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January 8, 2004 - Head of the class: Despite injuries, goalie flap, Wings remain NHL's best
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Head of the class: Despite injuries, goalie flap, Wings remain NHL's best

January 8, 2004

Nicholas J. Cotsonika's midseason grades

Grade key:

A - Excellent

B - Good

C - Fair

D - Poor

Red Wings are graded on how they perform their roles, relative to expectations.

COACHING

Dave Lewis and staff: A

It's a credit to the coaches as much as the players that the Wings have one of the best records in the NHL. The goaltending situation has been a three-ring circus with Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace in the same dressing room, but the coaches have managed it well. The injury situation has been as bad as ever with as many as 10 men out of the lineup at once, but the coaches have gotten a lot out of the regulars remaining and enough out of the minor leaguers brought up. (The organization's impressive depth is a credit to management.) The Wings haven't just survived. They've won. The only real criticism is that they've let some points slip away, losing to some teams they should beat, blowing some leads.

GOALTENDERS

Dominik Hasek: B

Considering Hasek didn't play last season, his numbers are good. But his health is a concern. He has been out three times with a groin injury. Hasek has been raring to go recently, but the Wings have held him back for a few reasons: 1) Curtis Joseph has been playing well. 2) Joseph's performance might entice a trade. 3) The chants of "Cujo" at the Joe might motivate Hasek. 4) Giving Hasek ample time to recover reduces the chance he will go down again -- and helps eliminate excuses. The bottom line is that Hasek put the Wings in a tough position by coming out of retirement in the off-season, and he had better make it worthwhile in the second half and the playoffs.

Curtis Joseph: B

Joseph and the Wings have been at odds -- over his ankle surgery in August to other things that haven't become public -- since Hasek came back and the Wings put Joseph on the trading block. Both sides are biting their tongues for obvious reasons. But Joseph's attitude has been a lot better since about mid-November -- and he says his ankle has been a lot better, too. Since coming back from the minors last month -- what was going to be an indefinite stay became brief, thanks to Hasek's groin -- he has played perhaps his best hockey in a Detroit uniform. It remains to be seen whether a trade will be worked out. The Wings have to reach a deal with someone and must be confident Hasek won't go down again.

Manny Legace: B+

The numbers for the three goaltenders are remarkably similar. And considering Legace is the No. 3 man in the goaltending soap opera, he gets the edge over the other two. The situation has been tough on him, too. Often he hasn't gotten the practice time he needs, let alone the playing time he deserves.

DEFENSEMEN

Chris Chelios: B-

The Wings didn't want Chelios to log a lot of ice time this season, and even though Derian Hatcher went down with a knee injury three games in, Chelios has averaged about three minutes less than he did last season. Let's face it: The guy's getting up there -- he turns 42 on Jan. 25 -- and isn't the player he used to be. He gets beaten and makes mistakes more often. Still, he battles and leads. His recent knee injury might be bad because of his age, but it might be a blessing in disguise because of the break it gave him.

Jiri Fischer: C-

After missing most of last season because of a knee injury, Fischer has been out of sync. Sometimes he tries to do too much when he should keep it simple; sometimes he's tentative when he should be aggressive. He often overthinks when he should use his instincts -- when he should simply play. Lately he has looked better paired with Chelios, with whom he played so well in 2001-02, and the Wings' hope is that he will improve, his confidence will increase and there will be a snowball effect. The 6-foot-5, 226-pound 23-year-old still has enormous potential.

Mathieu Dandenault: B+

We list him as a defenseman, because that's what he's supposed to be, but Dandenault has swung between defense and forward once again this season. With so many injuries up front, and Niklas Kronwall and Jason Woolley exceeding expectations on the back end, the Wings have enjoyed the luxury of plugging Dandenault's speed into a forward slot. He hasn't put up good numbers in terms of goals and assists, but look at his plus-minus rating. He must be doing something right.

Derian Hatcher: Inc.

