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January 5, 2004 - Mid-Term Grade Ramblings
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Monday, January 5th, 2004  

Mid-Term Grade Ramblings

By Kevin Palczynski
Featured Columnist

Happy New Year, and welcome to the second half of the Red Wings 2003-2004 season!

The Red Wings completed a New Years week where they scored 13 goals and earned three wins, while along the way, they skated into the second half of the season. And at their halfway point (the rest of the teams in the NHL will catch up at some point in mid-spring), the Red Wings not only lead the Central Division and the Western Conference, they are also the team with the most wins and the most points in the NHL, befitting a team that leads the league in goal scoring, too. Not bad, despite the many bumps (and bruises and groin pulls) along the way.

So, from the for what its worth drawer of my hockey game notes and writings, here are my grades for the Red Wings following the first-half of this NHL season:


Photo #2 Derian Hatcher Defense
       First-Half Grade: Incomplete

Two games and two shifts to solidify the Red Wings defense is not what management had in mind for Hatcher when they signed him to a wealthy contract over the summer, but so far thats what theyve received from the All-Star defenseman. A fluke knee injury against the Nashville Predators during the third game of the season placed Hatcher on the shelf until early-to-mid-March, just in time for him to get some game action in before the playoff push begins. And the playoff push is why he was brought here. While his surgery was deemed successful and Hatcher is expected to come back as good as ever, his absence from the lineup has meant increased minutes for Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, and hopefully their wear and tear will not show up in the second half of the season.


Photo #4 Jamie Rivers Defense
       First-Half Grade: B

One of the Grand Rapids Griffins who bailed the Red Wings out when ten regulars were sidelined with injuries, Rivers is a tough, dependable skater who can take shifts at either a defensive or forward position. A recent healthy scratch as the injured have returned to the lineup, Rivers was responsible on the ice during his 15 games, making smart choices with the puck, adding a hit or two, and not getting caught out of position. And off the ice, Rivers has shown his veteran skills by saying all the right things in interviews, too. You cant ask for any more from someone who was picked up by the Red Wings in the offseason to add some veteran skills on the Griffins.


Photo #5 Nicklas Lidstrom Defense
       First-Half Grade: B

One of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, I dont think Lidstrom has played to his capabilities at all this season. What does that really mean? Lidstrom has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy the past six years, and has won the award three consecutive times, so he is held to much higher standards than the average defenseman. But we know that Nick isnt the average defenseman, is he? Lidstrom has looked slow more nights than not, and hasnt been a factor on the power play, as he is often unable to control the puck at the point. His point production is alarmingly low even for a certified late-starter even if three of his four goals have been game winners. Are the extra minutes that were supposed to be picked up by Derian Hatcher wearing Lidstrom down? Was he burdened with being the main man on the blueline when Chris Chelios was out? Its hard to tell what the reasons for the diminished play have been; regardless of them all, Lidstrom remains one of the best in the game.


Photo #8 Jiri Fischer Defense
       First-Half Grade: C-

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Fischer has shown the most marked decline in play so far this season amongst Red Wings regulars. Is he fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him his season last year? Or more likely, is he hesitant to play at the level he displayed during his first two seasons with the Red Wings? Fischer still makes a big hit now and then, but generally seems lost around the net. Rarely does he punish an opposing player that has set up camp in front of the Red Wings netminder. His passes out of the zone are often long, cross-ice passes that are intercepted rather than short, sharp passes straight ahead. Offensively, other than a goal in the first game of the season, Fischer has added little to the Red Wings. Maybe Chris Chelios return to the lineup will settle Fischer down during the second half of the year, but at this point, when Derian Hatcher returns and the playoffs start, Im thinking I would put Fischer in the pressbox and keep veteran Jason Woolley or Mathieu Dandenault along the blueline.


Photo #11 Mathieu Dandenault Defense/Forward
       First-Half Grade: B-

One word: versatility. Dandenault plays defense, and plays forward and plays shorthanded and skates fast doing any of those chores. In 40 games, he only has one goal and five assists, and needs to turn it up a notch or two offensively, but his +10 rating suggests that Dandenault plays a smart, solid game. Chatrooms are always filled with talk about Dandenault being part of a potential trade, but the truth is that he has been here in Hockeytown for nine seasons and almost 600 NHL games, and does not appear to be going anywhere soon.


