NHL Playoff Time: Stirring the Red Wings Drink

I’ll give you five guys to watch as indicators of success if a strong Red Wings team is to progress through a strongest-ever contingent of contenders in their Western Conference of the 2011 NHL playoffs.

You’ll recall how Reggie Jackson, doing double-duty as his own PR man for the New York Yankee teams of the late 1970s, would describe himself as “the straw that stirs the drink” for his club. The following five Wings aren’t straw-stirrers in the mode that Jackson identified. There’s no question that the team’s success will be directly tied to the final plus-minus contributions of Jimmy Howard, Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg (if you know any good healing prayers, now’s the time). Those guys are always in the spotlight, carrying the load all season long.

Hockey is such a complete team sport, with both responsibility and pressure falling the entire length of a club’s bench, that any player might emerge to pull his mates to victory, or subject them to defeat because of just one half-assed lapse. The players I’m highlighting are guys I see as very good players, but ones not normally expected to function at the level of a Datsyuk, a Lidstrom. But if they raise their regular season performances just a bit at this time of the season, they may play a role in getting this team, and us, into June in fine and exciting shape. They are, in no particular order:

—Niklas Kronwall: This guy usually baffles me, because he often shows such a terrific upside that it’s easy to get very excited about his play, both offensively and defensively. Other times, he seems to fall back into the pack, and his play falls short of a consistently inspiring level. When he’s on his game, and corking opposition forwards with a vengeance, he looks like the blue-line future of the Red Wings whenever Lidstrom finally bids farewell to the team. His standout hits in playoffs past — remember when he was Public Enemy #1 in Chicago a couple years ago? — reminded us of Vlady Konstantinov when he was prowling the ice in shark-like style. Kronwall has been injury-prone, and thus exasperating, and less than dynamic, for too long. It’s time for him to play to his potential, resume his hitting, and help elevate the team ‘D’ to new and nasty heights.

—Darren Helm: When critics used to rap the Red Wings, it was to the effect that they were getting older, and slower. Also that they could be beaten–literally–in the corners and along the boards, which would nullify their talent advantages. (In fact, the Wings could have, and should have, had back-to-back Cup wins in 2009 … except for the goonish physical damage done to key players in a series with the goonish Anaheim Ducks.) A franchise response to those criticisms has been the emergence of young Helm, one of the fastest skaters in the league. Along with his teammate Justin Abdelkader, Helm offers a glimpse of a bright future … and both players have shown a willingness to play tough when the opposition tries to intimidate the Euro-Wings. I expect nifty things, key plays, from both of them, especially Helm, in this year’s playoffs.

—Todd Bertuzzi: I’ve come late to the Bertuzzi bandwagon. Suffice to say that when the Wings needed–badly needed–inspiration and determination after their crazy 10-3 loss to St. Louis and their embarrassment at the hands of Chicago in their last home game, it was Bertuzzi who finally used his size and grit to jump-start both team comebacks. If he keeps it up in the playoffs, meaning he plays with a large chip on his large shoulders — and avoids penalties in doing so — he may yet make a major contribution to Red Wings fortunes; to Red Wings history.

—Valtteri Filppula: Why this guy isn’t a star yet mystifies me. I thought he was on his way after his 2008 playoff run, and his final series-best highlight goal. The club needs to find a way to put more responsibility on his shoulders, to add some grit and attitude to his game. I have the sense he’d score 40 goals on other clubs; for teams that would rely on him, lean on him. He needs to step up, and start fulfilling his potential here. These playoffs would be the ideal time.

—Johan Franzen: Another head-scratcher. This guy has it all — size, hands, a wicked shot, great view of the ice. He has been a star in the past. It seems there should be no reason he’s not a perennial superstar and high-scoring power forward in the league. After Datsyuk, he may be the Wings’ most dangerous scoring threat. The Mule, like Filppula, could benefit by bringing attitude to his game. I’d like to see him play angry–with some hard-nose Grind Line-type intensity augmenting his obvious talent. I’d like to see him hit somebody over the head with his stick. Just once, of course.* But anything to show that his pilot light is blazing. If he puts all his gifts together, and shakes off his mid-season injury, the Wings could ride the Mule to the peak of the hockey mountain.

Okay, there’s five Red Wings to watch. I’d say all but Helm performed under their potential this season, so it’d be terrific for them to get in gear now. I could throw in some other straws to stir the drink — Brian Rafalski, Dan Cleary, Happy Hudler, Brad Stuart — but time and space limit.

Let’s just say this team could get to the top. Or near the top. The talent is surely there to do it. The time is now. We’ll be watching.

*Okay. Maybe twice.