By: Will Burchfield
The Red Wings’ first ten games are in the books, with the team sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division with 12 points. A dour weekend has dampened some of the positivity in Hockeytown, as the Wings dropped back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday after entering play on a six-game winning streak. It has been a season, thus far, of bright spots and dull ones; here are three players on each side of the spectrum.
1. Jimmy Howard
Who saw this coming? After being mentioned in trade rumors throughout the offseason and entering the year as Detroit’s backup goalie, Howard has been flat-out brilliant through the first two-and-a-half weeks of the season. He leads the NHL in save percentage (.973) and goals against average (0.86) and has vastly outplayed nominal starter Petr Mrazek (more on him in a bit.) For the first time in a long time, Howard is playing up to his $5.2 million cap hit.
2. Darren Helm
Another longtime Red Wing who was falling out of favor entering this season, Helm has quieted his critics in the early going. He is tied for first on the team with four goals and tied for second with seven points. He has been undeniably effective as the Wings’ third-line center, using his speed to get behind opposing defensemen and generate pressure on the forecheck. His current scoring pace isn’t sustainable – look no further than his shooting percentage for a reason why – but Helm deserves credit for re-establishing his value after a poor 2015-16 season.
3. Thomas Vanek
True, Vanek has been relegated to spectator status with a lower-body injury, but that doesn’t negate the fine work he put in through Detroit’s first seven games. Signed as a reclamation project in the offseason, the 32-year-old forward has proven he’s got plenty of game left, leading the Wings across all offensive categories prior to his injury. As with Helm, some regression is likely in store, but if Vanek can approach the 50-point mark in a third-line role his $2.6 million cap hit will look like quite the bargain.
1. Petr Mrazek
Mrazek hasn’t been awful by any means, but he’s hardly been good enough to justify his claim to the starter’s job in net. His .910 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average leave much to be desired and rank as below-average numbers compared to the rest of the league. Things were especially grim on Sunday night versus the Florida Panthers, when Mrazek allowed four goals on ten shots and was pulled in the Wings’ 5-2 loss. For a guy coming off a career year who signed a two-year, $8 million contract in the offseason, the 24-year-old hasn’t lived up to expectations.
2. Tomas Tatar
The Wings were counting on Tatar to take a leap forward this season. So far, he’s flopped. He has just two points through ten games, a stat line far more indicative of a fourth-line grinder than a first-line playmaker. Tatar averaged 23 goals over the last three seasons and will need to seriously pick up the pace to approach that total this year. The positive side of things is that the underlying statistics suggest Tatar’s actually played pretty well, so it’s likely only a matter of time before the points start coming.
3. Frans Nielsen
Where Tatar can fall back on positive peripheral stats in the wake of a slow start, Nielsen has no such alibi. Goals and assists aside, the Red Wings’ big offseason acquisition simply hasn’t been the possession force he was known to be for his former team, checking in with just a 43.2 percent Corsi through the first ten games. Part of that can be attributed to learning a new system and gelling with new teammates, but Nielsen has some early catching-up to do in terms of justifying that six-year, $31.5 million contract.