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Clipped wings

by Ryan Hammond

The Wings earned a convincing victory over San Jose on Tuesday Night. They needed those two points. They were desperate for them. The season was on the line.

Those words have not appeared in print or on a word processor for a very long time. That means hockey in Detroit has been very good during the last 18 years, but it also means the team in red and white has some serious problems. Ken Holland was right when he said things were going to get difficult.

The team’s struggles are similar to the broomsticks from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene of Fantasia. Fixed a struggling offense? Now the penalty kill and defense are broken. Players have returned from injuries? You’d never know it with how some of them are playing, which implies they’re either still hurt or just not mentally up to speed.

Detroit’s best player this season has almost unquestionably been Jimmy Howard. Howard! He was considered a huge question mark in September. What would the team do if Chris Osgood had another poor performance this year? That question has been answered, though the Wings have several other perils to resolve, such as who plays in the playoffs, whether or not to keep Osgood for next season, and what on earth they will do if Howard becomes injured.

All coaches know that defense and goaltending are of chief importance to a hockey club, and that means Excedrin probably owns stock in Mike Babcock. As Ansar Khan noted, before last Friday’s game against Nashville, Detroit had “allowed five goals in consecutive games and 24 goals during a 1-3-3 stretch.” That’s a disastrous clip.

The Wings were known for a stingy defense over the last few seasons. Where did that go? Part of the problem is the continued aging of Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom. Both are great hockey players in the twilight of their careers, but they’re also the best defensemen on the team. It’s not good to rely on someone pushing 40 to crunch 30 minutes a night. That means more work for the likes of Brad Stewart (a decent but unexceptional stay-at-home defenseman) and the oft-injured and undersized Niklas Kronwall. The sound you hear is opposing forwards licking their chops at the edge of the crease.

Detroit’s defensive struggles will also likely be exacerbated in the future when Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby retire. Both of them have served long and fruitful careers in Motown as checking forwards, but father time has caught up with them too. They will likely decide leaving hockey is preferable to spending middle age in traction. The Wings used to think Tomas Kopecky would help fill that role, but he (like so many former Detroiters) bolted for greener pastures down I-94. As usual, that means Holland has to find a way to do more with less. The Wings’ brain trust is one of the best in hockey, but eventually even the best front office will achieve diminishing returns when the options run this low.

The NHL wanted parity, and its effects have finally come to the home locker room of Joe Lewis Arena. The new challenge may not be winning the Stanley Cup, but getting back in contention for it. We are beset by the dirty word that all “championship caliber” organizations hate: rebuilding.

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