Detroit Red Wings' 5 Biggest Questions Ahead of the Olympic Break
Before everyone takes off for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Detroit Red Wings have two important games on the schedule.
With the Olympic break looming, the Red Wings find themselves in the final playoff spot in the East, but they're holding on by the skin of their teeth. The seven teams vying for the two wild-card positions are separated by a mere five points.
Detroit is coming off a hard-fought win over the Vancouver Canucks on Monday following a home-and-home split with the Washington Capitals over the weekend. Just 5-3-2 in their last 10, the Red Wings have a lot of work ahead of them.
The youth infusion has breathed life into a stagnant offense and raised some interesting queries regarding the immediate future of the club. With established veterans scratched in favor of younger legs, Detroit could be moving away from a veteran bias.
With 10 players headed to Sochi and the rest on vacation, concerns are left behind regarding the rest of the season and securing a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.
Here are five of the Detroit Red Wings' biggest questions ahead of the Olympic break.
Will They Ever Be Healthy?
Certainly the biggest question of all, the Red Wings have just two “iron men” who have played every game this season in Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey.
The injury bug has bitten the team's stars, and it’s been an issue all year. Detroit has played without Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard on multiple occasions and for extended periods of time.
Datsyuk hasn’t played since the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and has missed 21 games in total, but he could return on Thursday. Franzen has dealt with concussion symptoms since Dec. 15 and has played one game over that stretch.
Howard has dealt with a lingering knee injury but appears to be on the mend. Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson left Monday’s game after the first period with dizziness and has already had two stints on injured reserve.
The young players filling the void—Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening—have performed admirably and helped Detroit remain alive in the playoff race.
What happens when the injured players return?
Stephen Weiss, who has played just 26 games this year, has resumed skating and is on schedule to return for the first game after the Olympic break on Feb. 26.
If Datsyuk and Franzen aren’t far behind, then Sheahan, Jurco and Glendening are likely to return to Grand Rapids in the AHL.
If the break can provide Detroit the necessary time it needs to heal, then it could be in prime position to make a run up the Eastern Conference standings.
Will the Defense Provide Any Consistency?
Detroit’s last two games are perfect examples of the inconsistency provided by its defensive corps all season.
On Sunday afternoon, Detroit broke out for five goals in regulation against the Washington Capitals, but the play in its own zone was cataclysmic, resulting in a 6-5 overtime loss. The defense responded by shutting out the Vancouver Canucks on Monday while allowing just three shots in the third period.
Of Detroit’s seven starting defensemen, only three have a positive plus/minus rating, with Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Dan DeKeyser combining for a plus-17. Brian Lashoff, Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith total a minus-27.
After an impressive 2013 postseason, Detroit’s blue line was saddled with a lot of pressure to improve this year.
Kindl finished second on the team in 2013 with a plus-15 in 41 games and was a major contributor in multiple situations. This season, he has rotated in and out of the lineup with Lashoff and Smith and is second worst on the team at minus-11.
Brendan Smith has been the most inconsistent D-man. One moment he appears to be a promising defensive stud and the next a rookie in over his head. He was a healthy scratch for Monday’s bout with Vancouver.
Should things continue on this path, Detroit may be forced to look for a temporary solution outside of the organization. With the way the team has flirted with the salary cap, it’s more likely the shuffling will continue until someone steps up.
What Will Happen with the Aging Veterans?
Because of the impressive showing from Detroit’s younger players, some of the aging veterans on the roster could be on their way out.
It’s not clear what general manager Ken Holland has in mind, but with the salary-cap issue and the eventual return of Stephen Weiss, the chips need to fall.
Detroit has already waived Jordin Tootoo and Mikael Samuelsson to free up roster spots and minimal cap space. Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi have been healthy scratches for the last few games, and it appears it will continue.
Samuelsson’s $3 million contract continues to count against the salary cap as a term for players 35 years and older. Bertuzzi has the same condition in his contract and his $2.75 million deal would still count against the cap should he be waived. Cleary makes $1.75 million.
Waiving either player won’t provide worthy cap relief and at this point, they’d simply have to be moved.
