Detroit Red Wings: Continuing to defy the odds despite injury riddled season

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Detroit Red Wings have been ravaged by injuries all season. But that hasn’t stopped them from pushing on the door for the conference’s final playoff spot.

The Wings currently sit tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final two wild card positions in the conference with 80 points, one point ahead of both the Blue Jackets and Capitals.

With the vast majority of teams, when your top players miss significant amounts of any season, disaster is all but likely.

While the Red Wings have flirted with mediocrity, the young call-ups and inexperienced AHLers have seemed to hit their stride at the most important juncture of the season, masking the obstacles Hockeytown’s  team have faced all year.

Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen have combined to miss a total of 85 games this season. Assuming you’ve noticed, these are not your average pluggers and grinders missing time for Detroit, holder of a league high 22 consecutive playoff appearances.

These are the best players on the team and it’s really hard to win in the best league in the world without your best players.

Just to illustrate how decimated the Wings roster has been let’s take a look here.

As of March 24th:

Player Games Missed
Pavel Datsyuk 32
Henrik Zetterberg 26
Johan Franzen 27
Daniel Alfredsson 11
Steven Weiss 45
Darren Helm 40
Justin Abdelkader 9
Jonathan Ericsson 23
Todd Bertuzzi 17
Danny Dekeyser 16

Skills players, role players, penalty killers, powerplay specialists, you name it they’ve been hurt.

It’s highly impressive that the Wings sit where they do amidst the awful luck seen here. Their top players simply haven’t managed to stay in good health. A letdown was inevitable, but how the Wings have managed to do as well as they have all season with their makeshift roster deserves a closer look.

So how have they done it?

Well, Ken Holland and Hakan Andersson deserve a boatload of credit and seemingly remain a top reason why Detroit contends year after year.

The way Ken Holland has built this team through patient home-grown development and late round drafting success deserves a round of applause. Keep clapping because the amazing job done by European scout Hakan Andersson directly translates to the Wings success and his eye for talent overseas remains next to none.

The most recent picture boy of Andersson’s scouting prowess is Gustav Nyquist, who arguably deserves the most credit for the Wings ability to stick around in the playoff race through all the injuries.

The 24-year-old Swede was taken 121st overall in the 2008 entry draft.

Nyquist  spent the following three seasons playing for the University of Maine, compiling 144 points in his college career.

He then found his way to the Griffins of Grand Rapids, where he starred primarily until now. Nyquist’s skill has never been called into question, however, his size and draft status left many wondering just how effective he would be at the NHL level.

Starting the season for the Griffins, Nyquist amassed 7 goals and 14 assists in 15 games earning himself a call-up and an opportunity to make a positive impression on management.

Thrust into a more primary role due to injuries, the 5-foot-10 170 pounder has flourished beyond all reasonable expectations since that call-up. Nyquist leads the Wings in goal scoring with 23 – in 46 games – and perhaps even more surprising, since January 20th leads the NHL with 18 markers in just 23 games.

Being without Datsyuk and Zetterberg, it’s scary to think where the Wings would be without Nyquist’s sudden emergence.

This is what Detroit does though and this is why they are unlike any other team.

They find their stars late, out of seemingly nowhere, and years later they become difference makers. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Franzen of late, and let’s not forget to mention future hall-of-famer and third round pick Niklas Lidstrom who just recently retired.

They are usually forced to pick in the later positions due to their consistent playoff success, meaning their scouting staff needs to be that much better. They don’t have the options to draft the high profile prolific stars of Europe and Junior Hockey.

This forces them to dig deeper into the draft and make those later round picks count. Their tremendous success late in drafts over the last decade and change speaks for itself. Andersson deserves the scouting credit here, while Holland gets the credit for actually pulling the trigger.

There is currently one player within Detroit’s top nine point getters that was drafted in the first round. Niklas Kronwall was taken 29th overall in the 2000 draft. The other eight include a seventh rounder (Zetterberg), two sixth rounders (Alfredsson, Datsyuk), a fourth rounder (Nyquist), a third rounder (Franzen), two second rounders (Tatar, Abdelkader), and undrafted Danny Dekeyser.

Not many teams can say their top five scoring forwards were drafted in the third round or later. All but Alfredsson were drafted by Detroit.

While Nyquist has been garnering much of the attention lately, and deservingly so, other home-grown Wings draftees have taken on their increased roles admirably too. Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Tomas Jurco and Brenden Smith come to mind, with Tatar leading the way collecting 30 points to date.

Factoring in all the current injuries, of Detroit’s current 20 man roster, 14 players were drafted by the Wings and subsequently played for the Grand Rapids Griffins beforehand. Development at its finest.

The last member of the Red Wings brass to applaud is Mike Babcock.

He’s got a cup, two goal medals, and is naturally regarded as one of the better coaches in the hockey world. Without Babcock behind the helm, who knows where this team would stand right now.

The way Babcock has been able to employ the same game-plans and system structure without many of his regulars this season speaks volume to the job he does and why he’s so good at it. He has been able to seamlessly bring these young inexperienced players into the Detroit Red Wings style of hockey and hardly miss a beat.

So now as the final stretch of the season gets underway, the only question that matters weighs on the Wings and the rest of Hockeytown.

Does the streak reach 23?