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Struggling Red Wings Can Look To Unlikely Source for Inspiration

Jim Balint@MrJBalintCorrespondent INovember 30, 2009

MONTREAL- NOVEMBER 21:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings waits with team mates Pavel Datsyuk #13 and Brad Stuart #23 for the shootout round to begin during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens on November 21, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Red Wings defeated the Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Sitting near the bottom of the division is certainly not where the Red Wings expected to be at this point in the season. Now is not the time to panic, however. They can look to a familiar foe for proof of that.

The off-season losses of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky and Ty Conklin in addition to injuries to Johan Franzen, Valteri Filppula, Jason Williams and Niklas Kronwall certainly stung, and the Wings got off to a slow start. They are now playing about .500 hockey.

They got hot in late October and early November, winning seven of nine games and closing the gap on first place Chicago to one point. However, it was a pace they just couldn’t keep up. They have now lost five of their last seven and are three points ahead of the St. Louis Blues for last place in the division.

Things certainly don’t look good for the team, but that doesn’t mean all is lost.

Just last season the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Wings’ opponents in the last two Stanley Cup Finals, experienced a similar start to their 2008-09 season.

After losing to the Red Wings in six games in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Pittsburgh’s trade-deadline addition Marian Hossa left in free agency, and signed with the Wings. The Penguins also lost gritty forwards Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu. To top it all off, top defenseman Sergei Gonchar was injured in the pre-season, missing half the regular season.

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Like the Red Wings this season, the Penguins opened the season in Sweden, where they split two games. The Penguins limped through the season, posting a 27-25-5 record, and on Feb. 14, they found themselves in tenth place in the conference, five points out of a playoff spot.

Gonchar finally returned in mid-February, bolstering the defensive corps, but GM Ray Shero knew the team needed more tweaks. On Feb 15, Shero fired then-coach Michel Therrien and promoted AHL coach Dan Bylsma.

Shero wasn’t done shaking things up. On Feb. 26, he traded Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz, essentially giving star center Sidney Crosby a new winger to help shoulder the offensive load.

From there, the Penguins went 18-7 to finish the season. They claimed the four seed in the playoffs, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The moral of the story, Wings fans, is to not get too uptight about this early-season funk.

No, it’s not the typical Red Wings team we're used to. But there's a good reason for that.

The Wings haven’t seen the injury bug bite this bad in years. Keeping in mind that key players are on the IR coupled with the fact that the team’s depth isn’t what it used to be, being in the Wings’ position at this point in the season really isn’t so bad.

Franzen coming back from injury is perhaps the most important piece. He was both a physical presence in the lineup and a very potent offensive threat. He also makes the other players who stay on the perimeter better.

Kronwall would be the next integral part to get back. The Wings have precious few physical players as it is, so losing one of them hurts that much more, especially along the blue line. The team has done a decent job without him, but having him back would put a second thought into the minds of forwards coming down the wing.

Filppula added a nice bit of scoring depth to the third and fourth lines, but the Wings can certainly make do without him.

The Wings are better off with Williams out of the lineup. It gives younger players like Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Drew Miller much needed experience and that will only help the team’s depth come playoff time. While there may be growing pains along the way, the end result will be worth it.

Top defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski need to look to create more offense and help the new forwards. Both were much more involved in the offense last season, and the team could use their help now more than ever

The Wings won’t have to be quite as drastic as the Penguins last year in order to turn things around.

After players return from the IR, they really only need to address two areas. Adding some depth to the blue line would allow Lidstrom and Rafalski to take more chances offensively. If both Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood continue their inconsistent play, adding another goaltender would restore some confidence in the crease.

This team is certainly capable of going on a run similar to Pittsburgh’s to end the season. They’ve proven it already this season. Once fully healthy and playing together as a cohesive unit, they have the talent and experience to rattle off wins and make that run to the playoffs.

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