Red Wings at the All-Star break: Improvement is there, as are plenty of questions

Detroit News

Detroit — Coach Derek Lalonde is back in Florida chauffeuring his kids to hockey practices. Dylan Larkin is set to go the All-Star Game later this week. And a vast majority of Red Wings have flown to warmer climates.

Half of the NHL continues to play, while the other half (the Wings’ included) are on break (they’ll flip next week).

The Wings enter the break at 21-19-8, good for 50 points, good enough to be on the outskirts of playoff contention — although getting to the playoffs will take a lot of work, luck, and improvement.

Still, it’s been a positive run just beyond the halfway mark, which is what the Wings were hopeful for this season. General manager Steve Yzerman’s personnel moves largely have been positive, and there’s been continued development of younger players.

After missing the playoffs the last six seasons, the Wings would obviously love to end that streak. But at the very least, avoid being sellers at the trade deadline March 3 and play meaningful games the final weeks of the season.

Playing those types of important games would represent some progress, as well as be something from which the younger Wings can learn.

“I hope that we can remain together and see it through and give it all we’ve got,” Larkin said. “We haven’t been able to do that in many years. That’s my hope, to see this thing through and to stay in it and make going to the rink meaningful every day going down the stretch.”

Here is a look at some of the Wings’ best and worst as they’ve reached the All-Star break this season:

First half thumbs up

▶ 1. Red Wings have games in hand: At this point the Wings are aiming for a wild-card spot. In that regard, they’re in decent shape, considering with only 48 games played, they’ve played one to four fewer games than the six teams in front of them (top two get wild-card positions). The Wings have games to play, and potential points to earn. Of course the key is, they have to win those games.

▶ 2. Ville Husso heating up: Husso had allowed two goals in three consecutive starts (two wins), before allowing three in Thursday’s overtime victory in Montreal. The last couple of weeks have diminished fears of maybe Husso being overworked and his performance tailing off. If Husso plays the way he did much of the first half, the Wings have every opportunity to win with him in net.

▶ 3. Nobody breaking away in East wild-card picture: Buffalo is the only team among the seven battling for a wild-card spot that has played above .500 hockey in the last 10 games (6-2-2). Washington and Pittsburgh are holding down the wild-card positions, but both have looked creaky and beatable oftentimes. The other teams all have flaws. It would be a tall task, but the Wings have shown they’re just as good as any of these teams on a given night.

First half thumbs down

 1. Offense problematic: The Wings currently sit 23rd, averaging three goals per games. They ended last season 24th, at 2.85 goals per game. The hoped-for uptick in offense after some offseason changes has produced a slight improvement, but the Wings still have difficulty scoring goals.

 2. Can’t string wins together: The Wings have had one four-game win streak and one three-game win streak through the first 48 games. They’ve had one six-game winless streak (0-4-2) and one four-game winless streak (0-2-2). This has pretty much been a win one, lose one, traction-less team most of the season.

 3. Backup goaltending: When Husso has been given a rare night off, the duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg simply haven’t been good enough yet to inspire confidence. It seemed to tire Husso down in December. Can either of the two play well enough to complement Husso down the stretch?

 First-half surprises

 1. Husso: Husso showed in St. Louis last season he might be a potential No. 1, and the Wings were shrewd to acquire the potential unrestricted free agent. Still, there were questions, as there would be with any unproven goaltender. But Husso (17-11-5, 3.00 GAA. .901 SVS) has been outstanding much of the first half season.

 2. Dominik Kubalik: The low-risk, high-reward free-agent signing has been a pleasant surprise. With 14 goals and 20 assists (34 points), Kubalik is well on his way to surpassing last season’s totals in Chicago (15-17-32). It’s somewhat shocking that rebuilding Chicago wouldn’t want to keep a 27-year-old goal-scorer for a modest cost.

 3. Jake Walman: In some ways Walman was almost a throw-in when dissecting the trade-deadline deal involving Nick Leddy being sent to St. Louis. Walman didn’t get much of a chance with the Blues, and was largely unproven. It’s a small sample size, but Walman, 27 in February, has looked like a piece of the Wings’ nucleus in 32 games this season.

