Last 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.
Under 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.
Top 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.