Detroit Red Wings, 33-36-13, missed playoffs, $0 in cap space
Biggest changes: There was a time when unrestricted free agents wanted nothing more than to be part of one of the NHL's most storied franchises. Those days are over. Even the most ardent Red Wings fans seem to understand that Detroit is no longer one of the players' top destinations (even with the new Little Caesars Arena). Having finished out of a playoff spot for the first time in 25 years and facing what appears to be a long overhaul, the Red Wings' offseason activity was limited to the free-agent signing of defenseman Trevor Daley, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who left the Pittsburgh Penguins for a three-year, $9.5 million contract. In a minor deal, the Red Wings also signed hard-nosed defenseman Luke Witkowski (one-year, $750,000) to provide toughness and depth to the back end. That's what happens when a team goes into free agency with less than $8 million in cap space and most of it was allocated toward re-signing forward Tomas Tatar (four years, $21.2 million). The Wings also re-signed defenseman Xavier Ouellet (two years, $2.5 million) but headed toward the first week of the season without a deal for talented forward Andreas Athanasiou, who turned down a two-year, $3.8 million offer, contending he is worth $5 million over two years. The impasse could have major ramifications, since Athanasiou, who recorded 18 goals and 29 points in 64 games last season, is contemplating an offer to play in the KHL. With Athanasiou in limbo, the Red Wings invited two nine-year veterans, P.A. Parenteau and David Booth, to training camp.
Case for: The Red Wings are a mix of aging players who can still produce and youngsters who would like to show they can. That formula can work if forwards Henrik Zetterberg, 36, and Frans Nielsen, 33, can blend in with Dylan Larkin, 21, Athanasiou, 23, Anthony Mantha, 23, and rookie Tyler Bertuzzi, 22, on the front end, and defensemen Niklas Kronwall, 36, Daley, 33, Jonathan Ericsson, 33, and Mike Green, 31, play better than their birth certificates suggest they can. For the Red Wings to get back into the playoff hunt, they'll need bounce-back seasons from a half-dozen players and hope their offense hides the warts of a mediocre blue line, which is as thin as it's been in decades. Like many teams, the key to the Red Wings' immediate future lies in their goaltending, where Jimmy Howard is looking to rebound after missing 38 games with a sprained right medial collateral ligament suffered in a crease pileup. Backup Petr Mrazek didn't exactly take advantage of the opportunity, going 18-21-9 with a dreadful 3.04 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.
Case against: The Red Wings' sustained success might finally be catching up with them. Before this year, when they took center Michael Rasmussen with the ninth overall pick, they had not had a top-10 draft pick since 1991, when they selected Martin Lapointe, one year after they took Keith Primeau with the third overall pick. Organizational depth has suffered from the dearth of high-end talent, and the Wings can't afford to lose Athanasiou to a contract dispute. The real shortage is on the back end, where Green is overtaxed on a top pairing with Danny DeKeyser, who regressed with a four-goal, minus-22 season. Kronwall is playing on knees that are starting to betray him and Ericsson needs to show he's fully recovered from a fractured wrist that ended his season. It all could add up to another season near the Eastern Conference basement, which would not be a bad thing for the Red Wings' long-term future if the result is a high draft pick.
Trade bait: The Red Wings can't afford to lose Athanasiou over $1.2 million and would be in a terrible bargaining position if they attempted to trade him. It would not be a surprise to see Green, who is entering the final season of a contract that carries a $6 million cap hit, shopped around for a prospect or draft pick. He is the only Red Wing destined to hit unrestricted free agency next summer.
Goalie situation rating: 6. Howard was having a very impressive season before his knee sprain forced Mrazek into 50 games. Howard's record (10-11-1) was not indicative of his quality of work (2.10 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), and if he can regain that early-season swagger, the Red Wings will surprise everyone. Mrazek, who was left unprotected and passed over by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, needs to wipe the slate clean as he enters his final season before restricted free agency.
Scout's take: "I think they're going to have a tough time. Some of their key guys are still stars in the league, but they're getting older, and with the schedule and the travel and the speed of the game now, it makes it very difficult. The league is favoring younger players now. They have some young speed with Larkin and Athanasiou, but I think they're in between, similar to the situation in Philly."
Prediction: 7th in Atlantic