Red Wings Hope Youth Can Provide a Spark

Jim BalintCorrespondent IDecember 7, 2009

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 06: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates towards the goal under pressure from Michal Rozsival #33 of the New York Rangers on December 6, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

With the rash of departures and injuries piling up, the Red Wings need their “kids” to step in and play bigger roles on the team.


The team is hovering around the .500 mark, and inconsistent play is starting to frustrate the fanbase.


Because the team’s depth isn’t what it was last season, it is finally starting to embrace a youth movement and the growing pains inherent to developing that talent at an NHL level.


Today, I’ll take a look at the forwards the Wings have brought up from the minors to fill the voids left by free agency and injury.


Justin Abdelkader was called up last season for the playoff run. Replacing Tomas Kopecky in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals, he picked up his first NHL point, an assist on Johan Franzen’s goal. In the Stanley Cup Finals, he scored two goals in consecutive games, becoming the first rookie to do so since Dino Ciccarelli in 1981.


Abdelkader’s drive and physical play are what drew the attention of coach Mike Babcock. Babcock inserted him in the playoff lineup “because he’ll run over people. We expect him to play hard like Darren Helm. He’s on the forecheck and he’s a physical guy.”


Abdelkader gives the Wings power forward-like play, something that has been missing since Brendan Shanahan left.


His three goals and two assists aren’t completely indicative of his play this season. The Wings as a whole are struggling to put pucks in the net, and a lot of Abdelkader’s game involves doing the little things that don’t show up on a score sheet. He forechecks relentlessly and is willing to grind along the boards and fight for loose pucks.


The Wings have always taken pride in the ability to roll four quality lines and wear an opponent down. Abdelkader makes the most of his ice time, and even if he isn’t generating scoring chances, he is wearing down the opposition’s players. He won’t lead the team in scoring or minutes played by season’s end, but he will be integral to the Wings' success.


Darren Helm was also a playoff revelation. He was first brought up as a playoff addition in the 2007-08 run that saw him score two goals and add two assists en route to a Stanley Cup win.


The following season, he was sent back down to Grand Rapids. However, the Wings thought enough of his previous performance to give him another shot in last year's playoff appearance. Helm netted four goals last postseason, including a series-clinching goal against Chicago to send the Wings to the Finals.


This year is Helm’s first extended stay in the big leagues. The challenge will be to try to replicate his production from the playoffs and maintain that throughout a full NHL season. While he has been giving a sustained effort, spending lots of time on the forecheck and penalty kill, the points just haven’t been there. The goals should come though.


With opponents’ top defensemen having to watch Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Helm’s speed can put tremendous pressure on the other defensemen, causing turnovers and creating havoc. He’s one that Detroit needs to step up and assume a bigger role in the scoring department if the team is to make any progress toward the playoffs.


Expectations have been high for Ville Leino since his signing. His last season in the Finnish Elite League he won MVP honors, scoring 77 points in 55 games. In his first NHL game, he scored a highlight reel goal against Washington.


This past July, he signed a one-way contract extension, ensuring his chance to showcase his talent at the highest level. Early on, he has shown ability on par with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. He needs to get acclimated to the NHL game and become more comfortable and consistent with his play.


Five points in 25 games isn’t terrible for a rookie, but the Wings had higher expectations for Leino. He’ll live up to them; the team just needs to be patient.


Michigan State’s own Drew Miller will have his work cut out for him. He was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning in early November, as the team needed someone to fill in for the injured Valtteri Filppula.


Working primarily on the third and fourth lines, he has made an impact. He scored a gritty goal against Nashville, picking the puck up from the half-boards and driving it to the net, beating goalie Pekka Rinne low on the short side. It provided the team with a much-needed spark but proved to be Detroit’s only goal as they lost 3-1.


He will have to step his game up if he hopes to continue playing with the team. Filppula will return from the IR later this month, and Miller is the likely candidate to be sent back down to Grand Rapids.


All in all, the team’s young forwards have played well, but they will need a much better effort to get back into playoff contention. With Jason Williams expected to be out until January and Johan Franzen out until at least mid-February, they have a lot of time to assume larger roles on the team and prove they can play at an elite NHL level.