I admit that I have a bit of a problem: I legitimately like every single player on the Red Wings.
Seriously. A lot of that obviously has to do with the fact that they are players on the team that I love, but I don't dislike any of them. Come to think of it, that's not really a "problem", is it?
That's why when I see players getting criticized, I feel bad for them. I get the feeling that they're out on the internet Googling themselves (come on we've all done it at some point, and we're not professional athletes who actually have things said about us), and when they come across people who are ripping them to shreds, a solitary tear rolls down their cheek. Didn't Darryl Strawberry's appearance on The Simpsons teach us that these guys are human too?
Fortunately, most players on the team are also loved by the rest of the fanbase, but there's always a few guys who can't escape the harsh spotlight. Maybe it's a desire to project blame on to one or two people in order to fool ourselves into thinking that the team as a whole is amazing except for these couple of players who are ruining everything, or it's just that people need whipping boys in order to feel better about the flaws of the team.
Whatever the reason, this year the glare of the fans has been focused on a couple of players, but few have been honed in on as much as Dan Cleary.
Like I said earlier, I like every player on this team, and Cleary is no exception. He's a player who has always had the talent to be successful in the NHL, but he had to come to Detroit on a minor league tryout in order to develop the solid work ethic that has been one of this trademarks since becoming a Red Wing. He plays a grinding, physical game that has resulted in his becoming a key contributor to a few deep playoff runs.
Unfortunately that style of play has resulted in injuries, but it was thought that the lockout would allow Cleary to recover from offseason surgery and help him bounce back after a down year in 2012.
When Todd Bertuzzi went down with an injury, Cleary was moved up to the top line with Pavel Datsyuk, and fans went nuts. "He's not a top-6 forward!" they cried, and admittedly he seemed to be struggling.
However, 6 points in his last 5 games has backed the critics off a little bit, even if it's only temporary. Power play goals in back-to-back games against Nashville and Vancouver gave us a glimpse into his ability to play in front of the net with the man advantage, and he's been seeing more time on a penalty killing unit that has improved as of late.
But was the earlier criticism really warranted to the degree that he received it? Certainly watching Cleary one would say "yes", but a deeper look into his numbers makes me wonder if we were too quick to rush to judgment.
After 20 games, Cleary has 5 goals and 7 points. At his current pace, that's a 20 goal season. To me, 20 goals from a top-6 forward who is making $3M a season isn't something to worry about at all.
But then we dig a little further and see that he's started to blossom under tougher circumstances. Over at behindthenet.ca, we see that among all Red Wing forwards, he has played the 6th-toughest competition. A lot of that is attributed to the fact that he's on the top line and seeing the other teams' best players, but Cleary's scoring has gone up in that time, meaning he's not shrinking under the weight of having to play against very good opponents.
His individual Corsi rating at even strength is 9.13, meaning that he is helping to drive possession in a positive way when he's on the ice. For comparison purposes, Henrik Zetterberg is 1.72 and Damien Brunner is 3.30. Cleary is contributing to the Wings getting pucks to the opponent's net at a rate that should be expected from a player on the top line.
And it would appear that he's doing so while being asked to play a defensive role. Cleary is beginning shifts in the offensive zone 48.5% of the time. Even with getting increased PP time (where he would have the initial faceoff take place in their opponent's zone) he's being put on the ice by Mike Babcock in situations where the Wings are either in their own zone and need to clear or in the neutral zone and need to generate possession to get scoring chances.
I fully anticipate that if/when the rest of the forwards get healthy (specifically Bertuzzi and Valtteri Filppula) Cleary will be moved down the lineup to play on the line he began the season on. However, if he continues to create offense at the rate he is and still plays the responsible defensive game we've come to expect from him, that might be a decision that is more difficult to make now than it was a few weeks ago.