2010-2011 NHL season preview: Detroit Red Wings

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nicklaslidstrom2.jpgLast season: (44-24-14, 102 points, 2nd in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference) The Red Wings’ season was a definitive roller coaster year. Injuries kept the lineup from playing at max power each night, Chris Osgood’s poor play kept Jimmy Howard in net most of the season while the team battled to stay in the playoff race. Once the team was healthy, however, they were the same Red Wings we’ve come to know in the past. The team got healthy at the best time of the season to get into the playoffs but both ran out of gas and ran into a scalding hot Sharks team in the playoffs. After back-to-back Stanley Cup finals appearances, it only made sense they’d get bounced out in the second round.

Head coach: Mike Babcock enters his sixth season asbench boss. While some would say that coaching the Red Wings has to be an easy job given the amount of talent there and owner Mike Ilitch’s zeal for winning, just remember the coaching tenure of Dave Lewis and call it a day. Babcock has done fantastic work for the Wings since taking over and has provided tremendous fodder for both bloggers and media alike with his quirky quotes. If you think Babcock could come under the gun at anytime during the season, you’re crazy.

Key departures: D Brett Lebda. Losing just Lebda as a depth defenseman isn’t exactly a crushing blow.

Key arrivals: F Mike Modano, FJiri Hudler, D Ruslan Salei. Despite salary-cap crunchiness, the Wings managed to improve the roster. Getting Hudler back from Russia was a good re-addition. Bringing home Modano gives the Wings a stable third-line center and Salei solidifies the defense a bit, provided he stays healthy.

jimmyhoward2.jpgUnder pressure: Welcome to the pressure cooker Jimmy Howard. The goalie kept the Wings afloat last season while the offense sputtered and the team played the majority of the season shorthanded. For his efforts, he was a Calder Trophy finalist and now any hopes of getting deep into the playoffs rest squarely on his shoulders. If Howard sputters at all, the confidence level in backup Osgood is at an all-time low and one that would cause panic in Detroit. Howard will need to be as good as he was last season to make the fans believe in him. Conveniently enough for both the Wings and Howard, it’s a contract year for him. Hello, motivation.

Protecting the house: Howard and Osgood will once again be the tandem in goal and ideally Babcock would like to get Howard more rest throughout the season. Osgood will need to do his part to earn the playing time, but if the Wings are in a better position in the overall standings than they were for most of last season, Babcock will be more apt to rest Howard on appropriate nights. The Wings couldn’t afford to do that for long stretches of time last season. After waiting for a few years for Howard to sharpen his game in the minors, he took over last year and played like the guy they thought they drafted in the second round out of Maine back in 2003.

Defensively, you should know the names here by now. Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall will be paired up while Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart are set up on the second unit. Salei will pair up with young Jonathan Ericsson and try to show the ‘Big Rig’ how to be a better defensively-responsible blue liner. Rookie Jakub Kindl is shaping up to be the team’s seventh defenseman but don’t be surprised to see Derek Meech get his chances here as well.

paveldatsyuk3.jpgTop line we’d like to see: Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Johan Franzen. It’s fun to piece together potential lines with a team that’s got essentially three scoring lines, but the one that tickles us the most is one that puts the ‘Euro Twins’ of Datsyuk and Zetterberg together with the ‘Mule’. Franzen has 40-goal potential while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are two of the best two-way players in the league. Datsyuk’s ability to dangle through traffic combined with Franzen’s nose for the net and Zetterberg’s all-around gifted play makes this line one that any fan should want to see on a nightly basis.

Oh captain, my captain: Lidstrom has been the man in Detroit since Steve Yzerman retired and whether or not you think this could be his last season, he’s done well by the Red Wings throughout his career. Captaining the team to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and being the lead-by-example sort of captain that Yzerman was is the sort of thing that makes Red Wings fans’ hearts swell up with pride. Being one of the best defensemen in the league, even at his age, doesn’t hurt matters any either.

Street fighting man: If there’s something about the Red Wings that’s been a truth over the years it’s that they’re no longer in the business of rock ’em-sock ’em hockey. They don’t employ an enforcer, they don’t have a player in the lineup that stands out as a brawler, even on a part-time basis. If you go to or tune into games with the Red Wings hoping you’ll see some fisticuffs, you’re going to be left disappointed. That said, if anyone on this Wings team is going to drop the gloves even semi-consistently it’ll be either Justin Abdelkader or Salei. Abdelkader has developed into a sandpaper-like player for Detroit getting under opponents skin and playing physically while Salei has a mean streak a mile wide playing a very physical game himself.

Best-case scenario: The team stays healthy, doesn’t show their age, and is able to roll three-deep with their scoring lines while allowing the fourth line to create havoc on the ice. Valtteri Filppula continues his ascent as a big-time player. Tomas Holmstrom continues to defy science and keeps plugging home 20 goals. Howard has a repeat season and is spelled by a revitalized Osgood, providing balance in goal and allowing Howard to go into the playoffs fresh and without stress. The defense does their thing and Ericsson is  able to grow into the next big thing on the blue line. The Wings roll over the Central Division, challenge Vancouver for the top seed in the Western Conference and use their veteran wiles to get back to the finals to raise the Cup, which would be the 12th time in franchise history.