First-half disappointments  

 1. Alex Nedeljkovic: The first half of last season, Nedeljkovic looked the Wings’ goalie of the future. Since then, it’s gone all downhill. Nedeljkovic (2-4-2, 4.09 GAA., .880 SVS) struggled badly this season before being waived and sent to Grand Rapids (where he’s 4-3-2, 2.55 GAA, .917 SVS). Nedeljkovic will likely get another chance before this season is done, but being a potential UFA, his Wings’ future is murky.

 2. Tyler Bertuzzi: Talk about a season going sideways. Bertuzzi also can be an unrestricted free agent, is coming off a 30-goal season, and appeared to be a big part of the Wings’ future. But two lengthy hand injuries this season have limited Bertuzzi to 17 games, with one goal and five points, and the real likelihood he could be dealt at the trade deadline.

 3. Jakub Vrana: Vrana dealt with personal issues and was gone for two months in the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program, and it’s hoped he is beginning to get his life in order. Vrana was waived, not claimed by another team, and is currently in Grand Rapids (three goals in last four games). Vrana has shown the ability to score for the Wings, but he simply hasn’t been in the lineup much since being acquired from Washington in the Anthony Mantha trade.

Positive developments

 Youth is served: Forwards Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and Jonatan Berggren all have taken significant steps in their careers this season, and forward Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider have demolished any idea of them having a sophomore jinx this season. Those are five young players who have shown they deserve to be in the Wings’ roster construction for many years.

 Summer acquisitions: Yzerman traded for Husso, the signed defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta, and forwards Kubalik, David Perron and Andrew Copp in free agency, and they’ve pretty much done the job asked of them. The Wings are more competitive, the special teams have improved, and they’ve added a needed veteran presence.

 Derek Lalonde, staff: Maybe it was time for a new voice, possibly the Wings had gone as far as they could with Jeff Blashill. Obviously in some areas (defensively), the Wings were regressing with Blashill. So Lalonde was brought in, and he’s done a good job keeping expectations at a reasonable level, holding players accountable, and improving the special teams. The roster is better, and give Lalonde credit for keeping the Wings progressing in their rebuild.

Team MVP

 Husso: Dylan Larkin has been really good, and Seider has really taken his game upward in recent weeks, but Husso consistently has been the Wings’ best player. The Wings would have been cooked if Husso hadn’t provided the level of play he did most of the first half.

Unsung player

 Filip Hronek: All the losing the last several seasons, and there was a lot of it, may have gotten to Hronek, who was thought to be on the trade market last summer. Whether it’s been Lalonde and the new coaching staff, or the Wings’ competitiveness, or simply Hronek maturing his own game, Hronek has had a great first half (seven goals, 26 assists, plus-12 rating) and looks to be part of the foundation again going forward.

Questionable futures

 Bertuzzi: Bertuzzi will only be 28 in February, but you wonder how all the injuries this season, plus his lack of offense this season will affect contract negotiations. There likely will be quite a few contending teams looking to add the grit and skill Bertuzzi can add to a lineup, and the Wings would love the draft assets in return.

 Vrana: The Wings need offense, and Vrana is slowly finding his game. Would the Wings recall Vrana to showcase him in a trade, or maybe even revisit keeping him in the lineup (Vrana still has next season on his contract)? If he shows he can score goals again, Vrana would be a valuable chip at the trade deadline. Lots of intriguing questions.

 Maata: The Wings very well could make the decision to extend Maatta’s contract given the way he’s played and the veteran presence he brings to the defense, and it would be a good decision. But if it doesn’t work out, this is exactly the type of defenseman playoff-caliber teams will be clamoring for at the deadline.

Biggest issue

 Larkin’s contract: The major issue for the rest of the season, and likely until the start of free agency on July 1. It’s mildly surprising the two sides haven’t reached a contract extension by now. The term will be eight years, that appears certain. But the Wings are offering somewhere close to $8 million per season, Larkin’s camp is looking at something closer to $9 million per year, the going rate of many NHL offensive stars in Larkin’s age group. It’s tricky. And it’ll be fascinating to watch this unfold. The Wings’ captain is Michigan through and through. Some sort of compromise is likely, isn’t it?

Twitter: @tkulfan

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