At 34-16-1 the Detroit Red Wings sit first in the Western Conference with 69 points. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Detroit Red Wings got off to a rocky start this season, something the long-time league powerhouse usually doesn't experience.
By mid-November, consistency was such a concern coach Mike Babcock held a meeting with his players to put the onus upon them to improve.
Superstar center Pavel Datsyuk was off to an uncharacteristic slow start and at one point called his performance “awful.”
There were concerns over the performance of other core veterans, such as defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, center Henrik Zetterberg and right winger Johan Franzen, while younger forwards Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler were struggling as well.
GM Ken Holland didn't panic and insisted his team would turn things around by mid-season, an opinion echoed by Babcock.
They were rewarded for their patience and belief in their players, as the Wings rebounded strongly and once again rank among the NHL's top teams.
Datsyuk, who had 15 points in his first 19 games, now has 53 in 50 games, which not only leads the Wings, but once again puts him among the league's scoring leaders.
Franzen is on pace for a career-best 65-point performance. Lidstrom, the ageless wonder, ranks among league leaders with a plus-24.
Zetterberg has only scored one goal since Dec. 17, but his playmaking skills have been beneficial to improving the stats of linemates Filppula and Hudler.
Since being moved to left wing on Zetterberg's line, Filppula is on pace for a career-high 64-point season, while Hudler has regained the scoring touch that abandoned him last season and is on track for a 25-goal, 52-point performance.
Aging power forward Todd Bertuzzi, an unrestricted free agent this summer who's likely playing his final season with the Wings, regained his scoring touch in recent weeks and could reach the 40-point mark for the fifth straight year.
Factor in the superb goaltending of Jimmy Howard, who is finally receiving his due credit as one of the game’s elite netminders, and it's little wonder the Wings have surged to first in the Western Conference.
With less than four weeks remaining until the NHL's Feb. 27 trade deadline, Holland acknowledged he'll be shopping around to bolster his roster, though he'd prefer not to move early round draft picks to do so.
It's believed Holland will shop for depth at forward, specifically a scoring winger or a good third/fourth line checking forward.
There was speculation earlier this season the Red Wings would be a destination for Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Semin, but Holland's comments suggest he'll look more at affordable roster ‘tweaks.’
Rumored trade targets include Montreal Canadiens left winger Travis Moen, Dallas Stars left winger Brenden Morrow, Carolina right winger Tuomo Ruutu and Edmonton Oilers right winger Ales Hemsky, though Holland is said to have concerns about Hemsky's injury history.
It had been suggested Holland would consider adding a more experienced backup goalie, but it appears his focus is more on his forward lines than in replacing Ty Conklin.
With more than $5.5 million in available salary cap space, Holland has room to take on additional salary, without having to move a roster player. Odds are he'll shop mid-range draft picks, prospects or minor-leaguers.
Looking to next season, the Wings have $39.6 million invested in 14 players.
That leaves Holland with considerable cap space to add more skilled talent, particularly to replace Lidstrom, who may retire at season's end, as well as unrestricted free agents such as Bertuzzi, Hudler, left winger Tomas Holmstrom and defenseman Brad Stuart.
Of course, the new CBA will play a role in how much room the Red Wings have to play with and what type of moves they can make.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.