Wings are down, but won't push panic button

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At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector's NHL Blog on Yardbarker.com for NHL rumors and analysis.

An unusually slow start by the Detroit Red Wings has their fans worried and their critics predicting the end has come at long last to their 17-season reign among the NHL's elite teams, which saw the Wings reach the Stanley Cup Final six times, winning the Cup four times. The Wings do have their share of problems early this season:
  • Injuries have hampered star forward Pavel Datsyuk and sidelined sniper Johan Franzen until February.
  • Due to limited salary cap space Wings management was unable to re-sign forwards Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler or adequately replace them via free agency.
  • The two-way style of play of Datsyuk and teammate Henrik Zetterberg leaves both susceptible to injury over the course of a long season, leading one pundit to suggest the two might be past their prime.
  • Veterans Nicklas Lidstrom (39), Tomas Holmstrom (36), Brian Rafalski (35), Chris Osgood (36), Kris Draper (38) and Kirk Maltby (36) appear to be finally showing signs of age.
  • Many of the young Wings — like 25-year-olds Ville Leino, Derek Meech and Jonathan Ericsson, and 22-year-olds Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader — lack significant NHL experience.
Their 3-4-2 start after nine games has some rumormongers suggesting head coach Mike Babcock might lose his job or general manager Ken Holland might shop some of his younger players for veteran help. Perhaps this is the season where age and the salary cap finally catch up to the Red Wings but those predicting short- or long-term pain for this franchise should be careful about their hasty portents of doom. For one thing, this season is not even a month old and there's plenty of hockey to be played yet. A 3-4-2 record does not a season make. Datsyuk and Zetterberg may be 31 and 29, respectively, but to suggest they're past their playing prime seems a premature assessment. Datsyuk is coming off back-to-back 97-point performances, and while Zetterberg's numbers have fluctuated over the past four seasons he's currently on a point-per-game rate to open this season.
Injuries could affect their performances, but both have shown over their careers a remarkable ability to quickly bounce back. While many of the Wings' key players are over 35, there remains plenty of skill, experience and leadership among the greybeards. Time may be catching up to Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Osgood, Rafalski and others, but it's still far too early to write them off this season. While younger players like Ericsson, Helm and Leino lack regular season experience they gave promising glimpses of their abilities when pressed into service in last year's playoffs. While the loss of experienced talent hurts the Wings in the short term it provides those players the opportunity to finally earn full-time roster spots. Forward Valtteri Filppula, 25, has been a regular with the Wings for the past three seasons, usually seeing second and third line duty, but this season should also provide him the chance to show what he can do with additional playing time and responsibility. It would also be foolish to suggest head coach Babcock might be replaced if the Wings continue to struggle. His puck-possession system has earned raves around the league over the past three seasons, and while he won't have as much talent to work with this season it's not as though he's forgotten how to coach. It'll take time for the younger players and the off-season additions to adapt to Babcock's system but there's a long season ahead and plenty of time to gel. Forget about Wings management making any panic deals sacrificing their club's future for a quick fix this season. Holland and team VP Jimmy Devellano are already on record preaching patience, saying the organization is prepared to accept this season as a transitional one. They're not giving up on it, hoping to still compete and make the playoffs, but neither will they toss away assets in short-term deals in hopes of making a third straight run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Wings maintained their status amongst the league's elite for nearly two decades because of wise front office decisions addressing short-and-long term needs, so there's little reason to suggest they'll start panicking because this season might not be as dominant for the club as in previous years. Assuming the salary cap for next season remains close to this season's $56.8 million, the Red Wings will have nearly $16 million in available salary cap space next summer. Figure about $6-$8 million could be needed to re-sign key players like Lidstrom and Holmstrom and affordable youngsters like Abdelkader and Helm, leaving between $8-$10 million to spend in next summer's free-agent market. This season's Red Wings roster may not be as deep in talent as in previous years and it might not finish among the elite but it would be foolhardy to take this club lightly or assume it's headed for a long decline.
Tagged: Ville Leino, Blackhawks, Canucks, Red Wings, Valtteri Filppula, Kirk Maltby, Mikael Samuelsson, Johan Franzen, Darren Helm, Brian Rafalski, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Jiri Hudler, Chris Osgood, Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson, Derek Meech, Kris Draper, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom

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