly upgraded the Wings’ defensive corps.
Should injuries occur—and we know they will—the Red Wings have sophomore Brian Lashoff and promising rookies Xavier Ouellet or Adam Almquist, unexpected blue-line surprises in their own right, to rely on.
If you read that sentence again, it might make you a little queasy—and it should.
Not only is half of the Wings’ defense still finding their way in the NHL, the options available to them via replacements are greener still.
Don’t get me wrong, the Red Wings defense has the potential to be surprisingly solid. If DeKeyser, Smith and Kindl simply continue upon the trajectory they were on last season, the Wings will have little to worry about on the back end.
However, the Wings’ defense is far from the veteran, battle-tested, six pack they have had in the past, and, if they should falter, the options available to replace them aren’t likely to steady the ship.