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.

Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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Talk about making a great first impression.

Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

Here’s some footage of his performance:

If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.