2011-2012 season preview: Detroit Red Wings

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2010-2011 record: 47-25-10, 104 points; 1st in Central; 3rd in West

Playoffs: Defeated Phoenix 4-0 in Western quarterfinals, lost 4-3 to San Jose in Western semifinals

It wasn’t long ago when the Red Wings were within a single game of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, but after a couple of second-round exits to San Jose, some people think Detroit’s best years are behind it. That could be true — but let’s face it, the bar was set pretty high. Even if the Wings aren’t as good as they were three or four years ago — they’re still good enough to compete with any team in the league on any given night.

Offense

With guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Hank Zetterberg leading the way, the Wings have one of the most potent offenses in the league. Their combination of top-end talent, underrated forward depth, and a strong power play had Detroit as the second best scoring team in the NHL last season. The entire stable of forwards returns intact this season as they look to take on the league once again.

One of the keys to the Red Wings’ success in recent years has been their ability to put the right players in the right roles. They expect Zetterberg and Datsyuk to be superior two-way players that score at least a point-per game. But behind the two stars, they have forwards all over the roster that can fill a specific spot. Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, and Tomas Holmstrom are not asked to do anything more than their role — go to the dirty areas and pitch in goals through hard work. Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula are asked to develop into the next generation of high-end scorers and energy guys like Patrick Eaves, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm are asked to play superior energy roles. It’s a formula that has worked for the last 20 years.

Defense

Offseason news on the blueline was a mixed bag for the Wings this summer. Nicklas Lidstrom deciding to come back for another season must have had management dancing on tables, but Brian Rafalski’s retirement caught most people by surprise. They brought in Ian White to fill Rafalski’s top-four role and they’ll expect 6-foot-5 Jonathan Ericsson to start earning his new contract in a bottom-pairing role. With Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall playing behind Lidstrom and Ian White, the Red Wings will be set for about 50 minutes every game.

Goalies

Jimmy Howard has proven in his first two seasons that he can win. He’s racked up 74 wins in the NHL and is unquestionably the No. 1 goaltender for the Wings. But despite the strong record, Howard’s numbers took a dip last season. His save percentage decreased from .924 during his rookie season to a pedestrian .908 last season. Likewise, his goals against average was a stellar 2.26 in his first campaign, but his 2.79 mark last season left plenty to be desired. The Wings have enough scoring to compensate for a few off nights by their goaltenders, but if they want to return to the elite team in the playoffs that they expect to be every season, Howard will need to improve.

Coaching

Many people will tell you that Mike Babcock is the best in the league — and it’s hard to argue. He’s shown throughout his coaching career that he can manage expectations, work well with superstars, put players in the right role, and still meet lofty expectations. He’s a great motivator and can manage the in-game coaching decisions with the best of them.

Breakout candidate

On a team with so many established veterans, finding a player to break out onto the national scene could be difficult. For the Red Wings, it could be White, who is simply getting the best opportunity of his career. After signing with the Wings in the offseason (his fifth team in less than two years), White is slated to play next to Lidstrom. He showed at the end of last season with the Sharks that he can be a valuable player on a good team. Now that he finally has a solidified role with a team and has gained a few years of NHL experience, it wouldn’t be surprising to see White take a huge step. Breaking his career high of 38 points in 2009-10 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Best-case scenario

For the Red Wings, the best-case scenario is always the Stanley Cup. With the overall depth of established players all over the roster, surviving the playoffs could be in the cards. They don’t have many question marks: the Red Wings just need their established players to play the best of their ability. If they do, the Central Division and Western Conference crowns are reachable goals.

Reality

The Red Wings are certainly one of the very good teams in the league. If the team stays healthy, Detroit should make it back to the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season (the longest active streak in major pro sports). The Red Wings should compete with the Blackhawks (and perhaps the Predators) for the Central Division crown — even if they fall short, they should battle for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Look for the Wings to have yet another 100-point season, but fall just behind the Blackhawks in the Central race.

Is Vancouver considering a Markstrom-Nilsson reunion in goal?

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With news that Ryan Miller is set to sign in Anaheim, the Canucks need a netminder to pair with Jacob Markstrom.

And a new report suggests they’re contemplating one of Markstrom’s old crease mates.

