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Will 2009-10 Be a Tale of Two Seasons for the Detroit Red Wings?

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IDecember 31, 2009

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 06:  The Detroit Red Wings celebrate the goal of Dan Cleary #11 in the third period against 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

Quite honestly, I hate the New Year holiday.

Unlike other holidays, it has no cultural or religious significance, has no correlation to seasonal changes, and is based on the wholly arbitrary system of time.

Time is an illusion, a made up thing, a feeble attempt to apply some measurement to eternity.

New Year's is meaningless.

Unless you're a hockey fan.

If you're a hockey fan, December 31 means that your team is smack dab in the middle of their season.

Half (or very nearly half) of the 82 games they're scheduled to play are in the past, and the back end of their season is laid out before them.

In this way, New Year's for a hockey team is kind of like the clubhouse lunch between your front and back nine holes.

A brief period of time to reflect on what's gone well, what needs improving and, sometimes, what could turn out to be one hell of a finish.

For the Detroit Red Wings, the games they've played to the halfway point of the season have had some highlights worth remembering, but largely, this is a season start they'd very much like to forget.

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It's not that the Red Wings have been all that bad, but they certainly haven't been good.

While much of the reason (or excuse, depending on your point of view) for their inability to win with any consistency has been a ridiculous amount of key injuries, the healthy players that remain have been playing as if hampered by some unknown ailment.

Pavel Datsyuk has heated up over the past few games, but, for the most part, has been a shadow of himself this season.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski are both on pace for their worst offensive seasons of their career.

Despite a promise that last season was a one-time meltdown, Chris Osgood has come nowhere near playing up to the level we saw him at during the playoffs.

So, while awaiting the slow but eventual return of Dan Cleary, Henrik Zetterberg, Jason Williams, Nicklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and, someday, we hope, Johan Franzen, fans should be cautious in their hope that these returning players will provide the sufficient push to make the playoffs a reality for the Red Wings.

Will these players help the team?

Absolutely.

However, their returns are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a reversal in Detroit's fortunes.

The players on the roster now are more important than the players that will be on the roster later.

With the second half of the season before them, the Red Wings still have time to climb out of the Western Conference basement (which, to my mind, is any position below eighth) and hit the playoffs a fresh and dangerous team.

Lost in the agony of suffering so many names being added to Detroit's IR, there are a few players that could prove to be very valuable pieces when combined with players returning from injury.  Others will surely be cast aside as spare parts.

Rookie Justin Abdelkader isn't going to win any scoring titles in his career, but he has emerged into a solid, physical contributor with ample scoring ability. Think, Dan Cleary Junior here.

Even though he was scheduled to spend most of his time in the AHL this year, he should remain a regular in Detroit's lineup even after the team is totally healthy.

Drew Miller was a waiver-wire pickup brought in to plug the ever increasing holes Detroit saw developing in its roster.

Miller has seven points in 37 games played so far this season and has a respectable plus-1 rating.

He's the kind of guy head coach Mike Babcock loves.  Do the most with what you have, battle for every inch you can and do your best to get the other team wishing you weren't on the ice.

Though his spot on the team was never a question, Brad Stuart has thus far proved to be exceedingly more valuable than his second tier status would suggest.

Stuart has been Detroit's best penalty killer all season long and is the one player Mike Babcock is sure to put on the ice during the last few minutes of a game, especially if they're protecting a one goal lead.

That speaks volumes about Stuart's value to the team, a level that might get even higher once regular partner Nicklas Kronwall returns.

However, of all the players currently on the roster that can help make the return of, primarily offensive, players really count, it is rookie goalie Jimmy Howard.

As evidenced by Howard's brilliant, but losing, 39 save performance against the Columbus Blue Jackets, this kid is now Detroit's number one goalie, and with good reason.

In 23 games played, Howard is 12-8-2 with a 2.26 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Howard has been a rock in net for the Wings over the past 15 games and deserves more wins than he's got as the team in front of him has been shutout in three of them.

The idea that the Wings don't need Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Nicklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen back so that they can win games 6-5 is quite comforting.

With Howard in net, the Red Wings should have a very good chance of winning most games 2-1.

So, theoretically, the roster for (most of) the second half of this season and heading into the playoffs could look like this:

Forwards

Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Drew Miller, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Patrick Eaves, Kris Draper, Valtteri Filppula, and Jason Williams

Defense

Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Brian Rafalski, Jonathan Ericsson, Nicklas Kronwall, Brett Lebda

Goalie

Jimmy Howard

Not a bad lineup, if it materializes. But, there are a few noticeable omissions.

Ville Leino, Brad May and Kirk Maltby are among those that may not find themselves among the regulars if and when the Wings make it to the playoffs.

Leino's struggles are well documented and, unless he exhibits a complete 180 degree shift in his play, his remaining time in Detroit may be uncertain, let alone his spot in the lineup.

Brad May was brought in to provide Detroit with an enforcer, a sheriff to keep the riff raff on the other team in line. A one dimensional role to begin with, May hasn't even won most of his fights. 

With youngsters like Abdelkader and Ericsson stepping in when things get a little too dicey around their more talented teammates, I would guess May's meager services will be less required once Detroit is playing with a full and healthy lineup.

Maltby would be the toughest guy to leave off the roster, for reasons related both to experience and sentimentality, however, I think he's expendable.

If the Wings do make it to the playoffs, they'll be doing so with a core group that has played more hockey over the past three years than any other team in the league.

Having fresh, young and ably effective players sprinkled into the mix is going to be a huge bonus for this team.

With Drew Miller coming in to fill a fore-checking role, Detroit has a younger version of Maltby with more speed and more offensive upside.

Miller already eclispses Maltby in games played by six and has two more points and averages more ice-time than his veteran colleague.

Looking at this potential roster, one sees a good mix of star talent, veteran leadership and young energy that just might be able to provide the Red Wings with a respectable end to their season (i.e. making the playoffs and maybe even winning a round).

However, some stars are going to have start aligning for Detroit in 2010 in order for this to happen.

Younger players will need to continue to play well, the veterans will need to step up even more, and the injured will need to hit the ground running as soon as they return.

It could happen that the last half of the season is the complete opposite of the first half.

Then again, who doesn't envision going five under on the back nine after finishing ten over on the front?