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Five Questions: Babcock talks depth

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Red Wings coach Mike Babcock:

Mike Babcock has a trusted, old-school way of telling if the season is going as planned.

"You wake up every day, you look at the standings, and if you don't have to turn the paper upside down to be happy it's a positive thing," Babcock told NHL.com.

The standings look good right-side up to the Detroit Red Wings nowadays.

Detroit currently sits third in the Atlantic Division with 71 points. The Red Wings are two points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and a notch below the Montreal Canadiens because of the head-to-head tiebreaker (Detroit is 0-1-1 against Montreal this season).

There is no team hotter in the NHL than the Red Wings, who are 9-1-0 in their past 10 games, all played without No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard. Howard has been out with a groin injury, but he's scheduled to return Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets.

"I think we're a pretty good team," Babcock said. "Are we a great team? We're going to find out."

Babcock is right; the Red Wings are about to be tested.

Starting Wednesday at the Pittsburgh Penguins (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SN1, TVA Sports), 10 of Detroit's next 12 games are against teams that if the season ended today would be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That doesn't include a game at the Los Angeles Kings, last season's Stanley Cup champions, on Feb. 24.

The Red Wings play the Kings the night after playing the Anaheim Ducks. It's the middle game of a three-in-four set on the road against the California teams, which is part of a six-game road trip that also features games against the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators.

"We've got all these great teams we're playing coming up, but we've gotten better and I think we're continuing to get better," Babcock said. "It just appears to me that the team is getting better."

For reasons why, read the following Q&A.

Here are Five Questions with … Mike Babcock:

Has anything changed about the way the team plays, maybe protecting the house a little bit more, in the wake of Jimmy Howard's injury?

"No, not really. They're different goalies, so it's different in your own zone a little bit. Obviously [Howard] is our guy and [Petr] Mrazek has played real well, and made it clear that he's prepared to play in the NHL. Not many times do you get your second goalie hurt, then your first goalie gets hurt, and your third goalie comes in and goes 9-1 or whatever he is. He's been excellent that way. What I like about our group is we've got great leadership and our team gets better every day. You know what? It's been fun to be around them."

I was going to ask you about the joy you get out of coaching this group. Is this just a fun group to coach with young guys and veterans that seem to be mixing quite well together?

"We've got a good group, a really good group. We've got the big three, the leadership group, in [Pavel] Datsyuk, [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Niklas] Kronwall. Dan Cleary is part of that just with what he does with our young guys, mentoring our young people. We've got a lot of demands on our young people to get better and we are getting better. We think we've created real good depth up front, real good depth on the back end and real good depth in goal. There is competition for jobs, which leads to accountability and making each other better. That's excellent. All in all I like our group."

It could have gone sideways when Howard went down, but it gave Mrazek a chance and he's produced. So for you now has Howard's injury gone from a concern to a blessing in disguise, similar in a way to last season with all the injuries and discovering the young players?

"Well I'm with you there. I think what happened last year, when we got everybody hurt, it was easy for the general manager to understand what we had. It's not thinking about what you have, it's knowing what you have, so when the offseason comes [and] you're making decisions on contracts you know what these guys can do. I think that's happened this year. Xavier Ouellet is in the minors; he thinks he should be on our team. [Teemu] Pulkkinen is in the minors; he thinks he should be on our team. Mrazek is supposed to be our third goalie; he just went 9-1. I like the depth of our group and the push we have."

Tomas Tatar has 39 points in 52 games, the same number of points he had in 73 games last season. What's made him so effective this season?

"Those guys are getting a real opportunity. This year he's playing on a line with [Darren] Helm and Datsyuk; Helm and Datsyuk never played last year, so that helps him. You could say the same thing about [Gustav] Nyquist; Zetterberg never played last year basically. We're just a deeper team and those guys are real players. They've worked hard. You've got to give Blash [Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill] credit. Blash was my assistant coach in the NHL a few years ago; he's gone to the minors and he's done an unbelievable job in developing players. You draft them, but you've got to get them NHL ready and they have to continue to develop and get better. They think they're going to score, Nyquist and Tatar, and they are, so good for us."

The power play struggled at the start of the season, going 5-for-46 through 12 games. It's been dynamic for the better part of the past 40 games, going 43-for-142. That's 30.2 percent. How much of the power play's effectiveness goes to playing Datsyuk and Zetterberg on different units?

"I think that helps us because we're on the attack for two minutes. The second thing I'd say to you is we started with a plan, we had to adjust the plan a little bit, but [assistant coach] Jim Hiller came and brought some ideas. Jim Hiller played in the NHL at one time, was a college player, was a long-time junior coach, and he's about offense every single day. He had lots of ideas. We had to tweak them a little bit for the NHL, to build our program and get some trust for our guys, but he's done a real nice job. The other side of that is our penalty kill has been outstanding. It went into the tank, but now it's back. Our specialty teams have won us games."

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