Photo #13 Pavel Datsyuk Center
       First-Half Grade: A

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Datsyuk is not only the Red Wings first-half MVP, but maybe the entire NHLs as well. Given more ice time when Sergei Fedorov sought the sun of southern California, Datsyuk has responded with 21 goals (third in the NHL), 24 assists and 45 points (one behind leaders Ilya Kovalchuk and Robert Lang). More importantly, Datsyuk has developed his all-round game, earning shorthanded time after a few defensive lapses earlier in the season, and improving his percentages in the faceoff circle, too. Gifted with the best hands of any player in the NHL besides Peter Forsberg, Datsyuk is the player on the Red Wings that brings fans out of their seats every time he touches the puck, as witnessed by his goal against Marty Turco in Dallas, one of the most impressive goals I have ever seen scored in my thirty years of watching hockey. The key to Datsyuks success for the remainder of this year will be to continue his excellent play now that all the other players around the NHL know to go after him, and not just linemates like Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan.


Photo #14 Brendan Shanahan Left Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Shanahan has scored 17 goals and added 16 assists so far this year, which will put him in his usual 30-40 goals range. Seemingly moving up the all-time scoring list with each goal (his game-winner last Saturday night was the 550th goal of his career), I have to wonder what it would be like if Shanahan could convert his shots at the same rate that Pavel Datsyuk does on his a few quick punches on the calculator tell me that Shanahan would have scored 39 goals so far this season. Whats my point? Shanahan needs to quit thinking about the one-time all the time, and could also do away with that one shot he tries to bank off the goaltenders ass each game, too. Cmon, Brendan be a power forward and get in front of the net and get going! Im not saying you have to be the tough guy and quit taking the STUPID penalties youve been taking the past couple of weeks but start getting a little nasty in front of the other teams net.


Photo #15 Jason Woolley Defense
       First-Half Grade: A

In business, it is often the quiet, unassuming worker whose contributions are the foundation of a companys success. If that statement is true, then the Red Wings Jason Woolley is that quiet, unassuming worker on the Joe Louis Arena ice, and one of the seasons biggest surprises so far. When the season started, Woolley found himself as the 7th defenseman in the Red Wings lineup and in the pressbox; when Derian Hatcher went down with a knee injury, Woolley not only found a spot on the ice, he excelled in it, providing steady play along the blueline and earning one of the highest plus/minus ratings (+17) among NHL defensemen. While he may not put up some of the offensive numbers he had a few years back in Buffalo, Woolleys 13 assists are a clear indicator of his excellent first passes out of the defensive zone, and his 18 PIMs show that he can be a defensive gem without hacking and whacking the opposition. When Derian Hatcher returns, I cant see Dave Lewis taking Woolley out of the Red Wings lineup, so someone else will be watching from above.


Photo #17 Brett Hull Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: B-

Since passing Marcel Dionne and taking over third spot on the all-time goals list, Hull has no goals in twelve consecutive games, the longest streak of his career. Sure, he leads the team in assists with 25, but Brett Hull isnt on the Red Wings to set plays up hes on the Red Wings to score goals. Personally, I think Hull looks old and tired and fat and slow this season just put me in a #17 jersey and I could seemingly do as well! Regardless of my feelings, I dont think Hull himself, even with his gift for gab, would have too much to say about his play so far this season. He needs to quit thinking ONE-TIMER all the time, and just start putting the puck on net; playing alongside Pavel Datsyuk, I cant see why this isnt happening.


Photo #18 Kirk Maltby Left Wing
       First-Half Grade: B+

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Maltby is the quintessential overachiever for this Red Wings team. He skates fast. He kills penalties. He shells out big hits as part of a checking line. He scores goals every now and then, giving Mickey Redmond an opportunity to tell us viewers that Maltby has hands that scored 50 goals in juniors. Maltbys plus/minus number (+15) suggests a good season so far, too. Not quite the year that Kris Draper is having, but a good year nonetheless.


Photo #19 Steve Yzerman Center
       First-Half Grade: B+

Last summer, we didnt know if Yzerman would return, his hobbled knee reconstructed. During training camp, we didnt know if he would be able to play at the level we have come to expect from him over the past few years (forget the 150-point seasons those are seemingly gone from the NHL for good). And all he did was burst out of the gate and prove himself to be one of the best forwards in the entire league with his play in October and early November. A groin injury has slowed him down of late, but Yzerman still has 12 goals and 13 assists in 35 games. And any game with Steve Yzerman in the lineup is a good game, in my opinion.


