Red Wings: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
The Detroit Red Wings are trying to do it like no other team in the NHL.
They're rebuilding on the fly.
OK, rebuild is a strong word, but the Wings' roster continues to get a bit younger and change a few faces every year, and yet they aim to do just what they always do: contend for a title.
"We're trying to compete, we're trying to transition a little bit slowly from an older team to a younger team," Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com.
Just don't confuse that with a team that can't still win.
"We've got the guy that won the Norris Trophy back for another year in Nick Lidstrom," Holland said. "We've got [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk who are two of the premier two-way forwards in the game. I think I'd like to think it's the nucleus of a team that can contend for a playoff spot. We'd like to think we can contend for a division title, and we hope and we'd like to think we can contend to play with the big guys in the West."
Lidstrom's return ensures the kind of stability the Wings need to continue to contend. But some critics wonder if they are beginning to slide.
"I got to be honest: I think we're a better team," top-six winger Dan Cleary told ESPN.com. "I really do. I think that our young players are getting better. Guys like [Darren] Helm and [Justin] Abdelkader will be huge factors for us. I think Jimmy Howard is going to be better. I feel we're in pretty good shape."
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. Ramifications of Rafalski's retirement
Brian Rafalski's retirement leaves a sizeable hole on the blue line. He had 48 points (4-44) in 63 games last season. He played big minutes; helped key the transition game with a smooth, smart outlet pass; was a big power-play fixture; and he always played well with Lidstrom when partnered with him.
"We've obviously lost a big piece on the back end in Brian Rafalski," said Holland. "It's an opportunity for Niklas Kronwall; it's an opportunity for Jonathan Ericsson; it's an opportunity for Ian White."
Kronwall will likely eat up most of Rafalski's power-play minutes, while White, at least in camp and preseason, had the first audition to play with Lidstrom.
In no way does White, a UFA addition, come close to replacing Rafalski, but the hope is that between Kronwall taking another step in his All-Star career, and White playing within himself as a puck-moving blueliner, the Wings can overcome the loss.
2. Those veteran voices
Those departures open the door for younger players to take a step. And they need to for the Wings to keep on rolling.
"I'm looking at guys in their 20s, guys, like Ericsson, Helm, Abdelkader, Howard, [Valtteri] Filppula, [Drew] Miller and [Patrick] Eaves. We think some of them can take a jump in their career," said Holland. "Somebody will get an opportunity for a bigger role on our team. If some of these guys take a step, we have the potential to have a good year. If that doesn't happen, it's like all teams -- it's going to be a struggle."
3. Beware of cap room
The Wings entered the season with $5.8 million in cap room, ranking only 16th among the 30 NHL clubs in payroll. That's a major departure from the six previous seasons, where the club was stuck close to the cap ceiling.
"We have lots of cap space, a little bit by design, some of it by the decisions we chose to make to stay internally to fill holes," Holland said.
The Wings opted not to be too active this past summer in the free-agent market, where the options, in their opinion, weren't that much better than what they could find from within.
Because of that, the Wings can be more aggressive than they've ever been post-lockout when it comes to either the trade deadline this season or free agency next July 1. They'll have at least $10 million to $12 million to spend in free agency. If there are some big names available at the trade deadline or in free agency, the Wings will try to be in there.
4. Improved team defense a theme
The Wings were 23rd in goals against last season and 17th on the penalty kill, down from seventh and 10th, respectively, the season before.
Head coach Mike Babcock has been all over that this camp and preseason.
"That's probably been the most important focus at camp," said Cleary. "The important thing is that we've got the same players from when we ranked near the top. So it's not like we don't know how to play defense. Defense is hard work. We believe we got a hard-working team. Last year we kind of got away from that side of the game. We need to show that area up. We believe defense wins."
5. Cleary continues to increase role
6. Lidstom's return cannot be overstated
The Wings, players, coaches and management alike, were on pins and needles waiting for Nicklas Lidstrom to decide whether or not he'd return.
Phew. A green light it was.
"We have fun one more year," star center Pavel Datsyuk told ESPN.com with a big grin on his face. "Maybe he'll play another after that. But that's a big thing for the Detroit Red Wings."
Added Cleary: "Every time Nick comes back it makes Detroit a legitimate contender."
Lidstrom captured his seventh career Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season. He's starting to slow down a bit at the age of 41 but remains a critical force on and off the ice. He ensures that the Red Wings' culture and work ethic that have prevailed since Steve Yzerman's captaincy remain intact in that dressing room.
"He continues to be one of the best defensemen in the game," said Holland. "He's 41 now, so is he the same guy as six years ago? Probably no. But he still continues to be one of the best defensemen in the game and he's our most valuable player and our most important player along with Zetterberg and Datsyuk."
The onus again this season will be to try not to wear him down.
"The plan is that most nights we want to play his minutes in the lower 20s, part of it is to keep him fresh but part of it is also because we need other players to come along," said Holland.
7. Howard survives sophomore season
Well, not without his ups and downs. Jimmy Howard struggled in midseason to the point where the Red Wings tried to bring in veteran Evgeni Nabokov as insurance. To Howard's credit, he rebounded with a strong finish and that makes the Wings feel confident he's the real deal.
