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Red Wings' young forwards starting to take over

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The Red Wings have ushered in a new generation of talent, bringing the once-dominant franchise back to prominence.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Red Wings lost 421 man-games to injury last season, more than every NHL team but Pittsburgh. Aging star Pavel Datsyuk battled lower-body issues and skated in just 45 contests. Henrik Zetterberg underwent back surgery in February and didn't return. Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi missed time with their own various ailments, as did Justin Abdelkader and Stephen Weiss.

These gaping vacancies forced Detroit's next wave of talent to undergo a baptism by fire. Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening, all 25 or younger, were thrust into the spotlight.

And they did well, for the most part. Together, this quintet helped keep alive Detroit's historic playoff streak, one that dates back before some of them were born.

"It's just that Red Wing Way is that you feed off of the system," defenseman Brendan Smith said in April. "We've had these bumps and bruises and injuries and whatnot, players out, but it's that whole system of 'it doesn't matter who's out.'

"There's a new door open for somebody to step in and fill that position and play well."

That 2013-14 team clinched a playoff berth in the final days of the regular season, when it staved off Washington by three points.

This year's race to the postseason is shaping up to be less dramatic.

Despite its current four-game skid, Detroit (17-7-8) is second in the Atlantic Division and two points shy of the Eastern Conference lead. Given their strong possession numbers, solid goal differential, stable netminding and efficient special teams, the Wings appear to be a threat to the league's elite.

This start can be partially attributed to Jimmy Howard's improved play, as well as the production from veterans like Datsyuk (12 goals, 11 assists) and Zetterberg (five goals, 21 assists). The defense has been stellar, too: Only Tampa Bay is allowing fewer unblocked shot attempts at even strength.

But, without the kids, it's hard to imagine Detroit as a legitimate contender.

★★★

This conversation begins and ends with Nyquist, who burst onto the scene last year with 28 goals in 57 games.

Many believed his 2013-14 production was something of a mirage, since he was able to score on 18.30 percent of shots on goal -- by no means a sustainable rate. And those skeptics have been right, to an extent: Nyquist's shooting percentage has dropped to 17.30. He's currently ninth in the NHL with 14 goals.

History and common sense tell us Nyquist is bound to slow down even more, but even then he should be fine. Let's say, hypothetically, Nyquist's shooting percentage since the start of last year was 14.00. He'd still have 32 goals in that span, which comes out to 30 in 82 games. Of course, some guys will convert at higher clips than others, and Nyquist has a better shot than most.

After all, only a select few can execute the kind of highlight he authored on Dec. 12 -- one being Pavel Datsyuk:

wingsgif

That was the eighth goal he's scored this year during 5-on-4 action, tied for the most in the NHL.

While Nyquist has been lethal on the man advantage, Tatar has been dominant at even strength. His 10 5-on-5 tallies are twice as many as anyone else on the team, and are tied for fourth in the league.

Not bad considering he lit the lamp only once in October.

Tatar's shooting percentage is on the higher side, too, but that could have a lot to do with shot quality: All but one of his 2014-15 marks have come in the home plate scoring chance area.

This knack for driving to the crease is illustrated below in Tatar's Hextally chart, courtesy of War on Ice.

tatarshot

The darker the red, the more shots are being generating. Tatar's impact is palpable.

★★★

Sheahan, 23, is one of the youngest skater on the team and arguably the rawest. But the 2010 first-round pick is starting to come into his own, and is averaging a point every two games in 2014-15.

Jurco hasn't been so lucky. The Slovakian winger has only two goals this year despite firing 49 shots on net. He should enjoy a spike in production soon, especially if Mike Babcock continues to give him favorable deployment.

Glendening has assumed a less important role than the others, but has carved out a well-established spot on the depth chart. As Detroit's fourth line center, he wins a lot of face-offs, handles a lot of defensive-zone starts and is a key part of the Wings' fantastic penalty kill.

Combined, these five have scored 41.8 percent of Detroit's goals. This has created a different dynamic than many Red Wings teams of the past, which often leaned heavily on their veterans.

Clearly, these are no longer the Wings of old.

★★★

While Detroit has a youthful presence, it was built the same way as those that dominated in the '90s: through stellar drafting.

Nyquist and Tatar give the Wings two forwards with franchise cornerstone potential, and neither was a highly touted prospect: Nyquist went in the fourth round; Tatar was taken in the second.

Jurco (35th overall, 2011) and Sheahan (21st overall, 2010) are also home-grown products. Glendening went undrafted, but was plucked out of Detroit's backyard. The East Grand Rapids native and University of Michigan alum first joined the organization on an AHL contract, and he's worked his way up from there.

Detroit has 15 homegrown players on its active roster despite not having a top-10 pick in the draft since 1991. Just as players like Datsyuk, Franzen and Zetterberg were brought in by the organization and developed, so too were players like Jurco, Nyquist and Tatar.

While the names might be changing, the machine that is the Red Wings isn't.