Two months into the National Hockey League season, our very own Detroit Red Wings are right where we're used to them being: first place.
The Wings have been the class of the NHL in 2010, losing just six times in their first 22 games this year en route to a 16-4-2 record and a first place standing atop the Western Conference. Counting their post-Olympic run last year, Detroit is 32-7-4 in their last 43 regular season games.
In an 82-game season, the first span of 22 games is a good spot to take a look back at the first two months of this season and see just what has been going down in Hockeytown. Here's what we've learned so far in 2010.
Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are having bounce-back seasons
There were a lot worried people in Red Wings Nation when star forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk struggled offensively through a good part of last season. Zetterberg and Datsyuk both notched 70-point years and were the top two scorers on the team yet again in 2009-10, but goal numbers were down significantly for two people the Red Wings count on to score. Injuries, especially to Zetterberg, played a key part in the totals, but fans expected more from their talented duo.
This season it's been a complete turnaround for the Euro Twins. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are showing up on the score sheet more often, once again ranking 1-2 in points on the team as they've done for so many years. Both are on track for 30-plus goal seasons yet again. Now that the Wings have so much depth at forward, head coach Mike Babcock can play the two on the same line, which is when they are at their most dangerous. When Zetterberg and Datsyuk are on their game, they're nearly impossible to stop. It appears the two are on track for yet another stellar season.
Todd Bertuzzi loves him some Hockeytown
Two years ago it looked like Todd Bertuzzi's career might be coming to an end. A former 46-goal scorer, Bertuzzi hasn't netted more than 18 since 2005-06, when he scored 25 in his last season in Vancouver. After a failed 20-game stint with the Wings in 2006-07, he bounced from Anaheim to Calgary the following two seasons and eventually wound up back in Motown last year on a one-year contract.
Bertuzzi was brought in to bring some size and toughness along with a scoring touch that could produce 20-25 goals. While he never reached that plateau, he played in every single regular season game (one of only three Red Wings to do so) and scored 44 points during the regular season. He impressed in the playoffs as well and general manager Ken Holland had enough confidence to give him a two-year extension and a raise.
He hasn't disappointed.
Bertuzzi has been one of the Wings' most consistent players so far this year, producing four goals and 14 assists in the first portion of the season. Whether he's playing on the first line or the third line, Bertuzzi has been productive. He has a good chemistry with center Valtteri Filppula and has even--gasp!--been solid defensively. Fans weren't too enthralled with him when he arrived before last season, but his night-in, night-out effort has won over a majority of the fan base.
Sophomore slump? What sophomore slump?
Breaking his way onto the NHL scene at the tender age of 26, Jimmy Howard had a sensational rookie year. Taking over the starting role from Chris Osgood, Howard proceeded to win 37 games and nearly won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
There are always concerns with a player entering a slump in his second season. But so far Howard has given Red Wings fans no reason to fear. In fact, it's been just the opposite. Howard has been lights out, posting a 14-2-2 record and a 2.52 goals against average this season, quelling the concerns of a sophomore slump.
Maybe even more impressive, he's done this with basically no safety net behind him. Osgood has been injured for most of the season, leaving AHL veteran Joey MacDonald as the team's only option if Howard goes down to injury. Howard has prevailed under the pressure, leaving no doubt who the top dog is between the pipes in Detroit.
Need more proof to comfort you? Howard has lost only three times in regulation the last 36 games, going 29-3-4 dating back to last year. The only disappointing thing about Howard this year was his snub from the All-Star ballot.
Mike Modano may not have been worth all the fuss
Mike Modano coming back to play for his hometown team for possibly his final NHL season was a big deal over the summer in Detroit. After the Dallas Stars decided not to bring back their all-time leading scorer, Detroit was instantly a top candidate to grab him. The Wings were really the only team Modano ever considered, and the star forward signed a one-year pact for the relatively low cost of $1.75 million.
Modano was brought in to center the third line with Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler, but that line never turned out to be the force many were hoping for. Cleary has earned himself a spot on the top two lines with his team-leading 11 goals and Hudler has been in and out of the lineup due to ineffectiveness, making Modano's job a lot harder than it was supposed to be.
Modano had just two goals and eight points in his first 20 games as a Red Wing, and he won't be able to add to those totals anytime soon. Modano severed a tendon in his wrist last week against Columbus and will miss a major chunk of the season, possibly 8-10 weeks. It's too early to tell if the Mike Modano Experiment was a failure, but it's looking more like the Red Wings should have saved their money.
