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Are Helm, Eaves and Miller the Red Wings’ closest thing to a new ‘Grind Line’?

Jul 27, 2011, 12:46 AM EDT

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Darren Helm, Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves AP

It’s probably not accurate to say that Kris Draper decided to “pass the torch” by retiring from the NHL. Such a notion downplays the Detroit Red Wings’ deft methods of “reloading” instead of rebuilding while simultaneously competing for the Stanley Cup year after year.

That being said, Detroit’s trio of retirements (Draper, Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood) do shine a spotlight on the team’s younger players – especially when you consider the crushing inevitability of Nicklas Lidstrom‘s eventual last game. Naturally, the Red Wings will probably have some tricks up their sleeves* because: a) they always do and b) Lidstrom’s departure should give them a nice chunk of salary cap space, so that worry might not be quite as severe as it may seem.

Still, there’s little doubt that Detroit will need its depth players to come through here and there, much like Draper did in his prime. Maybe it’s too much to ask for a second coming of “The Grind Line” considering the defensive game’s shifting priorities from grit to speed, but it’s fairly easy to see the four forwards who will live to keep the puck out of Detroit’s net more than anything else next season.

Detroit’s candidates for a new “Grind Line”

For all the hype about Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg‘s two-way play – and don’t get me wrong, much of it is justified – they weren’t the Red Wings forwards who did most of the heavy lifting last season. Here are the Red Wings’ top four penalty killing forwards in 2010-11, according to NHL.com’s stats. I also included their sometimes-laughable PP averages to show off how single-minded their approaches must have been.

1. Darren Helm (3:03 shorthanded minutes per game; 4 seconds per game on the PP)
2. Patrick Eaves (2:41 PK per game; averaged :13 on PP)
3. Drew Miller (2:13 PK per game; averaged :04 on PP)
4. Justin Abdelkader (1:42 PK per game; averaged :09 on PP)

The only Red Wings forwards who averaged somewhat significant PK time beyond those four were Daniel Cleary (1:10 per game) and – you guessed it – Draper (:51 per game).

Which three of the four will comprise the shutdown line on most nights?

Those numbers reinforce my original point that the Red Wings more or less moved on already, but the transition will truly be complete next season. It’s likely that this quartet of forwards will work together on the penalty kill for much of 2011-12, but let’s take a look at which three are most likely to be the team’s consistent grind line.

To do so, I consulted Dobber Hockey’s “line combo” stats. Let’s take a look at the four players’ most common even strength linemates from 2010-11.

  • It seems like Abdelkader moved around a lot – his most consistent linemates were Miller and Jan Mursak at 9.6 percent of the time – but his top two combos involved Miller.
  • Eaves spent more than 31 percent of his time with Draper and Helm and more than 26 percent of his time with Helm and Miller.
  • Helm‘s most common combo came with Draper and Eaves at just under 24 percent of his even strength play. He also spent 20 percent of his time with Eaves and Miller.
  • Miller played with Eaves and Helm over 27 percent of his even strength time and almost 13 percent of his time with Draper and Helm.

Looking at those numbers and the fact that the Red Wings didn’t make too many changes during the off-season (that weren’t imposed upon them by retirement decisions), it looks like the team might go with Eaves-Helm-Miller much of the time. Of course, things can change thanks to the pre-season and the general forces of line changes.

***

Ultimately, the Red Wings’ grinders should be very familiar with their duties next season. That doesn’t mean that the probable Helm-Miller-Eaves combo is guaranteed to match “The Grind Line,” but the team already built a foundation for their days without Draper.

* Dare we goad Nashville Predators fans into depression by mentioning Ryan Suter‘s pending unrestricted free agency?

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