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March Is A Wonderful Time For Goose-Seeing

It's early, but the Wings have struggled. How soon before we call this a lost season, and what do the Wings do then?

Digging this 23 like I dug the last 23
Digging this 23 like I dug the last 23
Kirk Irwin

Stop me if you're heard this before: in a 48-game season, points are that much more important at the beginning of the season because there is less time to make up a deficit.

Now that's not entirely true, of course. I guess part of it is: falling behind after 10 games only gives you 38 games to make up points, not 72 like normal. At the same time, every team starts off with 0 points, so it's not like anyone got a head-start.

The Wings have stumbled out of the gate, dropping 2 of their first 3 games and generally not looking very good. Whether that's due to rust, lack of chemistry, or injuries remains to be seen. Sample sizes being what they are, it's not worth getting too panicked about only 3 games, but another week or two of the same play could see some disturbing trends emerge.

We as fans are not used to seeing the team struggle like this, and we're certainly not used to having this amount of anxiety about their place within the NHL hierarchy. A third of the team is injured, the offense isn't scoring, the defense has been porous, and the goaltending has been inconsistent.

Heading into this season, I thought this year would be a transition one as we exited the Lidstrom era and embarked on a new chapter in team history. I believe that this is going to necessitate some of the younger players being brought up and given significant roles on the team, but instead they are kept in Grand Rapids to gain further experience and continue to develop.

I'm as optimistic as the next guy, but what if these early problems are symptoms of deeper issues with the team? What if the defense doesn't step up? What if the offense continues to have problems scoring? What if an injury happens to a really important player like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg or Jimmy Howard? What if, and this is hard to say, but what if this team simply isn't that good?

3 games isn't nearly enough evidence to answer these questions. But at what point does the team pull the plug on the season, and if that happens, what do the Wings do with all those young players in Grand Rapids?

The general rule of thumb was that if a team was in a playoff spot around Thanksgiving, the odds of making the playoffs increased dramatically. However, since there was no hockey on Thanksgiving, we'll need a different point of reference. Since the NHL adopted a 48-game schedule, we could use the halfway point as our cut-off date.

The Wings will play their 24th game on March 7th; the trade deadline is April 3rd. That should give management about a month to assess where the team is in relation to a playoff spot and make a decision on how to play out the rest of the season. If the Wings find themselves holding a playoff spot or within very close striking distance, then the goal should be to do whatever they can to make the playoffs, because a team can't win the Stanley Cup if they're not playing past the end of April.

But how close will they need to be? Going back 4 years, of the 64 teams that qualified for the playoffs, 9 made it after being outside the top-8 of the conference with approximately 24 games left. Of those 9, only St. Louis, Carolina and Pittsburgh in 2009 did so despite being more than 4 points behind the 8th place team. Last year, Washington was the only team able to make up the difference, and they required a complete collapse of the Maple Leafs to do so.

That means that when the Wings play that 24th game on March 7th, we should have an indication on whether this team can legitimately make the playoffs. If the Wings are in the top-8 or just a few points behind, they've still got a shot.

But what if the injuries continue and the Wings are unable to ice a full team for an extended period of time? What if that leads to inconsistent results and Detroit falls further behind? What if they are 10 or more points behind on March 7th?

At that point I don't see the harm in bringing up the kids and giving them ice time to see what they can do. If the season becomes no longer about making the playoffs, then it should be important to the team to give players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Brian Lashoff and Brendan Smith bigger roles with an eye towards next year. I understand the concept of over-developing players in Grand Rapids, but that philosophy doesn't work if the NHL team isn't competitive. The point of keeping prospects in the minors is to allow them to get better because the Wings are competing for Cups with their current roster. But if a Cups can't be won because the team isn't in the playoffs, then the argument about keeping younger players in Grand Rapids becomes moot.

This is not to suggest that the Wings should intentionally tank. That's not how this organization has ever operated, and it's not about to start behaving so now. But we are entering a new era in this team's history, and with change comes uncertainty. If for whatever reason this team is unable to accomplish the goal of making the playoffs and playing for a Cup, then I hope the organization does what's best for the long-term future and starts to hand the team over to the next generation.