Not playing in the NHL for a year does in fact hurt your game
Jiri Hudler wanted more money.
That's just the way it is, and no one is faulting him for it. After his most productive season in his short NHL career in 2008-09, Hudler knew he was going to be worth more on the open market, and the Kontinental Hockey League obliged. Russian squad Dynamo Moscow offered Hudler a tax-free, two-year, $10 million contract and the diminutive forward pounced on it.
In hindsight, it wasn't the best career move. Dynamo folded after the season, forcing Hudler to come back to the Red Wings. More importantly, the year away from the NHL seems to have knocked Hudler off his game.
Hudler put up similar numbers in the KHL (54 points) to what he did in the NHL the previous year (57), but it's obvious now that the talent in North America is just superior. Hudler has not been able to fit back into the club after a year away and has been in and out of Babcock's doghouse through the first part of the year. Hudler has just one goal--which was more of a fluke than anything--to go along with five assists and has just looked off the whole year. Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller have been far better options for the Wings at both ends of the ice. It can't be sitting well with Holland when nearly $3 million worth of talent is on the bench, but that's the way it has to be if Hudler isn't producing.
With Modano out for an extended period, Hudler will be given more than enough opportunities to produce. There's still a lot of time for him to turn it around, but the first 22 games have not been kind.
The Red Wings have the best forward options in the league
Even though Hudler and Modano haven't lived up to expectations, the Red Wings' forwards as a whole have exceeded them. The usual suspects like Johan Franzen, Datsyuk and Zetterberg are all doing their thing, but it's the second and third-tier players that have impressed the most.
At the top of that list is Cleary. A former first-round draft pick, pretty much everyone had given up on Cleary before he got to Detroit. In Detroit, Cleary has not had the expectations of a first-round draft pick. He's finally able to just play his game, and Detroit is reaping the benefits. Cleary, who's twice scored 20 goals with the Wings, leads the team in goals with 11 and even briefly moved up to the top line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg (although Babcock's lines usually don't last more than five minutes).
The so-called young guns have also been impressive thus far. Leading that bunch is Justin Abdelkader, who wasn't even on the squad for most of last season. Abdelkader has filled the Kirk Maltby agitator role perfectly and has even contributed three goals and four assists on the offensive side. Fourth-line regulars Darren Helm and Patrick Eaves have been solid defensively, and Drew Miller has been good as well when he's in the lineup.
Most teams are at a severe disadvantage when their fourth line is on the ice; Detroit has no qualms about skating theirs out against the other team's top unit.
Nicklas Lidstrom is still the best defenseman in the league
At the end of last season there was a contingent--albeit a very small one--of Red Wings fans that thought Nick Lidstrom should hang up the skates. At 40 years old, Lidstrom looked like he might have finally tailed off in his 18th NHL season, posting his worst offensive season since the lockout-shortened 1994-95 year.
But in year 19, Lidstrom has returned to form.
A notorious slow starter, Lidstrom has torn through his first 22 games in 2010. With three goals and 17 assists, the captain is third behind Datsyuk and Zetterberg for team points. Lidstrom is currently sixth in the NHL among defensemen in scoring and has at least two games in hand on all the players in front of him.
Perhaps more impressively, Lidstrom is doing all this while still logging over 24 minutes a game in ice time. He's been logging large chunks of ice time for years, but to do it at age 40 is just unheard of. He's rightfully back among the top contenders for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, and Red Wings blog Nightmare on Helm Street even started a campaign for the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. He's certainly deserving.
Detroit is once again the team to beat in the West
An injury-plagued 2009-10 campaign and an early playoff exit had to make many opposing fans happy. Nearly two decades of success has made the Wings one of the most envied franchises in sports, and a little adversity was fun for a lot of people to watch.
Considering that, 2010-11 likely hasn't been much fun or the opposition.
Detroit has returned to form and to the top of the standings. On many nights they have not been at the top of their game and still have come away with a victory more times than not. Wednesday's 5-3 win in San Jose was the Wings' best overall effort this year and proved the team is for real again.
Detroit leads the Central Division by four points over defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago, which has played five more games. The Blackhawks had to gut their roster to get under the cap and with Marian Hossa out for the next three weeks, the Central moved a little more into the Red Wings' corner. St. Louis and Nashville are struggling and two wins this past weekend over Columbus showed the Blue Jackets aren't quite ready to make the big leap to contender status yet.
It's a long road ahead, but it's been a promising one so far for the Red Wings.