The Detroit Red Wings had a definite plan in mind when they signed center Stephen Weiss to a five-year contract over the summer.
They would put Weiss, who missed most of last season with a wrist injury, in the middle of the second line between Johan Franzen and fellow free-agent signee Daniel Alfredsson. They also planned to move captain Henrik Zetterberg from center of the second line to left wing on the top unit with playmaking center Pavel Datsyuk.
Detroit also let versatile second-liner Valtteri Filppula, who played center and left wing, leave via free agency. It looked like a fine idea, but 11 games into the new season it's time for a new plan. Vexed by an offense averaging just 2.27 goals per game (23rd in the NHL), coach Mike Babcock is again splitting up Zetterberg (six goals, six assists) and Datsyuk (five goals, six assists), who have combined for a whopping 34 percent of the Red Wings' points.
In splitting up top forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Detroit Red Wings are trying to spark an offense that currently ranks 23rd. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI)
"It's not going," Babcock told reporters in Detroit after practice Friday. "I told them and [the media] I wasn't going to split them up and 11 games in, I'm splitting them up. It wasn't by plan and not necessarily what I wanted to do, but we need to. We think we need more going. It's too easy to shut down one or two guys. You need a team going."
Heading into Saturday night's game against the New York Rangers at Joe Louis Arena (7 p.m., NHLN-US), Zetterberg is back at center of the second line with Weiss in the middle of the third group, where he was placed after a demotion prompted by his lack of production (two goals, no assists, minus-4).
Highly touted rookie Tomas Tatar will now play on Zetterberg's right side and the enigmatic Franzen (two goals, three assists) will shift back to the left wing after centering the past two games. Alfredsson (one goal, eight assists) and Todd Bertuzzi (three goals, one assist) will shift with Datsyuk, while Justin Abdelkader will fill Tatar's spot at right wing on Weiss' third line.
"Could be a record … what was it 10 games?" Zetterberg said of the change of plans. "I think Babs was pretty up front about it. [He said] we will be playing together until he needs to switch it up, and now it's time. I'm pretty sure we'll play together here at some point in time, but when we've been losing games like we have, haven't been scoring much, we have to try something different."
The final straw was a 6-1 blowout loss Wednesday night on home ice against the Ottawa Senators in Alfredsson's first game against his former team. Aside from Bertuzzi's power-play goal late in the first period, the Red Wings didn't generate any offense.
They had a few chances here and there, but Craig Anderson stopped 31 of 32 shots. Babcock was not pleased and hinted at the possibility of splitting Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
Left Wing - DET
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 12
SOG: 47 | +/-: 5
"I don't think you can evaluate our offense playing like we were," he said. "Eventually we're going to have to start scoring some goals, and it's got to come through something besides our power play and 13 and 40 [Datsyuk and Zetterberg]."
Babcock did get some good news Friday, when forward Patrick Eaves was cleared to return from knee and ankle sprains. He won't get back into the starting lineup against the Rangers, but Eaves could help balance the scoring effort among the bottom-six forwards.
Detroit also hopes to get puck-hounding, speedy center Darren Helm back during an upcoming trip to Western Canada, which would give Babcock even more options. Helm, currently sidelined by groin issues, missed all but one regular-season game in 2012-13 and all of Detroit's games in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a back injury.
For the time being, Babcock is saddled with an offense that's sputtering. After finishing tied for 19th in the League last season with 2.54 goals per game, the Red Wings have somehow gotten less productive after adding Alfredsson and Weiss.
"We have to generate more offense," Babcock said. "We have to be way better than we were the other night [against Ottawa]. We can't be like we were the other night. I thought we were heading in the right direction but we had a setback, so now we have to regroup."
The numbers prove it.
The Red Wings' power play, which will keep Zetterberg and Datsyuk paired on the same top unit, appears to be fine with a 21.2 percent success rate (11th in the NHL). Even strength is a different story. They haven't scored a goal in their last 73 shots of even-strength play, and more troublesome is what's happening with the puck-possession game.
Center - DET
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 11
SOG: 37 | +/-: 5
Detroit is allowing a surprising 31.7 shots per game (21st in the NHL), which likely stems from their inability to establish sustained offensive pressure.
"I think we're a little too much one-and-done," Zetterberg said. "It's tiring to play like that. Once you get into their zone, you want to spend some more time, wear out their [defense] a little bit. I think we're [taking] one shot and they get the puck back out, and it's tough to score goals like that now. You have to spend time there and grind and get some ugly goals, and hopefully we can spread it out a little bit more now and get four lines going.”
Tatar, who played four seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, hopes he can be part of the solution in his newfound role alongside Zetterberg. The 22-year old forward is speedy and skilled, leading the Griffins to the Calder Cup last season by scoring 16 goals and 21 points in 24 AHL playoff games.
"We need to score more goals than the last game," he said. "Hopefully this is going to be the turning point and I can help the first two lines produce. This is a big opportunity to play with those guys. It's basically like a dream. My job will be to skate, get the pucks for the guys so they can make the plays, be aggressive on the puck for those guys so we can stay in the offensive zone [and] get the puck in the corners for them."