A small deal could be reached just to eliminate the financial burden; however, there isn’t exactly a niche market for players over 35 with an unattractive price tag.
Coach Mike Babcock prefers to pencil in his best players, and it’s known to change from game to game. Right now, there is no doubt that Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening have been the better players and should remain in the lineup going forward.
The NHL issues a roster freeze for the entirety of the Olympic break beginning on Feb. 7 at 3 p.m. ET. The freeze will be lifted at 11:59 a.m. ET on Feb. 23 and essentially creates another trade deadline.
Detroit may be looking to unload some of its salary before the break to make the return of Weiss a smooth transition. If the Wings are unsuccessful, they’ll have to find other means to ensure his spot on the roster and still stay under the cap.
It’s a convoluted system and for the moment, it has Detroit’s wings tied behind its back financially. Unfortunately, Detroit’s most attractive commodities are its younger prospects. In order to move salary, a potential commodity may have to go the other way as well.
Whether or not a move is made soon, Detroit still has up until the NHL trade deadline scheduled for March 5.
Should Pavel Datsyuk Participate in the Olympics?
It is certainly the experience of a lifetime, but should Pavel Datsyuk play for Team Russia in Sochi?
He was named captain of his home country heading into the Winter Olympics on their own soil. Datsyuk was given the honor to lead a team including the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The concern stems from a groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup since the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Detroit has gone 7-5-2 since Datsyuk went down and could certainly use his magic.
If Datsyuk isn’t 100 percent and pushes himself to play in Sochi, further injury could cause bigger problems for the Red Wings. The team is optimistic that Datsyuk will return for Thursday’s game against Florida, but that remains to be seen.
Should he be healthy enough to play these last two games before the Olympic break, the concern will greatly lessen. General manager Ken Holland expressed his opinion to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun:
I don’t believe I have the authority or the power to prevent someone from going to the Olympics. That’s the player’s call. When it comes to Pavel Datsyuk, I certainly understand the special opportunity he has, representing his country in his homeland, to be captain, to maybe win a gold medal in your home country, that will be with you for the rest of your life.
Holland’s position is perfectly understandable, and a player should consider his employer as a top priority.
It’s a difficult situation for Datsyuk, but after all is said and done, if he’s not healthy enough to play for Detroit, then he shouldn’t play in Russia. As a business, Detroit’s franchise has invested millions of dollars in Datsyuk to play for its club, and his health is a very real concern.
Johan Franzen suffered a concussion on Dec. 15 and has played in just one game since the injury. He recently declined to play for Team Sweden so he could get healthy, and some wonder if Datsyuk should consider the same.
It appears, as long as his practices progress well, everything will work out for both parties. Datsyuk will skate in the Wings' final two games, suit up in Sochi and everybody will be happy.
Datsyuk is a professional and understands his personal priorities. It’s hard to imagine him taking part if he wasn’t absolutely sure he was ready.
Can They Make the Playoffs for a 23rd Straight Season?
While a 23rd consecutive postseason appearance is on the to-do list, the road back to the playoffs will not be easy.
The Red Wings are currently in the thick of the playoff race, and their next four games are all on the road against divisional foes.
The Red Wings have the league’s 10th-best road record but are just 11-11-8 at home. Detroit won’t play another home game until March 6 against the Colorado Avalanche. Even though it’s five road games split by the Olympic break, it’s still a long time to play away from home.
20 of Detroit’s final 26 games will come against Eastern Conference opponents, 18 games against current playoff teams and 12 within the Atlantic Division.
The opportunity is there for the Wings to gain ground, separate themselves from the pack or dig themselves into an insurmountable hole. The fact that they appear to be getting healthy is a big step in the right direction.
Should Datsyuk return Thursday, they’ll be waiting on Johan Franzen and Stephen Weiss to fill out the roster for the first time in months.
This team has a proven track record of taking care of business when it needs it the most. In 2013, the Wings were pushed by the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets for a playoff spot before winning their final four games to secure the seventh seed.
The team’s leadership has been forced to come from nearly every position imaginable as the playoffs approach and has been able to elevate its game.
The way the Red Wings have remained in the hunt without their excessive star power leads this writer to believe they’ll be just fine down the stretch.