It wasn’t pretty, but Sunday’s 6–5 win over Boston was very much symbolic of Detroit’s season so far. The Red Wings were down 3–1 at one point in the first period but they leaned on their old guard, getting two goals each from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, to storm back and secure a key 6–5 win over a division rival.
The Wings got off to an underwhelming start this season under their new coach, Jeff Blashill. On November 16 the were fifth in the Atlantic Division but have since put up a 21-10-8 record, good for second. There’s always a learning curve with a new bench boss but the manner in which Detroit’s roster has responded through the meat of the regular season points to a seemingly perpetual inevitability in the NHL: The Red Wings are just too deep to not contend for a playoff spot year in and year out (we're at 24 straight and counting). And with five of their next nine games against teams out of the postseason picture or hanging on to a Wild Card spot, Detroit looks poised to claim its first division crown since 2010-11.
The learning curve under Blashill after the departure of Mike Babcock seemed to be less about implementing a new structure and more about a new face and personality behind the bench. Babcock had seen the rise of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and most of the Red Wings talented veteran core but with little difference in the type of on-ice systems he and Blashill employ, the transition was a quick one. Blashill still has Detroit activating their defensemen into the rush and playing as a cohesive, five-man unit. The results speak for themselves: Since November 16 the Red Wings have played a typically strong possession game (52.6% even-strength Corsi For, eighth in the NHL) and are finding ways to score as well ( after the Boston game they had a +13 even-strength goal differential, third best in the NHL).
Credit is due to Blashill for ensuring the transition from Babcock was a smooth one, but the real reason for Detroit’s success, as is usually the case, is the depth in their lineup.Besides Zetterberg and Datsyuk, the Wings’ top five scorers include rookie Dylan Larkin, who is a frontrunner for the Calder Trophy, as well as Justin Abdelkader and Tomas Tatar, who are both producing the second-highest points per 60 minutes totals (all situations) of their respective careers. For all the inherent risk in relying on Zetterberg and Datsyuk, two skaters who are on the long side of 35, the supporting cast has quietly gone about its business.
As we approach the February 29 trade deadline, the list of buyers in the market will be obvious. Washington, Florida, Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago will all try to upgrade and fill holes for Stanley Cup run. But a look up and down Detroit’s roster begs the obvious question: Do the Red Wings even need to make a drastic move? This team might just be good enough as is to contend for the Eastern Conference crown.
Detroit GM Ken Holland is up against the salary cap. That’s a blessing and a curse: The Wings won’t be able to do much in the trade market, so their focus will be on readying the pieces they have for a the playoffs. There are no glaring gaps in the lineup. Petr Mrazek has emerged as a likely Vezina Trophy candidate, sporting top five numbers in both save percentage and goals-against average. Jimmy Howard hasn’t looked capable of taking the Red Wings to the next level in recent years but Mrazek, like many on the roster, is heating up at just the right time.
There are 25 games left on Detroit’s regular season slate. Over the course of those games, it should come as no surprise if a typically strong Red Wings team emerges as one of the most formidable dark horses in the East.