Jan. 4 :: Like a Miniature Buddha. Covered in Hair.

WHAT’S ALL THIS THEN?
The Detroit Red Wings play their third Wings Wings Tuesday this season. This time, it’s the Oilers in Edmonton, 9pm Petrella; 8pm Discher; 6pm Hollis. 7pm where the game is actually being played. The Wings are 1-0-1 when we get discounted chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings, beating the Sharks and losing to the Avs in a shootout.

WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
Our boys are on another mini-skid, losing the last game of 2010 and the first game of 2011. Jimmy Howard’s play has left something to be desired. The defense is being questioned. The injuries are beginning to pile up. 2009, is that you?

NOW WHERE WERE WE?
This is the third meeting between the Wings and Oilers this season — the most recent coming on November 11th. It was a 6-2 win for the good guys, Franzen and Filppula had one goal each; Cleary and Homer had two goals each.

OH, HI AGAIN
None of the current Oilers are former Red Wings…

MEMBA ME?!
…however, a few of the current Red Wings are former Oilers, though neither will be playing in this game. Dan Cleary played 220 regular season games (and ten post-season games) for Edmonton. Current Griffin Chris Minard played his last five NHL games as an Oiler last season.

BEST NAME NOMINEE
Lots of awesome names to choose from on this roster, including Nikolai Khabibulin, Devan Dubnyk, Theo Peckham, Zack Stortini, Jean-Francois Jacques, and Andrew Cogliano. But the clear winner is Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson despite having to choose only half of that last name to appear on his jersey.

THEIR LAST GAMES
:: Detroit played only twenty minutes on Sunday, losing 3-2 to the Flyers. Like a used diaper filled with Indian food.
:: Edmonton lost to Calgary, 2-1, on New Years Day.

EXPECTED LINEUP
By special request, the TPL Glossary is ready to jailsex your eyes.
***ALSO: I haven’t heard if Eaves is back in tonight, as his infected elbow should be good to go. If he’s in, either Tatar or Mursak will be out — but both made the trip to Western Canada***
Mulo — Zetterberg — Homer
Scuttle — Filppula — Thunderchief
Draper — Helm — Tatar / Eaves
Miller — Abdelkader — Mursak

Lidstrom — BOOM HEADSHOT
Rafalski — Ericsson
Kronwall — Cirque

Tiberius
Osgood

Scratches [ABSOLUTELY KILLER JOB by @JeffHancock41 on the nicknames]
Jakub “Why Don’t You Sit This Next One Out, Stop Talking For a While?” Kindl

Injuries
Mike “I’m In a Glass Case of Emotion” EModano [wrist]
Dan “By the Beard of Zeus” Cleary [ankle]
Pavel “You’re Making Me Look Stupid! Get Out Here, Panda Jerk!” Datsyuk [hand]

Honorable Mentions
Todd “Smells Like Bigfoot’s Dick” Bertuzzi
Todd “Yeah, There Were Horses, and a Man on Fire, and I Killed a Guy with a Trident” Bertuzzi
Todd “I’m Going to Shoot You with a BB Gun When You’re Not Looking. Yep. Back of the Head” Bertuzzi
Todd “Oh Yeah? Well You’re About to be in… Dead Place” Bertuzzi
Jiri “I Love Scotch. Scotchy Scotch Scotch. Here It Goes Down. Down Into My Belly” Hudler
Jiri “It’s Called Sex Panther By Odeon. It’s Illegal in Nine Countries. It’s Made With Real Bits of Panther So You Know It’s Good” Hudler
Jiri “You Are a Smelly Pirate Hooker” Hudler
Jiri “I Know What You’re Asking Yourself and the Answer is Yes. I Have a Nickname For My Penis” Hudler
Jiri “I Wanna Say Something. I’m Going to Put it Out There. If You Like it, You Can Take it. If You Don’t, Send it Right Back. I Wanna Be On You” Hudler
Jiri “That Was One Crazy Party. I Am Hung Ovaaa” Hudler
Jiri “I Would Like to Extend to You an Invitation to the Pants Party” Hudler
Jiri “She Was Brazilian. Or Chinese or Something Weird. I Met Her in the Bathroom of a Kmart and We Made Out for Hours. Then We Parted Ways, Never to See Each Other Again” Hudler
Jiri “I Wanna Be Friends With It” Hudler
Jiri “What Do You Say We Go On a Date? Have Some Chicken. Maybe Some Sex” Hudler
Valtteri “Mmmm. I Look Good. I Mean Really Good. HEY EVERYONE COME SEE HOW GOOD I LOOK” Filppula
Valtteri “Let’s Go Over the Ground Rules. Rule Number 1: No Touching of the Hair or Face. AND THAT’S IT” Filppula
Nicklas “Don’t Act Like You’re Not Impressed” Lidstrom
Nicklas “I Don’t Know How to Put This, But I’m Kind of a Big Deal” Lidstrom
Niklas “WHAMMY!” Kronwall
Niklas “I Will Smash Your Face Into a Car Windshield and then Take Your Mother Dorothy Mantooth Out For a Nice Seafood Dinner and Never Call Her Again” Kronwall
Mike “I DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE YELLING ABOUT!” Babcock
Aaron “If You Want to Throw Down Fisticuffs, Fine. I’ve Got Jack Johnson and Tom O’Leary Waitin’ For Ya Right Here” Downey
Kyle “You Are Not a Man. You Are a Big Fat Joke” Wellwood
Kyle “What? You Pooped in the Refrigerator? And You Ate the Whole Wheel of Cheese? How’d You Do That? Heck, I’m Not Even Mad, That’s Amazing” Wellwood
Patrick “Sweet Lincoln’s Mullet” Kane
Brett “I Love Lamp” Lebda
Brett “I Ate Fiberglass Insulation. It Wasn’t Cotton Candy Like the Guy Said. My Tummy Itches” Lebda
Brett “People Like Me Because I Am Polite and I Am Rarely Late. I Like to Eat Ice Cream and I Really Enjoy a Nice Pair of Slacks. Years Later, a Doctor Will Tell Me That I Have an IQ of 48 and am What Some People Call Mentally Retarded” Lebda
St. Louis “You Dirtbags Have Been in Third Place for Five Years” Blues
*If there are any that you think I missed, throw them in the comments — the best one will be shared for all to enjoy on the TPL Facebook Page*