#20 Mark Mowers Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

The 29-year-old NHL veteran was picked up by the Red Wings from the Nashville Predators to provide some depth to the Griffins; when injuries took their toll in Detroit, he was called up to the big leagues and hasnt looked back yet. With two goals and seven assists in 24 games with the Red Wings, Mowers plays a smart, simple game at both ends of the rink and brings speed to his line. Some may expect Mowers to head back to Grand Rapids when the injured return to the lineup my guess is that he has impressed coaches and staff enough to stay in the NHL at the expense of a teammate such as Jamie Rivers, Jason Williams or Boyd Devereaux.


Photo #21 Boyd Devereaux Center
       First-Half Grade: C-

Along with Jason Williams, Devereaux may be the biggest disappointment for the Red Wings so far this season. He can skate like a lightning bolt, but he has a hard time staying on his feet. He can get open in front of the net, but his shots are hitting the netting above the glass rather than the netting behind the opposing goaltender. And when he carries the puck he scares me Ive seen replays of him getting knocked out and damn near killed by Dallas Drake a few seasons back, and I have to wonder, while he goes through the neutral zone with his head down, how much longer will it be before someone else clocks him again? Hes taken several steps back from his time on the Two Kids and a Goat Line with Pavel Datsyuk and Brett Hull, and wont be playing very much when the injured return to the lineup.


Photo #23 Mathieu Schneider Defense
       First-Half Grade: A

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Schneider has been nothing short of excellent this season, playing the kind of hockey the Red Wings thought they could get from him when they acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline last season. Schneider has 5 goals and 23 assists so far, as well as the fourth best plus/minus rating (+19) in the NHL (second best among defensemen). More importantly, he has played a ton of minutes, joins the offensive rush and has a mean-streak that serves him well in front of his own net. While it may be a bit too early to start soliciting votes, I for one think Schneider is not only the best defenseman on the Red Wings, but one of the two or three best in the NHL at this stage of the season. If he plays the same way for the remaining 40 games, I cant see how Schneider wont be a finalist for the Norris Trophy in June.


Photo #24 Chris Chelios Defense
       First-Half Grade: B

Having played in 32 games with one goal and eight assists, one might think Chris Chelios has lost a step in the NHL. Truth be told, he has but for someone who will turn 42-years-old in a few weeks, Chelios is still one of the best in the business. He may only be fourth best blueliner on the Red Wings at this point of the season behind Mathieu Schneider, Nicklas Lidstrom and maybe even Jason Woolley but Chelios plays a lot of minutes for the team, and often is the first over the boards in shorthanded situations and late in the game. He couldnt keep the puck in the offensive zone on the power play if his life depended upon it, but he gets paid for his play at the other end of the ice. For me, if Chelios mentoring of Jiri Fischer during the remainder of his career produced a Fischer who is again menacing and defensively sound, then it would just be an exclamation point to his Hall of Fame career.


Photo #25 Darren McCarty Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: Incomplete

McCarty appeared in just 14 games before slamming into the boards feet-first on November 8th against the Nashville Predators. Initially diagnosed with back spasms, that analysis was later changed to bulging discs, and the prescription was complete rest; nearly two months later, McCarty has just recently made a limited return to the ice, skating gingerly on his own. The Red Wings do not miss his scoring he only had three goals when he was injured what they miss is McCartys presence in the dressing room and on the bench and ice surface.


Photo #26 Jiri Hudler Center
       First-Half Grade: Incomplete

In twelve games with the Red Wings, Hudler scored his first NHL goal and added two assists. Expecting him to stay in the NHL may have been a bit much to expect for the 20-year-old (which he turned yesterday happy birthday, Jiri!), so he went back to the Griffins to get ice time and develop his playmaking skills. In Grand Rapids, Hudler has scored 4 goals and added 12 assists for the Griffins in just 15 games; more importantly, he plays an all-round game and leads the team with a +11 rating.


#27 Darryl Bootland Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

When Darren McCarty went down with a back injury, Booter got the call to provide some punch to the Red Wings lineup, and he didnt disappoint, either; in just 22 games, Bootland registered 74 PIMs. What makes Bootland different from a player like former Red Wings agitator Sean Avery, who currently leads the NHL in penalties, is that he didnt take a lot of bad penalties, and usually went to the box alongside an opponent. The highlight of Bootlands time with the Red Wings probably came the night before Thanksgiving, when he scored his first NHL goal against the Edmonton Oilers. In Grand Rapids, Bootland has scored 5 goals for the Griffins and added 56 PIMs in 14 games.


