Thursday November 3rd, 2011

Detroit's mysterious misery mix may include the Red Wings' players still learning to work with coach Mike Babcock's new assistants Bill Peters (left) and Jeff Blashill (right). (Photo by Ron Chenoy/US PRESSWIRE)

By Stu Hackel

They've been the NHL's most consistent winner, a pillar of stability since the early 1990s. But the granite that makes up Hockeytown's team is showing some cracks.

If it seems like only a couple of weeks ago that the Red Wings were one of the NHL's hottest teams, well, that's because they were. Unbeaten in five games, they were headed to Washington for a showdown with the Capitals, who were also undefeated. The Wings were routed in D.C. and they haven't won a game since.  It's their first five-game slide since January 2009 when, unlike this time, they were infested with the injury bug.

Now sitting at 5-4-1, Detroit has sunk to 12th in the Western Conference. This early in the season, that's not particularly troublesome, not when the teams that are tied for first are only five points ahead of them. But with a lot going wrong, coach Mike Babcock hopes his crew uses the six-game homestand that begins tonight (Thursday) against the Flames to turn their ship around.

UPDATE: The Wings lost again, 4-1 to the Flames, their sixth consecutive defeat. They've scored six goals in those six games.

If things are off kilter in Hockeytown -- and they are -- the problems start with a surprising lack of offense. It can be seen plainly in the team stats: Pavel Datsyuk, one of hockey's great two-way players, is a team-worst minus-5. Henrik Zetterberg, generally good for a point per game, has only four points in 10 games. Dan Cleary, who is playing hurt, has yet to score a goal. Tomas Holmstrom has one goal. Todd Bertuzzi, one goal. Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen have gone pointless during the losing streak. After producing points in each of his first four games, Jiri Hudler has gotten nothing since and was a healthy scratch in the 2-1 overtime loss to Minnesota on Tuesday. Defenseman Ian White, brought in as a puckmoving replacement for Brian Rafalski, similarly started well, but is now zip-for-six and minus-four during this stretch.

Detroit takes the most shots per game in the NHL, averaging over 35, but has scored only 23 goals in its 10 games, the fourth lowest total in the league. The Red Wings' power play ranks 23rd at 14.3 percent.

Ted Kulfan in The Detroit News wondered how a team with so much offensive talent can score only five goals in its last five games. "That's what we're trying to figure out, too," captain Nicklas Lidstrom responded.

Detroit's only goal against the Wild came on this unusual play, with Lidstrom playing like a center, abandoning his post at the blue line for the slot:

Babcock will break up Datsyuk and Zetterberg against Calgary. They've been linemates all season but, strangely, there's been almost no chemistry between them. Previously, when Babcock put them on different lines, it has been done reluctantly, to assist other players while spreading out their offense to get at least one of them away from checking. "We need more people going.  Maybe they can help them get going,"  Babcock said after practice on Wednesday, then addding, "They have to help themselves as well. We have to change some things up and see if we can't do a better job."

The strange thing is that when you watch the Red Wings, they are not getting dominated. They're either just not creating enough quality scoring chances or finishing enough of the ones they have manufactured. And when they grab some momentum, the Wings tend to hurt themselves taking bad penalties. Not only has their untimely lack of discipline been a sore spot for Babcock, but their penalty kill ranks 21st at 80.5 percent, well below Detroit's usual standards.

Nothing symbolized the Wings' -- and their fans' -- frustrations more than the game-winner on Tuesday that was scored by Minnesota's Devin Setoguchi.

With Franzen in the box after interfering with Wild goalie Josh Harding (the right call by referee Dave Jackson -- it's Rule 69.2 -- even though Harding was out of the crease, which is not a factor when the goalie is trying to make a save), the Wild had a 4-on-3 advantage. The race for the puck in the corner of the Wings' zone ended with Niklas Kronwall being dumped by Mikko Koivu, who set up Setuguchi's winner. We discussed yesterday why Koivu was not called for interference, but the sight of Kronwall -- who almost always comes out on top in physical collisions -- on his back while Koivu came away with the puck was a slap in Detroit's face, a bracing illustration of the Wings' current plight.

There are additional ingredients in this messy dish. The NHL's schedulemaker did them no favors with a first month's slate of games that was so spread out that it did not allow them to establish any rhythm. The retirements of key veterans Rafalski, Kris Draper and Chris Osgood robbed the room of some strong voices. Some of the older Wings are playing old. Bertuzzi, for example, hasn't lost his snarl, but he hasn't channeled it effectively, either. Holmstrom's skating, never an asset, looks even more labored.

In addition to Cleary's upper-body injury, veteran defenseman Mike Commodore (knee) has yet to play, although he'll see his first action against the Flames. There's also the curiosity of the Wings' new coaching staff. Babcock's addition of two guys with no previous NHL experience, Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters, means there's no one back there with him who ever sat on an NHL bench, which is highly unusual, although not unprecedented. It's possible that, at minimum, Peters and Blashill could be experiencing a period of adjustment; the worst case outcome would be that they don't develop a good working relationship with the players.

But those serve as explanations, not excuses. "The reality is," Babcock said post-game Tuesday, "we're not being good enough."

With all the gifted players wearing the Winged Wheel, this rough patch can be attributed to small errors and intangibles. The fine Red Wings blogger on Kukla's Korner, George Malik, compiled them: "Bad breaks and of course, as we all wear tinfoil around here, bad calls in addition to bad pinches, a dud of a power play and the kinds of fundamental mistakes that are as simple to correct as they are predictable for the Wings to make." Malik thinks it's all fixable. Perhaps he's right.

But what if the Wings have finally gotten too old? What if the under-30 group they've brought in during the last few seasons -- Filppula, Hudler, White, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Cory Emmerton -- can't soar to the heights of the Datsyuks, Zetterbergs and Lidstroms as these greats begin to fade?

If that's the case, this bird will have flown.

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