It's officially September which means the worst hockey month of the year is over, and to bring in the new month, we've got some interesting news to debate.
With a logjam at centermen, #RedWings Mike Babcock said today that he plans to start Darren Helm at wing on Pavel Datsyuk's line.— The Wheel Deal (@Bill_Roose) September 3, 2014
In the rare moments where Datsyuk and Zetterberg have both been healthy over the last couple seasons, Babock has elected to play them on a line together with Justin Abdelkader. The rationale is that Abdelkader provides a guy to forecheck, grind down low, and retrieve the puck, freeing up Datsyuk and Zetterberg to do their thing in the offensive zone without taking tons of physical abuse. It's worked OK in that Abdelkader doesn't really ruin things with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but many fans (myself included) are over the concept now that forward depth has increased considerably. Presumably, Babcock is referring here to playing Helm in Abby's spot, icing a top line of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Helm. This is something I've advocated for a few times this offseason, but overall it's a fairly controversial idea among Red Wings fans.
The issue stems from the unexpected logjam at center. Not even counting Zetterberg (who Babcock wants on Datsyuk's wing), Detroit has Datsyuk, Weiss, Helm, Sheahan, Glendening, and Andersson down the middle, also not counting guys like Abdelkader and Franzen who are capable of playing center in a pinch. Glendening and Andersson are presumably in competition for that 4th spot, but you still have 4 centers and 3 center positions for the top 3 lines to fight over. Putting any of those centers on the 4th line to play 10 minutes a night seems like a massive waste, so it makes quite a bit of sense to try to put one of them on the wing.
Helm may seem like an odd choice until you think about what Helm really is - and that's a faster, better defensively, and overall more skilled version of Justin Abdelkader. Just a couple years ago these two were your bottom 6 centers, and Helm was just the better player. Helm is relentless along the boards - an example that comes to mind is this PK shift which made me an instant fan of him. It's difficult to watch that shift and not get excited about the idea of Helm being freed up to wreak havoc on the boards to an extent that he just can't as a center. Another fun side effect of moving Helm out to the wing is this frees him up quite a bit more to cherry-pick on the rush like Nyquist did quite a bit last season. At center, Helm can't really get away with that too often with the heavy defensive responsibilities a center has, but from the wing he's got quite a bit more freedom to threaten the other team on the rush. Not only that, but if any linemates can hit him in stride on the rush, it's Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
The main objection to Helm on the wing is his reputation for "stone hands" - a fair objection to be sure. Helm does lack a degree of scoring touch; however, his hands sure are not worse than Abdelkader - probably a little better actually. If he can provide all the things Abdelkader does except do them all a little better, that should please both sides of the Abdelkader on the first line debate. To wrap this up, let's take a quick look at sample forward lines with Helm on the first line:
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
Sure there are a few variations - Jurco in for Alfie if he doesn't sign, Glendening probably gets that 4th line center spot even if I want it to go to Andersson, moving Nyquist/Franzen/Tatar around, etc. All that said, I look at those 4 lines, and I'd be pretty content if that's the opening night lineup. It's absolutely more offensive firepower than was in the lineup on game 1 of the last two seasons. Agree or disagree on the Helm change? Fire away in the comments!