#28 Kevin Miller - Center
       First-Half Grade: C+

The 38-year-old veteran and Lansing native returned to the Red Wings (he played two seasons here between 1990-1992) and played in four games in mid-December when the regulars were dropping like flies. During his short stay, Miller was reliable on his assignments and picked up a couple of assists the kind of play expected from a veteran of over 600 NHL games. In Grand Rapids, Miller is third in Griffins scoring with 10 goals and 8 assists in 30 games.


Photo #29 Jason Williams Center
       First-Half Grade: C-

The 23-year-old center has received less and less ice time over the past few weeks, and rightfully so. Williams typically plays a good defensive game (despite his -6 rating), but generates very little offense when he is on the ice, as is made apparent by just two goals and two assists in 33 games. No longer showing the upside he did when he scored 8 goals in 25 games during the run to the Stanley Cup in 2001-2002, Williams will need to turn it on if he wants to remain with the Red Wings once injured teammates get back; worse yet for Williams, promising youngsters like Jiri Hudler and Nate Robinson have apparently passed him up, too.


#30 Joey MacDonald Goaltender
       First-Half Grade: Incomplete

Hey, he drove over from Grand Rapids and was dressed for one game when Dominik Hasek was out with a groin injury and Manny Legace had a strained knee, so he deserves to be evaluated, right? For that one game, I thought MacDonald looked sharp in warm-ups, and appeared to be calm on the bench during the National Anthem, too. He probably got a big paycheck for being NHL goalie insurance for a night enough to buy a farm with pigs when he gets older and retires from the game. E-I-E-I-O.


Photo #31 Curtis Joseph Goaltender
       First-Half Grade: A

Save for Pavel Datsyuk, Curtis Joseph, the exiled-yesterday-here-today goaltender has been the Red Wings most valuable player during the first half of the season. About a month ago he was put on waivers for a second time, and as the Red Wings unwanted third netminder, word was that Joseph would never play in Detroit again. Then Dominik Hasek tweaked his groin, and today, not only is CuJo the #1 goaltender in Hockeytown, but his steady play between the pipes is one of the keys to the Red Wings success to this point of the season. Yes, he looked shaky when he first came back from ankle surgery, but with consistent practice time, CuJo has posted a 9-5-1 record in his 15 games, and often made the big save that helps the team win. And what can possibly be written about Josephs handling of the whole goaltender charade that has gone on this season? Plain and simple, Joseph is one of the classiest players, both on and off the ice, the NHL has ever produced. How far he can get the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs remains to be seen, as does whether or not the coaches and front office think he is the goaltender to help them earn the Cup.


Photo #32 Steve Thomas Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

Once again, give credit to Ken Holland and his staff for acquiring 40-year-old free agent Steve Thomas in November, when no other team seemed interested; do you think the Mighty Ducks might like to have the 400-goal scorer back again this year? I think so. Before going down with a knee injury, Thomas played 14 games for the Red Wings, scoring six goals, adding four assists and providing an offensive spark to the team that was missing during the early part of the season. When he comes back in the next few weeks, my guess is Thomas will once again see first or second line action, and be part of the power play unit.


Photo #33 Kris Draper Center
       First-Half Grade: A

Another one of seven Red Wings to have played in all 42 games, Draper deserves serious consideration for the All-Star game in St. Paul next month. Now wait a second Kris Draper, an All-Star? Yup, at least in my books he is! Benefiting from an increase in ice time due to the departure of Sergei Fedorov and injuries to Steve Yzerman and Henrik Zetterberg, Draper has come through with a first half of play of which any skater in the NHL would be envious a career-high 16 goals (three of them shorthanded), 11 assists and a rating of +18. Draper has rounded into the complete package in his 11th season with the Red Wings a shorthanded guru alongside Kirk Maltby, a speedy and tenacious forechecker, and now an offensive threat. Fans wont pay big money to just see the likes of Kris Draper, but intelligent fans know that the Red Wings wont win another Stanley Cup without him on the ice.


Photo #34 Manny Legace Goaltender
       First-Half Grade: B

His 8-5-1 record in 14 games suggest that Legace is still one of the best backup goaltenders in the NHL, but with the injuries to all three goaltenders this season, and the merry-go-round created by having three quality netminders on the same team, the question remains: is Manny Legace capable of being the Red Wings #1 goaltender in the future? And more pressing, if a trade should move Curtis Joseph to another team, and Dominik Hasek is suddenly not comfortable with his groin, is Legace capable of stepping in and winning a playoffs series? Legace seems tired after having to play consecutive games; whether that is a mental or physical limitation is known to Legace alone. Like everything else in this netminder soap opera, stay tuned for more answers.