THE FIVE HOLE
1. There was some chatter that maybe Chris Osgood was the better option to start this game, since he came into the Flyers game and stopped ALL FIVE SHOTS! he faced in relief of Jimmy Howard. Then, the world awoke, remembered that even with all the Hall of Fame arguments, this net still belongs to Tiberius — slump or not. Howard starts. Like a starting goaltender does. Whether he shows up or not is another story…
2. Like Howard, team defense is coming under scrutiny. They’ll need to not allow three goals in quick succession tonight, which shouldn’t be a problem. But it shouldn’t be a problem against the Stars and Flyers either.
3. I like Jan Mursak — he’s quick and seems like a bright hockey player. I really like Tomas Tatar — he’s fearless and has some balls for a two-game call-up. One will have to play his way onto the Red Wings next season, as he’s waiver eligible next season. The other has a few more seasons before the Wings have to make a decision, but seems closer to being the real deal. The future’s bright, folks. Now if only Thomas McCollum would yank his head out of his culo…
4. Valtteri Filppula is doing his part to pick it up with Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary out, scoring in consecutive games. On the other end of that rainbow is Todd Bertuzzi, who has quietly gone 16 without a goal and seems content to slide by on all the goodwill from earlier in the season.
5. At 6pm Monday, it seemed downright likely that two Red Wings prospects would be facing off against one another in the World Junior Championship. Then, Russia scored with a minute left to force overtime with Sweden (featuring 2010 Draft Pick and  – perhaps more importantly – Michael Petrella interviewee Calle Jarnkrok), before winning in the shootout. Later in the evening, the tournament “favorite” United States (and tough guy-turned-complete player Mitch Callahan) were outclassed by always-favorite Canada. It looks like the Wings will be stuck at two WJC Gold Medalists — Brian Lashoff (’10) and Logan Pyett (’08 – hat tip to @codyhotel).

WHAT WE LEARNED AGAINST THE FLYERS
People looking forward to Chris Osgood. Dogs and cats living together. Famines, earthquakes. Horsemen galloping. The end. She is nigh.

OILER WE COVET (JJ Special)
Jordan Eberle. No-brainer.

WUT?

Capology: Halfway to Free Agency

Oh, hello there. I hope you had a wonderful New Year celebration, and that the Winter Classic Fellatiofest coupled with Red Wings crapping the bed against two L’Eastern Conference clubs hasn’t soiled 2011 for you already. Quick aside: I was watching the Winter Classic with my father-in-law, who is a season ticket holder for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, but doesn’t catch a ton of hockey on television. Upon hearing the absolutely inane chatter of Doc Emrick, Darren Pang, Pierre Maguire, and Eddie Olczyk, he let out a “who are these clowns” exclamation…prompting me to almost come to the defense of Emrick. But why? Everyone tells you he’s a legend…but if you listen to him, it’s mostly nonsense and the word “DRIIIIIIIIVE.” He’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but I’m tempted to ask if it’s a Chris Osgood-like matter of being around forever.

Anyway… due to overwhelming reader outrage over our extended disappearance (read: one comment from @BizCassty), I thought I’d take a crack at getting back behind the wheel here.

