Now that I'm back and the Detroit Red Wings are now exactly halfway through the 2011-2012 NHL season, it seems like an apt time to grade the team from top to bottom. Before getting started I'd like to put out the caveat that I am not a professional analyst and I'm just writing this out of my love for the team, yadda yadda, and I'm going to do my best to be objective. The postmodernist inside of me says that is impossible, but whenever my academic side tries to show itself in these posts I just hit the delete key to make it go away.
Here we go!
Detroit's forwards are not the best in the NHL, but they are definitely within the top five. I say that knowing Detroit is currently 4th in the NHL in goals scored and currently boasts five forwards with ten or more goals. Not bad. Even more impressive is their plus/minus record, with just one forward (Fabian Brunnstrom) in the negatives.
Perhaps the biggest story of the season so far is the solid play of Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, and Jiri Hudler. The trio represents three of our top five scorers and all of them are on pace for 50 or more points. Franzen, at one point, had a legitimate chance at 40 goals but has cooled off in a major way, leading the team with just 16 goals. Filppula has emerged as not only a scoring threat but a versatile playmaker who is just as entertaining to watch as Detroit's more prominent All-Stars, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Oh yeah, we have those guys too. Datsyuk remains a perennial All-Star who should be in line for some trophies near the end of the year and Zetterberg is cruising along with 32 points after struggling offensively in the earlier half of the season.
Discipline is hardly an issue among forwards as Detroit is the league's second least penalized team (behind the Phoenix Coyotes) and our leading PIM gathering forward is Todd Bertuzzi. Of the games I have witnessed it appears that he draws stupid penalties from time to time, but it's not something to complain about.
Overall, Detroit's forwards deserve an A for their scoring prowess and defensive-minded play, but a couple of the forwards have been mildly disappointing with their production. Hopefully, the second half bears more fruit for Tomas Holmstrom and Danny Cleary, who remain solid players regardless of scoring slumps.
As good as Detroit's forwards are, the defense is even better. Nick Lidstrom is still the measuring stick for all defensemen in the NHL and will likely remain so even after he retires from active duty. Their scoring production is right where it should be. Defensively, the Red Wings have given up the 6th least goals in the NHL, and the individual plus/minus of each regular defenseman is in the positives (excluding prospect Brendan Smith, who is -1 in three games).
As Lidstrom's career winds down, there needs to be a successor as the number one defenseman for Detroit. The logical choice is Niklas Kronwall, who has now reached the age of 30 and is in the prime of his career. A very hard hitting Kronwall, who just signed a seven year contract back on Halloween, is a great choice to be the go-to leader on the blueline. His offensive abilities are not as prominent as Lidstrom, but then again there are few defensemen who can compare. For now, Detroit can be satisfied with Lidstrom, Ian White, Kronwall, and Brad Stuart as their top four. There is a possibility that Brad Stuart may not resign with Detroit, as he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. However, Brendan Smith is an NHL ready defenseman in Detroit's AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, and with some shuffling should be in Detroit's lineup with regularity beginning next season. Combined with Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, and veteran journeyman Mike Commodore, Detroit's blueline depth is very impressive. The long term issue of resigning Lidstrom and Stuart doesn't have an impact on how I grade them today, but it's definitely something to be mindful of in the future.
Depending on who you ask, Jimmy Howard is having a phenomenal season that is Vezina Trophy worthy. Thus far Howard leads the league in wins and is top ten in every goaltending category. For Howard, this year marks a true turning point in his professional career. After racking up 37 wins in both of his first two seasons, he is on pace to be very close to tying or surpassing Martin Brodeur's NHL record of 48 wins in a season by a goaltender. It is likely that backup Ty Conklin will see more than the six starts he saw in the first half of the season, but the second half success Detroit needs to secure another division title will be on the back of Jimmy Howard. He's already proven he can handle the pressure of the regular season, and his numbers are up from last year. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Howard's season is that up until December 13th, he only lost five games. During that chunk of the season he won four in a row three times, including a seven game run in late November. Since then he's 6-4 and has seen his numbers take a hit, but it's only a matter of time before this "slump" is curbed.
To conclude, the Detroit Red Wings have earned themselves an A- for the first part of the season. Perhaps it is overcritical of me to give them anything less than an "A" considering they are once again on top of the NHL, but giving an "A" would mean there is no room for improvement. To be frank, their road record is dismal for a division leader. As it stands the Wings have an 11-12 record on the road, which needs to improve if they want to remain the toast of the town. In addition, their penalty kill is still not very good, sitting at 81.2%, good for 23rd in the league. These two issues warrant the A- instead of the solid "A".
Finally, for your viewing pleasure, a video of Johan Franzen punching Steve Montador in the face: