Why these three storylines matter most for Detroit Red Wings coming out of bye week

Detroit Free Press

Defenseman Moritz Seider hit on two of the major storylines as he eyeballed the Detroit Red Wings on the flip side of their bye week.

They emerge from hibernation with 34 games left, starting with Tuesday’s home date against the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are a prime example of a team looking to shore up playoff positioning, and as the finish line nears, the intensity in such games amplifies.

It’s a position the Wings would like to be in, but they’re not. Their 50 points place them seven behind the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with five teams ahead of them. The Wings (21-19-8) are seventh in their division, 14th in their conference, and 24th in the NHL standings.

“We want to be in that picture and we have to give ourselves a chance to stay in the hunt as good as possible,” Seider said in late January, before the team paused for the bye week leading up to this weekend’s All-Star events. “So we have to find ways to win games in the second half of the season.

“Last year at this time, we probably never had the same lineup for multiple games. We’ve been really lucky that guys are coming back now and hopefully everyone is staying healthy, and hopefully we don’t have to lose anyone because of a trade. That will be important, too.”

Here are the major storylines to follow as the Wings resume their season:

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Trade deadline

The deadline is March 3, less than four weeks away, and the Wings shape up yet again to be sellers. General manager Steve Yzerman had interest in being a buyer, too, but the target, center Bo Horvat, was instead acquired from the Vancouver Canucks by the New York Islanders on Jan. 30.

Pending unrestricted free agents are top targets for contenders as they shore up for a playoff run. The Wings have multiple such players: Forwards Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Pius Suter, Oskar Sundqvist and Adam Erne; defensemen Olli Määttä, Jake Walman, Jordan Oesterle, and Robert Hägg; and goaltenders Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg.

Regarding Larkin, the most logical outcome is that the Wings get him re-signed. Walman, likewise, is a keeper. Määttä has really grown his game and has been a good fit on either the second or third pairing. If they move him, they’ll just need someone else like him, so it may make more sense to keep him and extend him, depending on what interest he begets as a trade asset.

Nedeljkovic has been playing well in the minors, and the Wings already showed they were willing to lose him by putting him on waivers. Either he or Hellberg are needed as a backup. Of the rest, Bertuzzi is the top guy who could draw an offer that would help the rebuild. Injuries have limited him to 17 games this season, and he has just one goal in that span, but he scored 30 goals last season and his history in the minors and juniors shows he is a playoff performer.

Focus on the finish

The Wings went 12-19-4 coming out of last season’s bye week, the good work done during the first half tarnished by blowout losses. Under new head coach Derek Lalonde the Wings have improved their team defense, but as games intensify down the stretch, now is when it will really show whether that growth has taken root.

“All year we’ve talked about just look at the process, how we play,” Määttä said. “There are a lot of good things we do out there, but also a lot of things we have to clean up. You just try to go day by day and not overthink it.”

Lalonde has mentioned on multiple occasions that the Wings have at times looked nervous when they have had a third-period lead, noting they are still learning how to close out games. Consistency remains a key issue — beating the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs at home, like the Wings did Jan. 12, inspires enthusiasm, but not when the next outing is an utterly flat performance against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, leading to a loss.

Are the Wings better than last season? That is what Yzerman and his inner circle will be judging as they watch from the management suite at Little Caesars Arena.

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Eye on the minors

The Wings have a number of NHLers working on their game with the Grand Rapids Griffins, most notably forward Jakub Vrana. There were no takers when he was put on waivers in early January, but now nearly two-thirds of this season’s salary ($5.25 million, same as his salary cap hit) has been paid, and he has been scoring regularly in the AHL since mid-January. The Wings can afford to retain as much as 50% of Vrana’s salary for this year and next, if that facilitates a deal.

Nedeljkovic could draw interest from a team in need of goaltending help — while he has struggled this season, his overall body of NHL work is above average.

Then there’s forward Filip Zadina, who was assigned to the minors on a conditioning stint this past week after being sidelined three months by a leg injury. Zadina, 23, hasn’t made an impact going on four seasons with the Wings, but maybe another team sees the potential for a fresh start with the former first-round pick. His $1.825 million cap hit through the next two seasons is certainly reasonable. While it’s good to have a place to put players whose roles with the Wings have changed, it would be better if at least Vrana could be flipped for an asset.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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