Last week, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland commented that he likes his team and is comfortable as the February 27 trade deadline approaches. His club has the most points in the NHL right now, validating his position. And there has been much to like about his team thus far.
• Valtteri Filppula has already passed his personal best in points (40, in 2008-09) and linemate Jiri Hudler has produced more consistently during the past two months. Both developments were hoped for coming into the season.
• The Red Wings have had solid depth scoring and they've improved defensively overall -- again, elements that were listed as needs coming out of training camp.
• Putting them over the top to date is Pavel Datsyuk's MVP-quality season, the ridiculously consistent excellence of captain Nick Lidstrom, and the All-Star caliber play of goaltender Jimmy Howard.
But now, Howard is on the shelf for what he says will be two weeks, even though doctors pegged the recovery time for healing his injured finger at 4-6 weeks. With that, does Mr. Holland still stand pat? Can he afford to?
The answers depend on the ability of veteran backup Ty Conklin. Early in the season, Howard missed a couple of games when his wife delivered their first child. Conklin did not seize the moment and the team went on to endure a six-game skid. He wasn't the goalie of record in all of them, but his shaky showing played a part.
The Wings have played so well since then that it is easy to forget that dark stretch of games. Howard's brilliance over the subsequent three months rendered Conklin's role to one of spot duty, and Conklin has been credited with just three of the team's 35 victories.
Saturday night in Edmonton, though, it was all about establishing a base for playing a block of games as the go-to guy in Howard's absence. It couldn't have gone much worse, as Conklin and the Wings yielded three goals, trailed 3-1 after one period -- with the third tally coming just after Detroit had pulled to 2-1 and just before the final tick of the clock sent the teams to intermission. The timing of both -- the late goal and Conklin's tentative performance -- clouded Detroit's course of action in the big picture.
In the short-term, Joey MacDonald came in -- freshly recalled from Grand Rapids in the AHL -- to begin the second period. He played with poise and confidence, allowing the Wings to come back and get a point although they lost their first shootout of the season. He played exactly the way coach Mike Babcock was looking for from Conklin.
Babcock's quick hook of Conklin didn't feel as if it was solely rooted in the moment. Conklin's body of work as the backup hasn't endeared him to the coach, thus his short stint in net before being sent to the bench. Babcock then turned to MacDonald on Monday night in Phoenix, but the Wings fell 3-1. With a six-game home stand looming, is more than Detroit's 17-game win streak at Joe Louis Arena on the line with Howard on the shelf?
I mean, can the Wings truly keep their standing in the ultra-competitive Central Division and Western Conference with Conklin and MacDonald in tandem for a significant stretch? Doesn't Holland have to look at available goaltenders -- particularly since the coach hasn't seen the necessary puck-stopping from Conklin to make him feel comfortable?
Opting to start MacDonald in Phoenix indicates a need in the short-term beyond who is on the roster. Now it becomes Holland's decision to weigh the merits of adding a goaltender for the stretch drive against the long-term cost of dealing prospects, picks and/or players as the core of his team gets older.
Yet, the list of candidates who could step in and make a difference is short and sketchy. Marty Turco is playing in Europe and can opt out of that contract if he receives a NHL offer prior to the trade deadline. The Islanders have Evgeni Nabokov -- a logical but potentially pricy option, as well as Al Montoya. Michael Leighton is staying sharp in the AHL, but is he any different than MacDonald?
Ken Holland's reality is that he needs Conklin and MacDonald to piece together six solid outings on home ice and hold the Red Wings' position in the standings. Both have won in the NHL before, and with no real upgrade available, this is their time. And it will be manageable if indeed Howard returns in two weeks as he predicted.
Any longer than that, Holland's decision gets tougher, as does the challenge for the Red Wings to stay atop the Central Division without their All-Star netminder.