Worst-case scenario: Age catches up to Detroit and the key players who just happen to also be older start feeling and playing like their age. Howard hits a belated sophomore slump and Osgood can’t save the day while he struggles. The lack of immediate help in Grand Rapids can’t help out should the injury bug bite again and the Wings check into the playoffs a broken and prime-to-be-beaten team, exiting in the first round to a team motivated to get one over on their long-time nemeses.

Keeping it real: Last season was about as bad as it has been for Detroit when it comes to facing adversity and it’s something this lineup will have better experience in dealing with should it happen again. That said, this team shapes up to be more dangerous. They can roll three lines that can score, they’ve got stability on all three defensive pairings, and they can better handle the occasional bad start from their goaltenders. Anyone writing off Detroit because of their age is crazy. Much like when people predict the ultimate demise of the Devils, they’re always proven wrong. The same can be said of Detroit. With Chicago weakened a bit, the Wings are set up to reclaim the Central Division and be one of the better bets to make the Stanley Cup finals.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Red Wings are a 5. They’ve got all-world talent, they’re a deep team and they’re dangerous in all facets of the game. With the amount of talent in Detroit, it’d be a bigger story if the Wings weren’t a major contender for the Cup. As it is, they, along with Vancouver and San Jose, are the biggest threats to come out of the Western Conference and challenge for the championship.

Antti Niemi had to make a save with his bare hand

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Antti Niemi made 31 saves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, and 30 of them were pretty standard.

The one that wasn’t came in the third period when he lost his glove during a scramble around the net and still managed to instinctively make a save on the puck. With his bare hand.

Niemi said after the game, via the Tribune Review, that he thought the referees would stop the play after his glove came off, and when they didn’t “I just kept playing.”

You can watch the play by clicking here.

Probably not the type of thing you want to see happening because that looks like a great way to break a bone (or the entire hand) and get sidelined for extended period of time. Niemi said the officials told him there will no longer be an automatic whistle for goalies losing a glove or a blocker, but that one will remain for when they lose their helmet.

The Penguins signed Niemi to a one-year contract this summer as a replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury after they lost him in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Niemi is looking to rebound from a tough year in Dallas. He will serve as Matt Murray‘s backup for the season.

‘A good start’ — Stamkos stands out in preseason debut

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The Tampa Bay Lightning and National Hockey League unveiled the 2018 All-Star Game logo Friday.

Far more importantly for the Bolts this evening was the return of their all-star center Steven Stamkos, as he made his preseason debut in what was his first game in 10 months.

His 2016-17 season was abruptly ended in the middle of November because of a knee injury and subsequent surgery, making it the second time in four years his regular season had been disrupted by a major injury.

It may still take a while before Stamkos feels truly comfortable coming back from this injury.But his performance on Friday proved to be a very promising start for No. 91, the Bolts and their fans in Tampa Bay.

He didn’t score, but he assisted on two first period goals, including a nice set-up to linemate Nikita Kucherov, and the Lightning beat the Nashville Predators by a score of 3-1. Stamkos also received a healthy dose of ice time, playing more than 19 minutes, including 5:32 on the power play.

His pass to Kucherov resulted in a power play goal.

“It was exciting to get out there, I was pretty anxious about it… It was a good start, something to build on,” said Stamkos afterward, per the Lightning. “It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven’t done it in a long time… I was glad with how the first one went.”

Golden Knights assign 2017 first-round picks Glass, Suzuki to junior

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The Vegas Golden Knights continue to make roster moves during their inaugural training camp.

On Friday, the expansion club assigned four players to junior. That includes 2017 first-round picks Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks and Nick Suzuki of the Owen Sound Attack.

The Golden Knights made franchise history by taking Glass with the sixth overall pick and then selected Suzuki at 13th overall. Both players appeared in two preseason games for Vegas, each recording two points in the exhibition opener versus the Vancouver Canucks.

“Nobody is going to rush (the rookies), that’s for sure,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant told the Las Vegas Sun following the club’s 9-4 win over Vancouver on Sunday.

“We are in a position where we want to make sure they are ready to play. They are going to be good players when they’re healthy and strong enough to play in the league.”

Vegas has all three 2017 first-round picks — Glass, Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — signed to three-year entry-level contracts.

Mitchell signed PTO with Blue Jackets — shortly after getting cut by Blackhawks

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When the Chicago Blackhawks announced their roster moves yesterday, John Mitchell was among the cuts.

His professional tryout with the Blackhawks had come to an end, as it did for veterans Mark Stuart and Drew Miller.

It can be an uphill battle to make an NHL roster for veterans on professional tryouts. But for Mitchell, he quickly received another opportunity to attend a camp and try to land a spot, signing a PTO with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Mitchell, 32, has appeared in 548 NHL regular season games with 70 goals and 177 points.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are still without forward and restricted free agent Josh Anderson, as the two sides are stuck in a contract impasse right now. It was reported on Thursday that his representatives have been in contact with Hockey Canada about the 2018 Olympics.