The toughest stretch of the Detroit Red Wings’ season couldn’t have come at a better time for general manager Ken Holland as he evaluates his team ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
"I’ll be watching four games this week against some teams I consider Stanley Cup contenders," Holland said before Monday night’s 4-3 shootout loss at Anaheim, one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Tuesday night, Holland’s team will play at Los Angeles, the defending Cup champion. On Thursday, the Wings are at San Jose, a team that always plays Detroit tough. Then on Saturday, the Wings conclude their six-game trip at Nashville, which is making a strong bid for the President’s Trophy with the best regular-season record.
"This give us a chance to see what we really think of our team," Holland said.
Pavel Datsyuk scored two goals Monday for Detroit, giving him six in his past five games and 21. One of the hottest players in the NHL, Datsyuk has 14 points in his last 10.
The Wings dominated the game for 50 minutes, then squandered their two-goal, third-period lead. Anaheim scored three quick goals, but with just under four minutes remaining, Riley Sheahan forced overtime with his 10th of the season.
The Ducks outscored Detroit 2-1 in the shootout as Jimmy Howard fell to 1-8 when penalty shots decide the game.
"I thought we played real good tonight," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We controlled most of the play. We played fast, did a lot of good things. I like the way we played, with the exception of about five minutes."
This was the third straight overtime game the Wings have played on this trip, and they have five points to show for it so far.
For those who like to look for silver linings, the head injury that kept captain Henrik Zetterberg out of the lineup Monday — and his participation is questionable against the Kings — gives Holland and his coaching staff another important way to evaluate his team.
Injuries are part of the game, and they tend to multiply exponentially in the playoffs because the intensity level rises. Players are often called upon to perform in other roles.
Can Sheahan center a second line like the Wings have projected since they drafted him 21st overall in the 2010 draft?
Luke Glendening can center the fourth line, and he’s acquitted himself nicely as a third-line winger. But can he center a third line like he did against the Ducks?
How will Stephen Weiss respond at center, his natural position, after bouncing around in several roles, mostly on the wing, this season?
Can defenseman Jakub Kindl continue where he left off Saturday, when he scored two goals in his first NHL game in seven weeks?
Can Alexey Marchenko continue to prove he belongs against some of the best competition the top league in the world has to offer?
These are some of the things Holland was able to ponder while Babcock shuffled his lineup with Zetterberg and defenseman Kyle Quincey (foot) unable to play.
Ultimately, Holland should have a much better feeling about what he might do before the deadline to improve his club for a serious playoff run.
As he’s said frequently lately, he’s not looking to add depth. The Wings have plenty of that at every position. But if Holland can upgrade a position by trading for a player who’s not a rental — without giving up a top draft pick — he won’t hesitate.
OK, but what are the odds of that happening?
"I don’t have an answer right now," Holland said. "I’m continuing to work the phones, talking to a lot of teams. I’m sure I’ll double back this week, or they will.
The difference between this year and most others, Holland said, is that his team has no glaring critical need, so he feels no particular sense of urgency.
"As I look at our team today, we’re not quite as desperate for a whole lot of reasons," he said, referring to his team’s place in the standings, its relatively good health compared to last season, and the development of several young players in the organization. "All those things factor into whatever decision we make."
To date, Holland likes what he’s seen of his young team.
"We seem to be resilient. We compete. We battle," he said. "What I like is that at times we might not look great, like in Dallas the other night, but we keep pushing.
"We were down by two and kept pushing, down by two again and kept pushing. And we found a way to win. Like we did in Chicago (to start the trip), we found a way to win it in overtime."
That resilience emerged again Monday when the Ducks battled back to take the lead. The Wings could have folded their cards and called it a night. But they didn’t, and Sheahan eventually scored off a lovely pass from Gustav Nyquist.
So Holland has much to ponder. And soon, he knows, he’ll face a somber moment of truth — the kind that can make or break a manager’s career — that he always does this time of year.
"At some point, I’m going to answer my phone and some GM is going to say, ‘I’m trading this player. Want to make a deal or not?’"
That moment, Holland expects, will come later rather than sooner.
This week is crunch time for a lot of teams whose dying playoff hopes turn them into sellers. Holland expects there will be some deals made, but most likely they’ill come in the final 48 hours or so before the deadline.