#4 Playing For Keeps
Coach Mike Babcock said this is the best team he has put on the ice since the 2008-‘09 season when the Detroit Red Wings were one win away from repeating as Stanley Cup Champions.
Many could argue the team wouldn’t sport the record they do (20-10-9) if it wasn’t for Babcock, who has been argued as the best bench boss in the NHL by many analysts and currently has one Stanley Cup and two Olympic Gold Medals in his trophy case. Babcock even surpassed the name on the Coach of the Year Trophy, Jack Adams, in W’s last season.
I believe the Wings’ players need to show him with their play why he should remain the head of Hockeytown. He has accomplished nearly everything he can in Detroit and may find it best to provide his services to another team with better night-in and night-out winning potential.
It’s known that he wants more control of his team, where he can be able to sit in on contract negotiations with Ken Holland and talk to the players he wants to coach. Holland might just be too stubborn to allow his job to shrink while Babcock’s grows.
The bottom line is his players want to play for him. They love him and are fighting for him to sign a new contract in his contract year this season. Babcock is poised as one of the highest profile names to hit the free agent market this off-season. Holland needs to buckle down and make Babcock the highest paid coach in the NHL to show him how much he means to the team and his players.
#3 The Granato Factor
When the Wings struck out in free agency, I bowed my head in shame and began reading the trade rumors swirling around Tyler Myers, Mike Green and many defensemen. Then, under the radar, the Wings hired Tony Granato as a replacement for the loss of Assistants lost to Hockey Canada (Tom Renney) and the Carolina Hurricanes (Bill Peters).
Upon the announcement of Granato, I held my head up and sat all summer in anticipation for our new defensive system. Granato, the one-time head coach for the Colorado avalanche, had spent the last five seasons as the defensive coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team who held a top-five rank for three of those five seasons in penalty kill percentage.
This year, Granato’s defense is at it again as the Wings sit fourth in the league in penalty kill percentage; up eight spots and nearly 4% from 2013-‘14.
#2 The Kids Are Alright
The continue surge from Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist has carried the Wings far this year as they each sit second in scoring to only superstars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
Tatar, currently leading the Wings with 16 goals, has been more of a surprise than Nyquist, whose name was all over the highlight reel to end the 2013-‘14 season. Each player sits with 26 points through 39 games this year and they have carried the team’s powerplay this year with 11 points (Tatar-tied 2nd on team) and 13 points (Nyquist- 1st on team).
On the backend, young players Danny Dekeyser and Brendan Smith have grown more comfortable amongst the worlds best players and have began playing smarter, more physical hockey.
Dekeyser, an undrafted college player out of Western Michigan University, saw immediate time in Detroit upon joining the team in the lockout shortened 2012-‘13 season, and played a vital part to the Grand rapids Griffins Calder Cup win in the same season. He makes a smart first pass and uses his reach to best players in the corners and keep the puck out of his net. In due time, his offensive game will develop more as he learns from Niklas Kronwall and his coaches.
Smith’s adaptation to the NHL hasn’t been as smooth as Dekeyser’s. A first-round draft pick of the Wings in 2007, Smith hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations thus far. But last year, after appearing to challenge Boston’s Zdeno Chara after a questionable hit in the corner, Smith showed his fierce competitiveness and that his team cant be walked over without his say so.
This season, Smith has built on that incident and began really striving to play his best and wipeout small errors and rookie mistakes within his play. He still has a lot to learn to stay a factor in the NHL, but he has held himself well and will continue to develop.
#1 The Man Between the Pipes
Jimmy Howard is playing his best hockey since he had #5 running the blue line in front of him. In a minimum of 30 games played, Howard ranks only second in GAA with 2.08 to league-leader Pekka Rinne’s 2.00. In those same minimum 30 games, Howard ranks fifth best in save percentage with .921 while he has posted two shutouts and 15 wins for the Wings this year.
After nearly every analyst predicted the Wings to land a top-four defenseman, Howard has carried himself well with such a learning defense in front of him, especially during a season with underperforming blue liners Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl.
Maybe his being selected to Team USA for the Olympics last year lit a fire under him and he set to prove his doubters wrong, or maybe it was the hiring of a new goalie coach this season.
It’s possible that he returns to his usual form from season prior and asks for more out of his defense, but either way, Howard has given his team a reason to win nearly each night this season and has hardly cost his team any W’s like he did in the past.