Dan/Danny/Daniel Cleary is struggling this season. This much is certain. In 25 games for the Red Wings, Cleary has registered only three points playing 14 minutes per game. He hasn't registered a point since the 5-0 drubbing of the Edmonton Oilers on November 2nd and, in the 10 games he's played since then, has picked up 12 of his 16 penalty minutes on the season.
Before Pavel Datsyuk went down to injury, Mike Babcock placed he and Cleary together on a line to try and get the veteran winger some confidence, but even that didn't work. Lately, Cleary has been relegated to the fourth line with two other underperforming veterans in Stephen Weiss and Mikael Samuelsson while youngsters Joakim Andersson, Darren Helm, Tomas Tatar, and Gustav Nyquist flourish in bigger roles. Even more concerning, Cleary has seen his time on the penalty kill severely limited in the last two games.
On the season, Cleary has played about 85-90 seconds per game on the PK, making him a 2nd unit PK regular on what has become the league's third-best penalty killing team this season. However, after receiving no penalty kill time against the Sabres on Sunday, Cleary only played 33 seconds of PK late in Wednesday night's game against Boston. His PK time in both games being taken by Justin Abdelkader, whose 3:11 PK time in those two games is nearly half of the total time he's spent on the ice shorthanded all season.
It's not all bad for Cleary, the team's 2nd-leading scorer in last season's playoffs. While his offensive numbers are down and his penalty minutes are up, he has only been on the ice for 8 goals against in 25 games (only one of them was a power play goal). That's the second-best rate on the team among forwards who have played 10 games (Samuelsson's goals against rate is actually lower).
Still, for a guy who signed his one-year $1.7M deal with a no-trade clause late in the offseason and helped create a bit of a traffic jam at forward, strictly defensive play is not getting the job done. Cleary has been given the opportunity to score from the net-front role on the power play and he's been moved all over the lineup trying to spark either him or his teammates with very limited results.
Detroit currently has two forwards out of the lineup right now with injuries to Pavel Datsyuk and Todd Bertuzzi. Datsyuk could be out as long as two more games and Bertuzzi could return as early as Friday. If that's the case, one of the current forwards playing is going to come out of the lineup. Based on the last two games, Cleary seems the obvious choice. Of course, being a scratch is currently just a short-term concern for forwards on Detroit's roster.
The problem is that the Wings will very likely need to make a move to clear a little bit of cap space once defenseman Danny DeKeyser is ready to return from his stint on LTIR caused by his injured shoulder. When that happens, the Wings will have a difficult decision to face. While it's possible that Ken Holland can clear enough space by finding a willing trade partner for a guy like Jordin Tootoo, who has only $925K of his $1.9M cap hit buried in Grand Rapids right now, the more-realistic solution is that they're going to have to trade or waive somebody else.
Based on the play this season, as well as the status of Mikael Samuelsson's contract (an over-35 deal saves significantly less cap space when assigned to the AHL), Dan Cleary might find himself being the latest Red Wing to leave Detroit after being the latest Red Wing to sign with the team.
I know it would be a difficult decision for the team to make. Cleary reportedly turned down a much better offer from Philadelphia to "follow his heart" and return to the Wings, where Mike Babcock wanted him back for his veteran presence and great attitude. The reality of the situation is that when Cleary signed with the Wings, he signed for a chance to compete for his spot. Based on his play so far this season, he is losing that competition to better options in guys like Abdelkader, Bertuzzi, Miller, Nyquist, and Tatar.
There's still some time left before such a roster decision has to be made and he will have an opportunity to turn it around, but if the decision had to be made today, it's hard to imagine that Cleary isn't the odd-man out on the Red Wings' roster right now.