by PuckStopsHere on 01/27/12 at 02:14 PM ET
One of the constants in the NHL this season has been teams rapidly shuttling in and out of the first place position in the NHL. There have been many lead changes throughout the season so far. Even a team currently in 18th place by points - the Minnesota Wild were in first place overall in late November. At All Star break the first place overall team is the Detroit Red Wings. In part this is because they have more games played than some teams (50). Both the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers have better winning percentages in fewer games.
Detroit seems like a perennial contender because of the way they went from a Stanley Cup winning team built around Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov to a Stanley Cup winning team built around Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. This turnover in personal occurred without Detroit going through a weak rebuilding stage. In fact the Red Wings have qualified for the playoffs every year since 1990.
We may be getting near the end of the line for the perennial contender Red Wings. Nicklas Lidstrom is a seven time Norris Trophy winner. He is a likely nominee for this season’s award. He is also 41 years old (turning 42 before the playoffs complete) and his retirement has been discussed. Without him a Detroit defence will not be the same. You cannot replace a player like that.
At forward, Pavel Datsyuk is having another strong season. He is tied for third in points in the league and is a candidate to be a Hart Trophy nominee if he can hold up those numbers. He is 33 this year. Their next highest scorer this season Johan Franzen is 32 years old. Star forward Henrik Zetterberg is 31 and his offensive numbers look to be in decline this season. The 57 point pace he is on currently would be his lowest since before the lockout.
It isn’t obvious where the next generation of stars comes from. Though there are some prospects in the Detroit system, there are few if any younger players who have developed into core players on the current team.
With that said, Detroit is a stronger team this year than they were last year. This is because of better goaltending. Jimmy Howard is having his first All Star season. He may have several more top seasons in the future, in which case Detroit’s goaltending is well under control. At the same time, this season so far has been above Howard’s proven level in the past and may not be something he can keep up.
I don’t think this Detroit team is the best team in the league, but they are good enough that it is not impossible that with the right bounces they could have a Stanley Cup run. In all likelihood that would be the final hurrah for Nicklas Lidstrom, as it would be a great way to go out on top. Ironically that would likely push the Red Wings out of contention in the future.
I think the first place position in the league will change hands many times in the remainder of the regular season. As such any of a handful of teams could wind up in that position when the season ends. Detroit holds the position at the time being. They are a top team but most likely another team will wind up in first overall at the end of the season, largely because of the parity in the league. The big question regarding the Wings future is what happens after Lidstrom departs.
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