Wary, weary Detroit Red Wings balance trepidation with resilience as COVID widens hold

Detroit Free Press

Alex Nedeljkovic had Carolina on his mind in the best possible way: It would mean seeing old teammates and a little extra motivation on the road.

The rest of his Detroit Red Wings had Carolina on their minds principally as the next opponent and the fact it meant going on the road. With COVID-19 raging — Robby Fabbri and Michael Rasmussen entered protocol Wednesday, two days after Tyler Bertuzzi and Marc Staal cleared their quarantines — there’s a sense of foreboding and focus on enhanced measures.

“I know our guys will be safe and smart about it,” Wings captain Dylan Larkin said. “We got vaccinated for a reason and we’re hoping we don’t have to live in a modified bubble like last year, because it was really difficult. With how it’s going right now we’re going to have to be smart and it’s probably going to be like that for a little bit, but I just really hope it doesn’t stay like that for the rest of the season.”

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The game was in question when the Canes had four players enter protocol Tuesday, but when there were no further positives the next day, it was game on. Playing a team that is dealing with an outbreak is a regular occurrence, but that hasn’t abated worry.

“Do I have trepidation? Yeah I have trepidation,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I certainly don’t want to see my team exposed to any more cases than we have to.

“It’s the balance we’ve all faced: You can shut down and not do anything, or you can try to work within the parameters. I think that’s what we’re trying to, we’re trying to get the games in, and that’s important, too. I want to coach and our players want to play, so I’m not torn that way, but torn in the sense that I don’t want to expose the guys.”

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Fabbri was one of five Wings who had the virus in January, at the start of last season. His absence opens the door for Joe Veleno to return after he was made a healthy scratch in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders. Forwards Taro Hirose and Kyle Criscuolo were called up to help flesh out the lineup; top prospect Jonatan Berggren, it is judged, is better off staying with the Grand Rapids Griffins, where he has 16 points in 22 games.

“The last thing you want to do with a young player if he is starting to gain confidence in the AHL is to bring him up and have him struggle,” Blashill said. “The last thing that I think Steve Yzerman wants to do is have a player be an up-and-down yoyo in his first year in North America. Having a nice season in the AHL doesn’t mean that you’re ready to come up and help a team in the NHL win.”

Blashill’s plan is to keep Larkin, Lucas Raymond and Tyler Bertuzzi together to start Thursday, but that could change if adjustments made to ameliorate the loss of Fabbri, who plays wing on the second line, and Rasmussen, who centers the third line, don’t click.

Adapting to changing situations is part of daily life, but the virus’ widening hold as every day brings news of multiple players entering protocol around the league has those still standing grasping for normalcy.

“You can’t get upset, you can’t blame anybody,” Larkin said. “You just have to deal with it. The more you sit in your room and sit about how it’s not going or well or how it is going well, whether or not you’re going to test positive the next day and how you’re going to travel home or have to stay in a hotel for 14 days – there’s just a lot that goes through your mind when you’re just sitting there. I think we’re going to have to be smart on this road trip and get through Christmas and see how it unfolds.

“It’s tough in our sport to stop the spread but we try and do our best. In the locker room, guys spread out. We move meetings around so we can spread out. We’re lucky we have a big space, so we can really spread out while we’re meeting and eating and stuff like that. You just have to be really smart and try and stay as safe as possible.”

The happiest Wing headed to Raleigh, North Carolina may well have been Nedeljkovic. He began his NHL career with the Canes, and his was named a finalist for rookie of the year after posting a .932 save percentage in 23 games last season. When the Canes decided to move him rather than pay him a new contract, Wings general manager Steve Yzerman used a third-round pick to trade for Nedeljkovic. He has been, posting a .918 save percentage in 20 games. He’ll be looking for a victory in what will be a second straight start, and won’t be looking for motivation.

“Whenever you play a former team, there’s some motivation,” Nedeljkovic said. “It’s a fun place to play, too, it’s a great crowd. It’ll be really cool to see what it’s like as a visitor.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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