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Without Datsyuk and Zetterberg All Red Wings Must Step Up

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

This morning we received the news that Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg would be out for a minimum of two weeks with a herniated disk in his back. Combined with the indefinite timetable for Pavel Datsyuk's return, the Red Wings are suddenly as short on centers as the Maple Leafs. Additional injuries for the club include Todd Bertuzzi (shoulder, will return soon) and Danny DeKeyser (shoulder, LTIR until at least December 14th and possibly longer).

Even worse, that two week minimum is looking more and more like it could easily turn longer. Zetterberg told the Detroit press today that he was just going to take it easy for a couple weeks and see how it responds. A bad response would keep him out longer, but based on his rest plans, he might have to go through a few practices before returning to the lineup anyway.

With Pavel Datsyuk, the return is just as murky. Datsyuk has missed the last four Red Wings games due to a concussion suffered in the Wings' 4-2 loss against Ottawa on November 23rd. While Datsyuk has skated with the Red Wings' alumni preparing for their Winter Classic festivities, he hasn't practiced with the team yet and Ken Holland said that he would likely need a week's worth of practice before returning to action.

If there is one bright spot, it's the Red Wings' calendar right now.

Date Opponent
December 4th vs. Philadelphia
December 6th at New Jersey
December 7th vs. Florida
December 10th at Florida
December 12th at Tampa Bay
December 14th vs. Pittsburgh
December 15th vs. Tampa Bay
December 17th vs. Anaheim
December 19th vs. Calgary
December 21st at Toronto

As you can see, the Wings' upcoming schedule isn't exactly a a torturous gauntlet of the league's most-murderous opponents. Only five of those ten games are against a team which currently occupy what would be a playoff spot at season's end. Even without their two best forwards, the Wings should be able to get points from this stretch.

This should be a good opportunity for players to step up in the absence and show team management what kind of roster the Wings have.

Here's the top five key guys for the Wings during this time:

  1. Stephen Weiss: Coming off an injury-and-lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the Wings' new 2nd line center has already missed time with a groin injury of his own and has struggled to consistently drive the puck in the right direction.  Weiss has recently been playing fourth line dog house minutes, but will need to play with all the promise he showed prior to his signing. They could afford to have a $5M center on the 4th line while things were going well, but I don't expect that to remain true for long.
  2. Johan Franzen: The next in line for the offensive throne after Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Franzen has shown that he can absolutely dominate hockey games when he's playing with what could best be described as controlled rage. Franzen has been on a tear lately with 13 points in his last 10 games played since returning from an injury of his own and will need to continue that level of play through this stretch (and hopefully beyond).
  3. Jimmy Howard: Let's face it, two of the best two-way forwards in the game are missing from this team's lineup. They're not going to be as good at scoring goals and they're probably going to struggle at times to prevent scoring chances. The Sochi-hopeful Howard was given his big-money contract precisely for a situation like this and he needs to come up big.
  4. Ken Holland: Even if Datsyuk and Zetterberg were healthy, the Wings would be facing an eventual salary cap problem brought on by the return of Danny DeKeyser later in this month (hopefully). Cory Emmerton is his call-up for this injury because he's one of only three guys the Wings can actually afford to call up under the cap. The next few weeks will be a careful ballet for Holland to do what he can in managing the Red Wings' salary cap situation without being forced into panic-move situations. What would be best is if Holland were able to swing some moves during this time which allowed for injured players to return while also allowing room to call up a prospect or two with a bit more upside than Emmerton has.
  5. Niklas Kronwall: Another player who has been hot lately and will need to continue to do so, Kronwall is the de facto captain of the team in the absence of Zetterberg. He'll be the locker room leader relied upon to steady the troops through any tough games ahead and he'll be the guy on the ice everybody looks to for a calming influence when shit starts hitting the fan.

Aside from these five, guys like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Darren Helm could help both the team and themselves a great deal by staying hot in the scoring department. Meanwhile, disappointing veterans Daniel Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson have an opportunity to compete for time and roster space.

Detroit currently sits tied in their division for 2nd place (technically in 3rd by tiebreaker rules). They sit just two points ahead of Tampa Bay, but have played two more games as well. Even Toronto isn't lurking far behind at four points back with a game in hand. The challenge during the next two weeks will be to avoid losing ground in their division while their top players get healthy.

If the Wings are able to pull this off, then the experience should be invaluable for the coming months, especially for a young defensive corps who will have to play tougher. Nobody wants to see their team lose its two best players to injuries, but if it had to happen during the season, then I can't think of a better time for it to have gone down.

Ok, the Olympic Break would have been better. Shut up.