Were it not for injuries, I have every confidence that right now, the Red Wings would would at the very worst have a higher magic number to clench a playoff berth than we'd like to see. Unfortunately, injuries are a reality and Detroit doesn't have a magic number so much as they have merely a decent shot at sneaking into the playoffs on the bubble (and an outside shot of one of the guaranteed spots in their division).
While role players like Darren Helm and Joakim Andersson have recently returned and aging contractual mistakes like Mikael Samuelsson and Daniel Cleary have quietly found themselves all but forgotten on the injured reserve, the Red Wings are still missing three of their highest-paid centers.
- Henrik Zetterberg had surgery on his back to remove a fragmented disk which was causing severe pain in his spine. We already know that he'll be out for the remainder of the regular season and, if Ken Holland is to be believed, could be out as long as the first two rounds of the playoffs.
- Pavel Datsyuk was "shut down" three weeks ago with a lingering problem in his left knee that sapped his speed and agility. After consulting with multiple doctors about whether there was a need for surgery, the last update was that Holland wasn't sure about the timetable and Datsyuk telling his fans that he's started skating again. Nobody is sure how long he'll remain out.
- Stephen Weiss started the season with an injured groin and ended up having that problem extend itself to a sports hernia which necessitated surgery in December. His return to the lineup after the Olympics was delayed by a series of setbacks which extended his time on injured reserve while he consulted again with the doctor who performed his surgery. The last update on him was a potentially troubling quote from Ken Holland about Weiss needing to "push through" the pain he still experiences when skating.
While ultimately, the question of health is going to be the determining factor in the return to the lineup of these three, one of them brings a secondary question along: should he play?
Obviously, Datsyuk and Zetterberg are no-brainers. The minute they're cleared to play at an acceptable level, they should be in the lineup. You definitely make room for Zetterberg to return because if he even does that, it's during the playoffs and he's your captain. You want Datsyuk back because even as we saw him at his post-Olympic worst, his ability to contribute to the Red Wings' system over any potential replacement was obvious.
Then there's Weiss.
Pragmatically, Weiss should be in the lineup the minute he's cleared as well. The Red Wings' current four centers are David Legwand, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and your pick between Darren Helm, Joakim Andersson, and Cory Emmerton (with the other two playing wing). Comparatively, Legwand is the only center among them who stacks up close to Weiss' career output (Legwand has about 300 more games under his belt and holds a very slight points/game advantage over Weiss). Weiss and Legwand are essentially the same player stylistically, so if having Legwand in the lineup is good (which it is, although it might not seem as such lately), then having TWO Legwands in the lineup should be better, especially given the other options.
It would also make sense to have Weiss back in the lineup as soon as possible to give the Wings a bit more freedom in matching up. Lately, Mike Babcock has been utilizing the Luke Glendening/Drew Miller line to take a beating against top competition. They've performed admirably in this role, completely shutting down Sidney Crosby last Thursday and holding the Zach Parise line at bay for half the weekend before a bad performance against Boone Jenner in Columbus. In the same span, David Legwand has also matched against top competition, putting up a mere 42% CF rating in those four games.
Weiss in the lineup would allow the Wings to either continue utilizing the same matchup philosophy that's gotten them through the last stretch of games while getting an offensively talented two-way center back into the swing of play against weak competition, or it would allow Babcock to use his returning two-way center as another shut-down matchup to see if he can free up the Legwand line for a bit more offensive contribution.
When looking at such a return with video game logic, where there are never any influences outside a player's skill rating which affects the way the entire team plays, it would be stupid not to put Weiss back into the lineup as soon as he's ready to play.
Sadly, this is real life and there are influences. The scary part is that we don't know what these influences are or how much gravity they even hold. They're the dreaded intangibles. Here's the problem:
- Stephen Weiss played in 26 games earlier in the year, putting up four points with awful possession numbers against high competition but with easier zone starts.
- Nobody knows how to effectively separate the part of this awful performance that was caused by injuries and how much was caused by an adjustment to playing the Wings' system.
- Neither of those reasons are going to be acceptable for a $25M 2nd line center rejoining the roster for the final handful of games of which the Wings need to win a majority to earn a playoff spot.
To further my concern, Stephen Weiss has essentially been persona non grata with the Wings for a large portion of this season. It's possible this is just my fan-brain filling holes in my knowledge, but when Mike Babcock talks about injured players, it's like he's speaking of the dead. We already know that injured guys aren't in the trenches during the battles, but this seems to indicate they're not really there for the downtime and team building stuff. Weiss has barely practiced with the team since December. It's not just his re-acclimation to the Wings I'm worried about, but also their chemistry with him.
I know. War analogies in sports are dumb and at least mildly insulting, but this is a team fighting for their playoff lives which has been rotating hungry youngsters in and out for the last few weeks waiting for their own grizzled vets to hopefully return. Weiss is neither of those things to the Red Wings (he may be a grizzled vet, but as far as this analogy stretches, he's essentially a mercenary taking the spot of a kid, which is something that David Legwand is also already doing).
I expect the Red Wings to be professional and to not let a consideration like this affect them. I'm glad to have this expectation thanks to Mike Babcock being the coach. Still... with such a tentative grasp on a playoff spot, any change is both an opportunity to improve and a chance to upset a balance which seems to be working for them right now. What concerns me is that, regardless of the true impact of such a change (which is immeasurable), recency bias has a habit of attributing it anyway.
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Looking farther forward, it seems like it would be beneficial for Weiss to shut it down for the remainder of the season, call a mulligan on this year, and show up to training camp ready to prove himself. It's possible that he returns from injury to inject a new level of skill and tenacity into a lineup which could use just such a bolstering, then exciting things happen in the playoffs and we live through a summer without a single person needing to be reminded that you can't use a compliance buyout on a guy signed after September 15, 2012.
Then again, him not playing for the remainder of the year is a surefire way to guarantee this happens anyway. Screw it. Hurry back, Weiss. Bring back the kind of play that warranted Steve Yzerman comparisons in Florida while you're at it.