#38 Nathan Robinson Center
       First-Half Grade: B

The speedy, 22-year-old left wing played in five games for the Red Wings, not registering a point and having a -1 rating. He played an aggressive but not foolhardy game while in the NHL, and could easily come back up at any point and fit in well with the Grind Line or a checking line. In Grand Rapids, Robinson currently leads the Griffins in scoring with 13 goals and 12 assists in 32 games.


Photo #39 Dominik Hasek Goaltender
       First-Half Grade: D

The other biggest disappointment for the Red Wings so far this season, and deserving of the grade I gave him. But wait, you say Dom played in 14 games and had a record of 8-3-2. He has the same save percentage (.907) as Curtis Joseph and a lower goals-against average (2.20), too. How can you rate him so low, Kevin? Well, it appears Im not grading him for his on-ice performance, I guess. Yes, Hasek can still be one of the best goaltenders in the game, and can steal a game with his legendary acrobatics. But what Hasek has done to this team behind the scenes refusing to be in the same room as Curtis Joseph and reportedly asking teammates to choose sides in the goaltender drama is inexcusable from any player, let alone a two-time MVP and future Hall-of-Famer. The recurring groin injury has become a sideshow, too, with numerous reports that Red Wings trainers and physicians think Hasek is capable of playing, while Dom just wants to baby it and play only when HE thinks he is 100%. Hasek had better decide quickly when that time has arrived Curtis Joseph is clearly the #1 goaltender in the eyes of the fans, and the playoffs will be here sooner than we all think.


Photo #40 Henrik Zetterberg Left Wing
       First-Half Grade: B+

A broken leg suffered when he was slashed in a game against the Vancouver Canucks has limited the super sophomore to just 21 games, but he hasnt disappointed many when he has been in the lineup. Last seasons runner-up for the Calder Trophy, Zetterberg is excellent at both ends of the ice, as was made apparent in the New Years Eve game against Atlanta when he backchecked the puck off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk, then skated back the other way, took a nice pass from Ray Whitney and scored the winning goal in overtime. His play since coming back from the broken leg suggests that, despite only six goals so far, he could once again top the 20-goal mark before seasons end.


Photo #41 Ray Whitney Left Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

Limited to just 27 games by a groin injury, Whitney may not be the free agent acquisition that some thought he would be, but hes not been a bust, either (as is Vinny Prospal in Anaheim, one of the players considered by the Red Wings). With six goals, 17 points, and an ability to work on any forward line, Whitney has offensive talent that fits in nicely with the rest of his Red Wings teammates. In the second half of the season, I would like to see Whitney either resume a spot manning the point on the power play, or working the puck off the boards near the circles, finding players down low for tip-ins, or collapsing the defense to open up space for one-timers from the likes of Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Mathieu Schneider.


#52 Ryan Barnes - Right Wing
       First-Half Grade: Incomplete

Barnes was called up from Grand Rapids and appeared in his first NHL game against the Florida Panthers on December 15th, taking eight shifts and seeing 4:30 of ice time with no points and no penalties. In other words, the left wing came into town, did his job, made no mistakes, and went back to Grand Rapids to continue developing his game. The 55th overall pick in the 1998 draft, Barnes needs to develop more than just his punching skills if he wants to earn a regular spot in an NHL lineup.


Photo #55 Niklas Kronwall Defense
       First-Half Grade: B+

The rookie has emerged as far more than just a temporary fill-in along the blueline when injuries gripped the Red Wings lineup. Kronwall has displayed maturity beyond his 22 years (he turns 23 next Monday), and plays a solid game along the blueline. He makes excellent first passes out of the zone and has shown some offensive creativity as he grows more comfortable in the Red Wings system. In 13 games, Kronwall has 4 assists and a +3 rating and has played well enough to stay in the lineup once Chris Chelios returned, allowing Dave Lewis to move Mathieu Dandenault to a forward position.


Photo #96 Tomas Holmstrom Left Wing
       First-Half Grade: B

Limited to just 27 games because of a separated shoulder he suffered against Edmonton the night before Thanksgiving, Holmstrom has seven goals and five assists so far this season. The Red Wings power play unit struggled without him in the lineup, and not surprisingly, they broke a long goalless streak once he returned. Oh, the other teams hate Tomas Holmstrom, but every one of them would love to have him on their team.