Now that the calendar has turned over and we’re being jailsexed by January, the Red Wings (and, yes, other teams, too…but who cares) are allowed to negotiate extensions with players who signed one-year deals. Some are taking advantage of their one-season opportunity (Patrick Eaves), some will be injured for most of theirs (Mike Modano), and others probably regret having signed this past summer at all (Derek Meech).

To take things a step further, 21 players that are Red Wings property will be free agents come July 1st. A lot could happen between now and then, but it’s never too early to look ahead at what the future holds — particularly since we’re getting a look at Jan Mursak and Tomas Tatar: two guys who have held their own and looked pretty good in their call-ups (calls-up?). By the way, does anyone think that Tatar sticks around longer than Mursak — or is Mursak going to get the Ritola treatment since he will have to clear waivers next season, while Tatar will not?

So I turn the question to you — what do you think the odds are of the following players returning next season?

UNRESTRICTED
Kris Draper :: with Maltby moving on, is this season his swan song as well?
Patrick Eaves :: will the Wings be able to afford him if he keeps up the pace?
Ilari Filppula :: will he pull a Leino and demand NHL time, or be satisfied in Grand Rapids again?
Jimmy Howard :: what kind of raise should he expect — and will he get?
Sergei Kolosov :: I’m sure the Wings hoped he’d be closer by now, but he’s always been a project.
Nicklas Lidstrom :: rejuvenating season — or one last hurrah?
Joey MacDonald :: with McCollum not coming along quickly, does he stick around for emergencies?
Derek Meech :: probably can’t wait until July 1st.
Drew Miller :: may not be satisfied playing every other game (when everyone’s healthy).
Mike Modano :: regardless of a Cup, is the team interested in keeping Mo?
Chris Osgood :: despite my thoughts, is there a better backup for so few dollars?
Ruslan Salei :: strong season, but is the 5/6 D slot an easy one to fill on the market?
Jamie Tardif :: Griffins captain, but way down the Wings call-up depth chart.

RESTRICTED
Dick Axelsson
:: according to Hat Trick Dick, the Wings want to re-sign him. Color me skeptical.
Cory Emmerton :: waiver-eligible next season. Big decision looming here.
Jonathan Ericsson :: Holland was hoping for an extension during the season…
Jan Mursak :: waiver-eligible next season, and looks good in the NHL. But so did Ritola. Thoughts?
Jordan Owens :: caught Babcock’s eye in training camp, but with guys like Mursak, Tatar, Filppula… is he worth hanging onto?
Francis Pare :: hasn’t really caught on in the AHL, even.
Jordan Pearce :: has long said he’d be a doctor if the NHL didn’t look like it was imminent. Good on him.
Logan Pyett :: also waiver-eligible, has he earned a shot on the Wings blueline? Probably not.

2011-12 Red Wings (already signed)
Zetterberg — Datsyuk — Holmstrom
Bertuzzi — Filppula — Franzen
Cleary — Helm —  Hudler
_____ — Abdelkader — _____
_____

Rafalski — _____
Kronwall — Stuart
_____ — _____
Kindl

_____
_____

Eight slots on next year’s roster wide open… and $44.6M accounted for. If the cap doesn’t wiggle at all, that’s $15M to play with.

HAVE AT IT, FRIENDS.

Sophomore Slump or Defensive Deficiency?

Ask anyone that follows the game of NHL hockey with some degree of regularity to name the Top 5 defensemen in the game today, and the name Nicklas Lidstrom will cross the lips of almost every single participant in the poll. Some might argue that Lidstrom is even the greatest to ever play his position, and there is likely a case to be made for that argument as well. His game is almost as flawless as it was when he was 10 years younger, and the reliability and skill he brings on the blue line are the anchor for the entire Red Wings defensive corps. However, the same logic that says Lidstrom is one of the game’s elite tends to give a sense of comfort that isn’t always founded in rational thought to many a Red Wings fan. Sure, Lidstrom’s play is one of the hallmarks of this team, but spots 2-6 on the blue line don’t necessarily follow the transient property of Lidstrom’s greatness impacting the remainder of the group.

Before I go any further here, let me freely admit that I’ve questioned this defense for the past two years as being overrated and overvalued based on the perception of Lidstrom’s greatness. It’s a testament to his achievements, for sure, but it’s also causing a false sense of security in terms of the expectations around this team. Following the 3-2 loss to the Flyers yesterday, the Red Wings now sit at 16th in the league in goals against per game, surrendering an average of 2.80 per contest. Sure, it’s still sub-3 goals, but that also puts the Wings one spot below the Mendoza line of mediocrity, also known as the bottom half of the statistical representation of the NHL. For a team featuring a sure-fire HOF’er on the blue line, that’s pretty tough to stomach.