Hatcher was the Wings' big off-season acquisition -- the hometown kid from Sterling Heights, the Norris Trophy finalist from last season, the former captain of the rival Dallas Stars -- who was going to help the defense become more physical and maybe even be one of the best ever. But just as he was getting comfortable, in the third game of the season, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, throwing everything off. The silver lining for the Wings is that Hatcher is expected to be back in March, so it should be like they are picking up a Norris-caliber defenseman at the trade deadline.

Niklas Kronwall: A-

Again the Wings have added an impressive young player. Kronwall came up from the minors last month, and soon the coaches were raving about him. He has displayed skill and poise beyond his 22 years -- and has even played on special teams. The only reason he didn't start the season with the Wings was because they had no room for him on the roster (and some seasoning with AHL Grand Rapids wasn't going to hurt). The only reason he will go back to the minors, if he goes back, will be numbers.

Nicklas Lidstrom: B+

Lidstrom has set the highest standard for himself, winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman the past three seasons, and so far he hasn't quite lived up to it. A good performance from Lidstrom is still better than an excellent performance from most defensemen. He's still a special teams stalwart, and he's still smooth at both ends of the ice. But his numbers are a little low, and now and then he looks -- gasp! -- human, getting beaten one-on-one, firing a shot into an opponent and letting that opponent past him for a breakaway. One thing, though: He usually picks up his game in the second half.

Jamie Rivers: B+

Rivers began the season in the minors as the Wings' eighth or ninth defenseman. But he's an NHL veteran, and he has acted and played like it since coming up after Hatcher got hurt three games into the season. He has been a positive presence in the dressing room and has done whatever the coaches have asked of him -- even filling in at forward on occasion. He hasn't put up points, but his role has been limited and his plus-minus rating is good.

Mathieu Schneider: A

Schneider has been the Wings' best defenseman -- quite an accomplishment, even if Lidstrom has been merely good, not great. We really didn't see what kind of player Schneider was last season, because he came to the Wings just before the trade deadline and needed time to adjust, but we're seeing it now. He is one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the league. He has one of the top plus-minus ratings in the league. Playing for the Wings plays to his strengths, because the Wings' talent makes good use of his skills. At this point, at least, he is a Norris candidate.

Jason Woolley: A

Woolley was waived by lowly Buffalo last season, and he was the Wings' seventh defenseman when this season began. He was a healthy scratch the first three games. But then injuries gave him opportunity -- and he ran with it, performing very well in several different situations. He has one of the best plus-minus ratings in the league.

FORWARDS

Pavel Datsyuk: A

Datsyuk has been the Wings' most valuable player, and he might even be the MVP of the NHL at this point. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound, 25-year-old sixth-round draft pick has exceeded everyone's expectations -- and has played his best when the Wings have needed it most. Offensively, he has shown off play-of-the-day moves and risen to the top of the league's scoring list. Defensively, he has been responsible enough for the coaches to let him kill penalties. In the room, his ever-present sense of humor has come out even more as his English has improved. His challenge is to maintain this level of play in the second half and the playoffs.

Boyd Devereaux: C-

Devereaux hasn't developed into the kind of player the Wings hoped he would be when they signed him in August 2000. He has tunnel vision and gets hit too often. He doesn't make many plays with the puck. His confidence is fragile. Not much is expected of him anymore -- beyond digging out pucks along the boards -- despite his $1.6-million salary. But in his defense, he has battled a nagging groin problem for a while. One other thing: He always works hard, which is why he tends to stay in the lineup.

Kris Draper: A

Last Friday night at Carolina, the Wings reached the halfway point of their season -- and Draper tied and surpassed his career high with his 15th and 16th goals. Then Monday night against Nashville he tacked on two more. Needless to say, he is on pace to exceed anything he has done before offensively. But he hasn't given up anything defensively to do it, as his outstanding plus-minus rating illustrates. Perhaps his offensive outburst will draw attention to his defensive attributes and he will become a candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.

Tomas Holmstrom: B

Holmstrom isn't on pace to match the career-high 20 goals he scored last season. But he isn't too far off, and he has battled a shoulder injury. Now that he's back in front of the net, taking abuse on the power play, things should start going his way.

