Heading into the season there were a lot of questions surrounding this Red Wing group that has undergone a serious overhaul over the last couple of seasons. Questions such as: How will the defense perform without Lidstrom? Who is Damien Brunner? Can the Red Wings continue their record playoff streak? After 10 games we have a better understanding about just what kind of team we have in Motown this year. So, here are 5 key things we’ve learned thus far:
1. Damien Brunner is for real. When the Red Wings brought Damien Brunner over from Switzerland this summer there were a lot of questions about what sort of impact he would have on the team. Would he have an immediate impact? Will he need time to adjust to the North American game? 10 games into the regular season most of the questions have been answered. Brunner is tied with Henrik Zetterberg for the team lead in goals with 5, and is a dangerous threat every time he’s on the ice. Brunner’s quick release is rapidly becoming the best shot that Detroit fans have seen since Brett Hull’s days in the winged wheel. No doubt that Brunner needs to clean up his play in his own end. Playing alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, arguably the best two-way forwards in the game will certainly help on that front. The only question about Brunner is no longer whether he can play; it’s whether he can keep it up?
2. Petr Mrazek is a revelation. Yes, I know it was only one game, but freshman goaltender Petr Mrazek’s performance vs. the St. Louis Blues was an epiphany for Wings brass. Mrazek stopped 27 out 28 shots against the same high-powered Blues offense that lit up the Wings for 6 goals in the season opener… and he looked confident doing it. I didn’t get the impression this was some sort of fluke where Mrazek got lucky. In his pre-game comments before his NHL debut Mrazek told reporters, “I don’t get nervous,” and that’s exactly how he played. Mrazek appeared very self-assured as he ate up almost every puck that came his direction. He has extremely quick feet and covers the lower part of the net well. And, he backs up his natural athleticism with rock solid positioning. A little healthy competition for Jimmy Howard is certainly not the worst thing in the world.
3. Special Teams stink. When watching the Red Wings’ special teams I feel like approaching Mike Babcock in the same manner the fan did in the scene from Slapshot when a guy confronts Reg Dunlop in the bar and tells Reggie: “You guys gotta get that powerplay goin,” to which Dunlop retorts: “Ya, we’re workin on it.” Well, if the Red Wings are working on it, it sure hasn’t paid any dividends. Assistant coach Tom Renney who received the bulk of the credit for directing one of the league’s top powerplay units in Edmonton last season has been unable to carry over that success with the Wings this season. The Wings powerplay is 26th overall, 30th on the road, and only operating at a whopping 12 percent. Add in the fact that the Wings also lead the league in shorthanded goals against and well I think you get the picture. But, on the bright side the penalty kill is equally as awful. The penalty kill is 29th overall, 30th on the road, and running at a cool 69.6 percent. It’s amazing the Wings are where they are considering how pathetic their special teams have been. If the Wings don’t get the powerplay and penalty kill going they are going nowhere fast.
4. The Wings’ Defense to quote former NFL football coach Dennis Green, “… are who we thought they were.” The Wings’ backend has struggled with consistency through the first 10 games and are 20th overall in goals against in the NHL. They have had some good spurts (last night in St. Louis), but also had some terrible lapses in other games against Calgary and Columbus earlier in the week. Granted, the Wings D have battled a slew of injuries up to this point, with Ian White, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Jonathan Ericsson all missing time with various ailments. Nonetheless, moving the puck out of their d-zone smoothly to the forwards has been their biggest achilles heel. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski completed this task almost effortlessly and it’s going to take the Wings D some time to develop in this facet of the game. UFA unsigned puck moving defenseman D Chris Campoli who could be signed on the cheap remains an option for GM Ken Holland. As well, D Ryan Whitney from Edmonton who has struggled early in the season might do well with a change of scenery, and could possibly peek Holland’s interest. On a positive note, young D Brian Lashoff has been a pleasant surprise for the Red Wings and has done an admirable job since being called up from Grand Rapids. And, before going down with a shoulder injury Brendan Smith has lived up to the hype. Smith looks like a budding star on the Wings’ blueline. Lastly, for all the flack Kyle Quincey has received in the early part of the season he leads the team in plus/minus with a plus 6 rating. Ultimately, a more consistent game-to-game effort from Detroit’s D remains the number one objective.
5. Playoffs still in sight. At the risk of tooting my own horn so to speak, as of today the Wings sit 7th place in the Western Conference standings (right where I predicted they would be in our pre-season projections here at Octopus Thrower: Detroit Red Wings Preseason Predictions). You can’t ask much more of this group considering all of the recent turnover then to be right in the thick of an ultra competitive playoff race. The Wings sit 1 point behind the Blues and trail the NHL leading Blackhawks by 8 points for first spot in the Central Division. Detroit has managed to avoid any crippling prolonged losing streaks and sport a reasonable record of 5-4-1. However, the Wings cannot afford any more gaffes against weaker opponents if they hope to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a record 22nd consecutive appearance. If the first 10 games have taught us anything, it’s this: the Wings are a respectable club that has a lot of room for improvement.