"I thought he had a great start for us," said Holland. "I really write off those six-seven weeks in the middle of the season to our team not playing well defensively, our team having a lot of injuries and Jimmy being distracted by his contract negotiations. He's 27 years of age; he's played very well for us in both playoff years; he's a workhorse. We don't have any concerns about Jimmy Howard."
The Wings tried to bring in Tomas Vokoun in July, but he opted for Washington instead. Ty Conklin is back for a second tour of duty as backup. This is Howard's team, and if his playoffs last spring are any indication, the Wings should not have any concern in net.
The Red Wings have had success with second-chance players in the past, including the likes of Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson. Now Commodore gets to start over. He'll add some grit to a Wings blue line where he'll fit in as a 5-6-7 player.
"I think the first year in Columbus he had a real good year. The team made the playoffs. Things went off the tracks ever since," said Holland. "He's looking for a fresh start.
"We were looking to add a little size to our lineup, a physical presence to our back end. We see him on the third pair; we think he can also kill some penalties.
"We're hoping he can get his game back to where it was a couple of years ago."
At one year, $1 million, he's well worth the risk for the Wings. Commodore was a very effective player for the Flames during their Cup final run in 2004. A motivated Commodore surrounded by better talent in Detroit should be a good thing.
9. Datsyuk the magician
During the NHL's player media tour in New York in early September, ESPN.com asked all the star players on hand if they had to pay to watch hockey, which star would they shell out coins for. The overwhelming response was Pavel Datsyuk, with Sidney Crosby second and Alex Ovechkin third.
"Wow, that's a big compliment, thank you," Datsyuk told ESPN.com.
After back-to-back 97-point seasons, Datsyuk dropped to 80 points in 2009-10 and 59 points last season when he was limited to 56 games. He's looking to up that tally this season, although the three-time Selke Trophy winner brings a lot more than offense.
"I would love to do individual things but it's not my style," said Datsyuk. "The team is more important. I wish I could score more goals. Maybe somebody can teach me."
Ah, that Datsyuk sense of humor.
All kidding aside, we foresee an 80-plus-point season for Datsyuk.
10. Staying on top never been harder
The task of staying on top of the division has never looked tougher for the Red Wings. Every team in their division feels it improved this offseason.
"I think the Central is going to be a great division this year," Cleary said. "The rivalry with Chicago is getting even better. St. Louis is young and talented. Nashville plays us so hard. They're like Red Army when they play us.
"Columbus added [Jeff] Carter. We've got a handful for sure in our division. But our goal every year is to win the Central so we get the highest possible seed. Nothing changes."
We see the Central title battle as a three-horse race between Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, with Nashville not too far behind and Columbus challenging to make the playoffs. Going to be hard-earned points in the Central this season.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering ninth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• The Red Wings have had only one coach in the post-lockout era: Mike Babcock.
The intense and ultra-prepared Babcock enters his seventh season behind the Wings' bench and has to hope his team can avoid the injury bug that's challenged his team two years in a row.
Babcock has evolved as a coach; understands that veteran players, in particular, need days off between games; and he has an excellent line of communication to the dressing room through his relationship with Lidstrom. Simply put, the Olympic gold-medal coach is one of the very best in the business. -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Pavel Datsyuk
A broken hand took a big chunk out of last season for Datsyuk, but there is some good news to glean from those 56 games he played last season. Datsyuk posted better than point-per-game numbers for the season after a disappointing 2009-10. Datsyuk will remain somewhat reliant on the supporting cast around him, and most players in the mix for the Red Wings' top line with him have a less-than-stellar health history. The presence of top talent around Datsyuk will probably be the difference between him having 80 points or closer to 100. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Jimmy Howard
Jimmy Howard had 37 wins in 2009-10. He had 37 wins in 2010-11. But what a difference those ratios can make. Howard's 2.26 GAA was fifth in the league in 2009-10, his .924 save percentage fourth. Last season, his 2.79 and .908 marks were 34th and 31st. We think he'll finish somewhere between those extremes in 2011-12. As the No. 1 goalie for the Red Wings, the win column should be pretty stellar, too. He's a solid No. 2 for our purposes, even with moderate improvement in the rate stats. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Brendan Smith
Late last summer, our advice was to keep Brendan Smith in mind for the 2011-12 season. We're sticking with that suggestion. The young, talented, offensive blueliner is expected to put up a solid fight for a regular roster spot in training camp -- which could merit Smith some action with the extra skater during the regular season. And Ian White owners should be wary if that's how the cookie crumbles. -- Victoria Matiash
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Red Wings:
• June 20: Re-signed D Nicklas Lidstrom.
• July 1: Re-signed RW Patrick Eaves, LW Drew Miller and D Jonathan Ericsson.
• July 1: Signed D Mike Commodore.
• July 2: Signed D Ian White.
• July 5: Signed D Garnet Exelby.
• July 7: Signed RW Chris Conner.
• July 11: Re-signed G Joey MacDonald.
• July 20: Signed G Ty Conklin.
• D Brian Rafalski (retired)
• D Derek Meech (unrestricted free agent, signed by Winnipeg)
• G Chris Osgood (retired)
• C Kris Draper (retired)
• D Ruslan Salei (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL club Yaroslavl)
• C Mike Modano (was UFA, retired)