Brett Hull: A-

Hull is 39, almost old enough to be Datsyuk's father, but their chemistry has kept him looking young. He has endured a career-worst goal-drought lately, but he has kept racking up the assists and isn't far behind Datsyuk in points. And not long ago he had an NHL season-best seven-game goal-scoring streak -- the last goal the 732nd of his career. Only Wayne Gretzky (894) and Gordie Howe (801) have scored more.

Kirk Maltby: B+

This is what we've come to expect from Maltby -- excellent defense and a timely contribution to the offense here and there. His signature work is on the penalty-killing unit, when he plays a big role in shutting down the opposing power play and, along with Draper, is always a threat to score shorthanded.

Darren McCarty: Inc.

McCarty wasn't exactly tearing it up when he went down with a back injury just 14 games into the season. He's getting better but isn't close to playing yet, and his condition is a concern for a team that will need his grit down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Mark Mowers: B+

It says something when a player comes up from the minors and the coaches end up using him on special teams, no matter how many others are out of the lineup with injuries. Mowers is a solid, versatile player in whom the coaches have confidence, and he has performed well enough since his November promotion from AHL affiliate Grand Rapids that he might be earning a more permanent job. Lately he has been playing over Jason Williams, and if the time comes for the Wings to make a decision on the roster, Mowers might be the one who stays.

Brendan Shanahan: A-

Shanahan has kept putting up the points, as he has done consistently over his career, but he has done more than that. He leads the Wings in game-winning goals, his plus-minus rating is very good and he has shown more of a mean streak lately, reprising his old role as an enforcer with Darren McCarty out with a back injury and with Darryl Bootland back in the minors. The most impressive thing, perhaps, is that Shanahan has played so well with his old center, Sergei Fedorov, in Anaheim. While Hull has had Datsyuk, Shanahan hasn't had a consistent partner, playing with Datsyuk, Mowers, Steve Yzerman and Henrik Zetterberg.

Steve Thomas: A

When the Wings signed Thomas in early November, not much was expected of him right away. The 40-year-old had been skating with a junior team in Toronto. It was going to take him a while to get back up to speed, right? Wrong. He helped offset the leg injury to Henrik Zetterberg by coming right in and putting up six goals and four assists in 14 games, before going down with a knee injury. The Wings hope he can come back and be as big a force down the stretch and in the playoffs as he was for Anaheim last season.

Ray Whitney: B

Whitney came to Detroit as a free agent in August. It seems he's still fitting in with the Wings, and the coaches are still learning how to use him, considering how he has bounced around on different lines. His numbers are relatively humble, but he has battled a groin injury. You might not notice him for long stretches of games, but then suddenly he shows up and makes a big play. That's his game.

Jason Williams: D

If ever there were a time for Williams to make a statement, this was it. The injuries should have given him an opportunity to play, to put up numbers, to improve. But he hasn't done any of those things -- and might be in danger of losing his job, despite his potential. In his defense, he dealt with a nagging groin problem much of the first half. Some might say he hasn't been given enough of a chance; others might say he needs to show more fire and determination to earn more ice time.

Steve Yzerman: A

When the season began, Yzerman looked like he was on his last legs. The 38-year-old missed most of last season recovering from radical knee surgery, and he was so slow in exhibitions that it appeared he would be a fourth-line right winger, not a top-line center. But he quickly reclaimed his old position and put up numbers more befitting a player of his stature. Lately he has come back from a groin injury and has centered Draper and Maltby, but that does not mean he was demoted to the checking line. Yzerman is so good defensively that he can be used as a stopper, and Draper has been so good offensively that he has earned the chance to play with a scorer. Draper and Maltby also help Yzerman with their speed. The question is how Yzerman will hold up as the season grinds on.

Henrik Zetterberg: B

Zetterberg has been good when he has played in his second season, but he hasn't played much because of the broken leg he suffered Nov. 3 at Vancouver. The Wings hope he will get going in the second half and click with Shanahan, giving the Wings another dangerous combo to go with Datsyuk and Hull.