The easiest course of action, of course, is to blame the guy between the pipes: one James Howard. There’s no dodging the fact that Howard has been nothing short of average since the calendar rolled into December, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. Howard is now 5-5-1 since the start on December, with a GAA over 3.00 and a cloud of uncertainty forming around him. Many folks are already throwing around the dreaded “S” word, choosing to believe that the Wings lack of success in preventing the puck from going into the net is because Howard is just going through a mythical rite-of-passage as opposed to something more tangible and reliable. Yes, Howard is struggling. Yes, there may be some credence in the thought that Chris Osgood might be a better bet at this point (Yes, you read that correctly. Somewhere, Petrella just had a seizure.) But there is more than meets the eye here when it comes to the Wings and team D.

Detroit’s defensemen are, for lack of a better term, a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to playing style. Most of the guys are big and physical, preferring to knock guys off pucks and drive them into the boards. The obvious exceptions, of course, are Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, who rely more on skill and positioning as opposed to brute force and physical play. While this may sound like a no-brainer to any Wings fan worth his salt, the fact that 2/3 of the Wings defensive corps relies on physicality sometimes gets lost in favor of terms like “puck-moving defensemen.” While true, Detroit’s puck movers are still big, hard-hitting guys at heart and one would expect them to play in a system that accentuates their strengths as opposed to burying them for a preferred scheme.

What am I getting at? Honestly, tell me you haven’t watched a Wings game in the past two years and thought to yourself on more than one occasion “Damn, it sure looks like X team is on a power play with the way they are holding the puck in our zone.” It happens all of the time. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s designed to happen that way. Rather than giving the D-men the green light to take the body and force the turnovers deep, the Wings rely on a penalty-kill like mentality in that they prefer the forwards to crash down and pick up the bodies, while the D stays at home in front of the net to take away the area immediately in front of whoever is tending net at the time. While this sounds like an effective scheme on paper, it allows for any given number of mismatches in terms of players being open. Think of it like a match-up zone defense in basketball, if you will. The two defensemen pick up guys that come through their zone, but defer to their teammates once those players leave their responsible area.

As any basketball coach will tell you, the best way to beat the zone is to move the ball and exploit the open lanes. The same holds true in hockey, except with some variables thrown in. A basketball team that can shoot the deep ball with any measure of effectiveness is going to give zone teams problems, and that logic translates over pretty seamlessly to the ice as well. Of course, theory has you believe that shooting from the outside is what most teams would like to have happen when they are in their own defensive zone, but that only works if your goalie is reliable on the long bombs and the defense is giving him lanes to see the shots. See where I’m going here?

Yes, the Wings do a good job of forcing guys outside, but it’s increasingly becoming moot when two or more guys are jamming up the area in front of Howard or Osgood because that’s what their assignments are in this system. It’s tough to read and hear about guys not having a chance to stop pucks because they get deflected on the way to the net and there’s “just nothing they could do.” Hell yes there is. It’s called adjusting defensive positioning and the Wings have been rather poor at it. Rather than letting guys go out and play the physical game while allowing the forwards to filter down to take away the middle, the Wings continue to rely on the stagnant defensemen in the middle of the ice, commonly leading commentators around the league to note that “they aren’t moving their feet.” Yes, they aren’t moving their feet because they aren’t supposed to, Jim.

The best example of this theory that I’ve seen in some time was Dan Carcillo’s goal yesterday. The puck winds up behind the net, only to be circled up top, where three forwards immediately converge on their assignments. The only problem? The defense decided to stand in the middle of the ice, and before Salei or Kronwall even knew what happened, Carcillo got lost behind them for an easy tip-in. What the hell? Why isn’t one of these guys all over him when the puck is still behind the net and following him afterward? You guessed it: It’s not their assignment. Take away the slot and above the crease and let the other guys pick up the rest. It’s the same reason you see Nick Lidstrom watch pucks go behind the net, only to skate directly in front of the goaltender and watch the play develop. Does it work for Nick? Sure. The rest of the defense? Not so much.

Look, I get that I’m only one uneducated blogger offering up criticism on a defense that has had its fair share of struggles recently. There’s a reason the Wings coaching staff is on the bench instead of me, and it’s not because my suits aren’t as nice as Uncle Mike’s. But it’s pretty easy to see that running a defensive scheme that looks eerily like a glorified penalty kill (17th in the NHL at 81.4%, FWIW) isn’t getting it done for this team. If you want Howard and Osgood to be better, force guys outside but give them lanes to see the puck and take away the ambiguity of the random tip-ins. Put guys in position to force turnovers in the corner and allow the backchecking forwards to clean up any delinquents in front of the net.

Who knows, maybe that IS the scheme the Wings are running and the players just aren’t executing it properly. But with a blue line of big guys that like to hit and play physical hockey, I’m just not buying it.