DETROIT — Coach Mike Babcock raved about his team last week, calling them the most talented group he’s had in Detroit since the 2008-09 season.
Not only did he reference the success of a team that finished second in the Western Conference and made a second consecutive run to the Stanley Cup finals, but he said the current squad has room for growth.
With 11 players 25-years-old or younger currently on the Wings roster, the room for growth is the tremendous upside the young team possesses.
“I think everything comes with experience,” 23-year-old center Riley Sheahan said. “The longer the young guys have been in the league including me you kind of grow and get more comfortable and get more confidence.”
No doubt, the Wings and Babcock have been able to take advantage of the game experience young players like Sheahan acquired during the injury-riddled 2013-14 season. But sports, in general has always been a younger man’s game and it’s not just about ability but how quickly a player can develop that ability.
“I think the biggest thing is speed,” 25-year-old defenseman Brendan Smith said. “Speed kills. I think that’s the biggest thing about these young guys that are working out at such a young age and continue to get stronger and bigger and faster. You’re seeing a lot more of these skill players because of it. Then you look around the league and the parody is so close because these young guys are stepping in and are playing such a big role on teams.”
Guys like Xavier Ouellet, 21, who is on his second call-up this season, has played in seven games. Goalie Petr Mrazek, 22, has impressed in his four spot starts, going 3-1-0 with a 2.70 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
It’s also mainstays like Tomas Tatar, 24, and Gustav Nyquist, 25, who have made the biggest splash in the kiddie pool. Since last January, both forwards have appeared in 70 games, scored more than 20 goals and surpassed 40 points, becoming regulars on the Wings’ top scoring lines.
“I think the Wings’ organization traditionally has had an older group of guys,” Sheahan said. “But there’s so much talent in here and so much talent coming through Grand Rapids, it’s not surprising to see some of these guys playing here and in the future, a lot of the guys in Grand Rapids will be playing here.”
The youth in the locker room has offset the historically veteran-heavy lineup and sparked some of the aging Wings.
“That’s a great feeling,” Smith said. “I think some of the young guys make the older guys feel a little younger and more energetic or more youthful or whatever you want to call it. It’s a good atmosphere and it’s good for everybody. I bet you the older guys like it too. You get some of these upbeat guys that are just rearing to go all the time. Guys like Sheahan and Tats and (Tomas) Jurco, you can go through the list, probably toss myself in there and it just brings a better atmosphere.”
Simply not knowing any better can be a powerful asset that the young guys bring to the table. Feeling invincible and capable of anything tends to be common character traits and maybe, just maybe that naïve mentality is what the Wings need.
“In our minds, we think we can do it all but that’s an end picture,” Smith said. “Right now, we’re just trying to go one game at a time, one day at a time. That’s how you have to do it. If you start looking into the future, your outcome doesn’t come out to be what you set out for. I think the biggest thing is just to take it slow and take it one day at a time and then hopefully at the end you can be successful.”
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY vs. COLUMBUS (12-15-2):
Center - CBJ
Goals: 0 | Assists: 2 | Pts: 2
Shots: 7 | +/-: E
The Blue Jackets have been a streaky team during the first leg of the season. Currently on a six-game win streak, the Jackets have also strung together a six-game and a nine-game losing streak this season so things have a tendency to snowball with this team, for better or worse. Much of that can be credited to their grocery list of injuries, having lost 186 man games, including six players currently listed on injured reserve. The power play has been a bright spot, scoring a goal in four straight games and ranking fourth in the NHL at 23.3 percent but the first goal of the game will have a strong influence on the overall outcome as Columbus is 2-12-1 when the opponent opens the scoring.
PLAYER TO WATCH: One of the leaders on this Columbus team, Brandon Dubinsky’s absence was sorely missed through the first 26 games of the season. Dubinsky had surgery on Oct. 6 to repair an abdominal injury, which sidelined him until last week. He recorded his first point of the season in his first game back with an assist on a Boone Jenner power-play goal eight minutes into their game against Philadelphia. The Jackets are glad to have Dubinsky – one of four alternate captains – back in the lineup as his leadership and experience is needed on this young team. Dubinsky is a pest on the ice and can play in all situations ranking among the team leaders in time on ice for both power play and penalty kill last season.
FRIDAY vs. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (20-10-0):
Center - NYI
Goals: 12 | Assists: 15 | Pts: 27
Shots: 88 | +/-: -5
Arguably the biggest surprise team of the season, the Islanders have slowed down in the month of December with a 3-3-0 record. Trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins by two points for the Metropolitan Division lead, New York won 19 of its first 29 games for the second time in franchise history. A bit surprising, given its league-worst penalty kill at 71.3 percent and giving up power-play goals in four of its last five games. Friday will be the first of three meetings with the Wings, a series that went 2-1-0 in favor of New York last season. The Islanders will visit Detroit to begin their sixth of 16 total sets of back-to-back series this season, with a 4-1-0 record in the first game and an 8-2-0 record overall.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Captain John Tavares has proved to be the cornerstone of the Islanders’ rebuilding process during the last few seasons. The team’s first overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft, Tavares has averaged a point per game for the last four seasons. Currently on a four-game point streak – Tavares’ fourth three-game or longer point streak of the season – he is tied for the team-lead with 27 points. The 24-year-old ranks in the top five for time on ice among NHL forwards and is one of three Islanders with double-digit power-play points (Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson rank among the top 20 in the NHL).
SUNDAY vs. COLORADO (10-13-7):
Right Wing - COL
Goals: 7 | Assists: 11 | Pts: 18
Shots: 54 | +/-: -3
The Avalanche overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in a shootout on Thursday. It marked Colorado’s third multi-goal comeback of the season, all of which have taken place since Nov. 22. The Avs have now come from behind in each of their last seven victories dating back to Nov. 6. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time in franchise history that the Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques have rallied from at least a one-goal deficit in seven straight wins. The Avalanche's penalty killing unit ranks sixth in the NHL at 85.4 percent and had a streak of 29 consecutive penalty kills from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, the club’s longest single-season streak since 1998-99 (35 straight). Colorado has been outshot in 19 of 30 games this season and has a 4-6-4 record on the road.
PLAYER TO WATCH: With a goal Thursday against Winnipeg, Jarome Iginla moved into 47th place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,185 points. With his fourth different team in as many seasons, the 37-year-old has been productive deep into his career. Iginla (567) trails only Jaromir Jagr (710) among active NHL players in all-time goals – the only active members of the 500-goal club. Iginla recorded 30 goals last season for Boston, the 12th time he’s reached that milestone in his 18-season career and has seven goals through Colorado’s first 30 games this season. Iginla along with veterans Daniel Briere and Alex Tanguay add experience to a dynamically young team struggling with injuries.