Detroit Red Wings winger Daniel Cleary celebrates his goal against the… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
The Detroit Red Wings expected life would be complicated after the retirement of incomparable defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and pesky forward Tomas Holmstrom. But they didn't expect a steady stream of injuries would constantly test them and force them to rely heavily on rookies this season.
"We're probably right about where we thought we'd be, but we thought we'd have a way different team," Coach Mike Babcock said. "We knew it was going to be scratch and claw for us this year, just with our back end."
But scratch and claw they have, sweeping two statement games from the Ducks in Anaheim on Friday and Sunday. The victories lifted the Red Wings to fifth in the West and gave every indication they'll extend their playoff streak to 22 straight seasons.
"It's a short season and we have a lot of changes. Especially the Lidstrom and Holmstrom change," center Pavel Datsyuk said. "We just try to figure out how to play without these two special boys."
They're figuring it out now. "Every game is much better and better," Datsyuk said.
General Manager Ken Holland has made the Red Wings the model for building and maintaining a powerhouse. Their scouts found gems such as Datsyuk 171st overall and Henrik Zetterberg 201st and fueled a strong farm system that gave the Red Wings the luxury of leaving kids in the minor leagues for a while to mature.
They don't have that luxury anymore but they're making things work. Spurned last summer by free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter, they've successfully blended rookie defensemen Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff into their lineup. They've recently been missing defenseman Kyle Quincey and an entire line because of injuries — Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi and Darren Helm — but they're still tough to play against.
"Other than Nik Kronwall, everybody on defense is 28 years of age or younger," Holland said. "We think some of them are going to get better, but we've got to do it the old-fashioned way: patience, draft and develop."
Holland also said Detroit's payroll structure will allow him to fill needs through free agency this summer.
"We're hoping we're going to go into a new building in three, four years. There's a lot of talk about a new building," he said of replacing Joe Louis Arena. "Right now we're sitting at $44 million for next year. We have lots of cap space, but we've got to sign Jimmy Howard, and Val Filppula is unrestricted…. All in all I'm pretty happy to be in the thick of things. We control our fate."
Simply getting into the top eight is their goal, and it's achievable.
"It's been a transition for us, and then with injuries we've had to show our depth as an organization," winger Justin Abdelkader said. "We've had guys come up from Grand Rapids and play big roles. I think it's going to make us a lot stronger and better team for that."
Visors: Seeing their way clear
NHL players will be asked about grandfathering visors into use, a significant step in the debate about safety vs. choice.
Facial protection is mandatory in leagues leading to the NHL, but some players remove their visors when they reach the big time. Mathieu Schneider, a former NHL defenseman who is an executive with the NHL Players' Assn., said about 72% of players wear visors. Grandfathering them in — as was done with helmets — means players who don't want to wear one wouldn't have to adopt one, but it would be mandatory for players who enter the league after a specific date.
Agent Pat Brisson of CAA, whose client list includes Penguins center Sidney Crosby (visor) and Kings center Anze Kopitar (tinted visor), said about 80% of his clients wear visors.
"I highly recommend players to wear one," he said. "It should be easier for the ones coming into the NHL as they are used to it since for the most part they never played without one. It should be grandfathered into use."
Not everyone agrees. Allan Walsh of Octagon Hockey urges clients to wear a visor but thinks individual choice should prevail.
"Players should wear them but should not be compelled to wear them against their will," he said. "Players are well informed on the benefits of wearing a visor and the risks associated with not wearing one. If they choose to forgo a visor, that's their decision."
Renaud Lavoie of Canada's RDS network reported that Calgary winger Jarome Iginla told the Flames he would accept a trade to the Kings, Chicago, Boston or Pittsburgh. The Flames want an established player and a first-round draft pick, a lot for a nearly 36-year-old who can be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Rumors that the Kings will give up goaltender Jonathan Bernier for Iginla make no sense. … As Suter goes, so goes the Minnesota Wild — and both are going at full tilt. The Wild has won five straight and is 14-5-1 since Feb. 9, while Suter has four multipoint games in his last seven and 26 points in 30 games to go with a league-leading average ice time of 27 minutes 14 seconds per game.