Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock feels he has the best third-line center on his roster.
On Saturday night in Edmonton, he finally got him back.
Darren Helm returned to the Wings’ lineup after playing in just two games over the last 19 months, playing nearly 10 minutes.
“I think he’s is the best third-line center in the NHL when he’s healthy, but we haven’t seen that in two years, so it’s a long way back,” Babcock said. “He’s just got to get his game back. He can be a real factor for us. He’s flat out got speed, he’s tenacious, he’s strong, he’s heavy and he’s a good player.”
Babcock eased Helm back into the lineup by having him center the fourth line in their 5-0 over the Oilers.
It took Helm just two shifts in to make his presence felt, scoring on a breakaway to give Detroit the early lead.
“Helmer is a huge dimension for our team,” Babcock said. “If he can get healthy, he’s dominant. To see him do what he did … he didn’t play much as far as ice time but he played quite a few shifts and played well.”
Helm’s rash of injuries began on March 17, 2012 after a collision with San Jose’s Dominic Moore. The end result was a sprained MCL that sidelined him the final 10 regular season games.
He returned for the Wings’ playoff opener against Nashville that year, but didn’t make it through the entire game after he had tendons in his forearm sliced by the skate of Alexander Radulov.
Then, during an informal skate on Nov. 2, 2012, at Troy, while the players were locked out by owners, he broke an orbital bone after being hit in the face by a puck.
Helm’s next setback was a back injury he suffered while doing squats, before training camp was set to begin in January for the lockout-shortened season.
“I wouldn’t say there was a really dark day but there were days that I was uncertain it would come to this day, whether or not I’d be playing, really, again,” Helm said. “There was a lot of good days but a couple of days that kind of swamped my mood, kind of made me second guess. There were some days of doubt.”
After finally getting his back to heal over the summer, he pulled a groin that sidelined him all of this past training camp. Then, during a conditioning stint in Grand Rapids he suffered another pulled groin to delay his return yet again.
“He wasn’t a good player in the American League when he went down and then he came back and you hoped he was going to be on the ice and he got himself hurt,” Babcock said. “(He) probably should be in the American League and playing 10 games and getting going, but we don’t have that luxury with the rules and such, so we need him in our lineup.”
Getting that first game under his belt in Edmonton may have been better than having it happen in Winnipeg where he grew up.
“I’ve been getting calls and texts how excited people are to get a chance to see me come home,’ Helm said. “The excitement goes both ways for sure. We got a pretty big family. I know there’s quite a bit of people going. (There are) a few more ticket requests I’ve got to fill. There should be lots of Helm family members out there. It’ll be good.”
The Wings play the Jets Monday to wrap up their four-game Western Canada road trip.
“It’s a city that loves its hockey and really gets behind their team,” Helm said. “It was a shame when they left, but the city is really behind them. You can tell when I go back how excited everybody is. Should be an interesting feeling going back there.”
The Jets team Helm went to see relocated to Phoenix in 1996. This team is the former Atlanta Thrashers, which relocated to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.