Per WGR 550, Vancouver has interest in soon-to-be Sabres UFA Anders Nilsson. Nilsson, 27, is coming off a pretty nice year in Buffalo, where he posted a .923 save percentage over 26 games (while making 23 starts).

Nilsson played last season on a one-year, $1 million deal, just like he did the season prior. But ’16-17 was by far his most successful campaign at the NHL level and, accordingly, he’s drawn interest from across the league.

As mentioned above, Nilsson is pretty familiar with Markstrom. They formed the one-two punch in goal for Sweden at the 2010 World Juniors — capturing bronze in the process — and have an awful lot in common. Both are 27. Their frames are eerily similar in that both are tall, physically imposing netminders — Markstrom is listed at 6-foot-6, 196 pounds while Nilsson is listed at 6-foot-6, 229 pounds.

The Canucks will likely want Markstrom to work in tandem with someone next season. Given his body of work, it’s fair to suggest they won’t hand him the keys to a No. 1 job. So if a timeshare is in the works, it makes sense to go with someone he has history with.

From the Nilsson perspective, Vancouver’s as good an opportunity as any right now. Available goalie spots are getting snapped up almost daily, and there are still several UFAs looking for work: Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Jonathan Bernier, Chad Johnson, Darcy Kuemper and Ondrej Pavelec, specifically.

 

 

Oilers put Pouliot on waivers for buyout purposes

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Benoit Pouliot‘s time in Edmonton has come to an end.

The 30-year-old forward has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purposes of being bought out.

A buyout will mean a $1.33 million cap hit the next four seasons, as opposed to a $4 million cap hit the next two years if Pouliot remained on the roster.

The Oilers could use the cap space, what with Connor McDavid on the verge of signing a massive extension that will start in 2018-19, and Leon Draisaitl requiring an extension for next season.

Pouliot had just eight goals and six assists in 67 games last season.

Related: For Oilers, trading Jordan Eberle was about ‘long-term thinking’

Agent: Numerous Stanley Cup contenders have called on Kunitz

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Chris Kunitz is in demand.

That’s the word from agent Ben Hankinson, who this week told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his 37-year-old client is garnering major interest from a number of teams — and certain kinds of teams, to be clear.

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Hankinson, who represents Kunitz, said he’s fielded calls from as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot at knocking off the Penguins next season, all interested in signing Kunitz.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hankinson said. “Chris does have interest from a lot of teams. Who knows exactly where that interest is going to be once the offers start flying around, but he does have a lot of interest.”

Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, has been told by GM Jim Rutherford to explore free agency (to be fair, Rutherford told all his UFAs this). It’s going to be really interesting what that means for Kunitz, who could bring plenty to a team looking to make a postseason run.

For starters, there’s his experience. Few active NHLers have played — and won — in the playoffs as much as Kunitz. He’s got 161 games on his resume with four Stanley Cups, and was a key contributor for Pittsburgh this past spring.

In 20 games, Kunitz racked up 11 points while averaging 14:52 TOI per night. His nine assists put him tied for fourth on the team, and he famously scored the double-OT winner against Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Given the lack of options in this year’s free agent class, Kunitz could score a pretty decent contract. That’s important, as it might be his last. The cagey veteran spoke at the Stanley Cup Final about how this could very well be his last kick at the can with Pittsburgh, and acknowledged that — given how limited opportunities are to win in the NHL — he needed to capitalize on every single one.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

Report: Kovalchuk talking extension with KHL club

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero was of the belief that Ilya Kovalchuk was still planning to play in the NHL next season.

Today, however, a Russian media outlet is reporting that Kovalchuk is talking with his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, about a possible extension.

If accurate, that would mesh with an earlier report — the one that Shero ostensibly shot down — that Kovalchuk had decided to keep playing in Russia.

The NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics may be weighing on Kovalchuk. If he returns to North America, he won’t be able to represent his country in South Korea — a fact that was cemented last week when the NHL released its 2017-18 schedule.

Of course, all this could just be SKA Saint Petersburg making a last-ditch attempt to keep Kovalchuk.

“We have the desire to keep Ilya. He is our hockey player, a patriot and loves to play for the national team,” said club president Gennady Timchenko (translated, per Sportsnet). “We will talk today, and we might have some news later.”

Kovalchuk can’t sign an NHL contract until July 1.