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It’s been an eventful offseason for Detroit. It’s a nice change of pace for Wings fans too, because the question was beginning to pop up more and more in Mo-town; can Kenny Holland still land the big name free agents? They hadn’t since Marian Hossa. They whiffed with their offers to Suter and Parise last summer. They failed to make any big name signings the year before that too. And they’ve been losing veteran after veteran during those years. The names that have departed are a veritable all-star team; Niklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler, and Brad Stuart. Now you can add Valtteri Filpulla and Damien Brunner to that list too.
The slow influx of fresh legs from Grand Rapids has kept the Wings consistent over the dry free-agency years, which has been essential because all of their recent bargain market attempts haven’t taken. Ian White, Carlo Coliacovo, and several others have been gambles in recent years to fill holes on the blue line, but were unable to take hold of the available minutes. Even with the kids like Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson coming in, last year’s edition of the Red Wings were far too reliant on offense from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. It was to the point where one of the league’s top 5 players, Pavel Dastyuk, was squandered on a line with Justin Abdelkader and Daniel Cleary. One guy to clear space, sure, but with a playmaker like Datsyuk, who the hell is scoring the goals on that line? Last years answer… no one.
But this was an offseason of changes for Detroit. They were finally able to make a big splash in free agency again by signing Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson. It allows them to put two great offensive lines on the ice (at least on paper), and does away with the myth that Detroit still isn’t a prime destination for hockey players. The Wings will also be playing in the Eastern Conference again. I won’t touch on this too much, because it’s been a long topic of conversation. Shorter traveling, more Original Six matchups, and they get away from what was a strong a deep Central Division. Win, win, win.
It’s a great opportunity for the Red Wings to rebound from what was an average season. Yes, I’ll say it again, it was an average season. They squeaked into the postseason as the 7 seed, and survived a tense 7-game series against the Ducks, only to squander 3 chances to knock out the eventual Stanley Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks. The postseason provided a boost of optimism for Red Wings fans, and eased some of the doubt surrounding the team’s future. I for one, was a bit less impressed by this, and I still feel like the 2012-13 Red Wings were a very flawed team. The real question is, have these flaws been addressed this year?
The Wings needed an improved defense. Niklas Kronwall responded well to the absence of Lidstrom and established himself as the leader on the blue line. Jakub Kindl established himself as a regular on the roster, Brian Lashoff was solid coming in when the Wings had injuries, and Jonathan Ericsson continued his development into a solid shut down defenseman. The rest of the defense was mediocre or downright bad though. Brendan Smith went from looking like the answer on defense, to having an off year. Whether he rebounds or not will be very important for the Wings this year. Kyle Quincy has also continued to look poor on the ice. Will he finally deliver on the promise he showed in Los Angeles, or is this likely his last year in Detroit? The Wings didn’t add anything this offseason on the blue line, so it’s likely that they are hoping the young players continue to develop and that Danny Dekeyser is as good as he looked in limited time last year. It’s the biggest gamble of the offseason for Detroit. Jimmy Howard will continue to be solid for the Wings, but an improved defense that allows the Wings skilled forwards to focus more on offense than back checking is the different between this team contending or just being a pretty good team.
The offense also needed help. The Wings powerplay was 15th in the league, and their goals per game was 20th. Those numbers both need to improve, and there is no excuse with the talent this team has up front. As much as the Wings say their Powerplay will be a deterrent in a rough and fighting heavy Atlantic Division, it won’t be if they continue putting the puck in the net the way they were last year. And as much as Weiss and Alfredsson are improvements on special teams, the Wings are still short two weapons with Brunner and Filpulla leaving. Bringing in Tomas Tatar will help, as will a full season from Gustav Nyquist (when the Wings have the cap and roster space to keep him up), and maybe the unlikely threat of a buyout will motivate Johan Franzen to actually show up for successive games, but this is still a team that will need to pull out a lot of close wins to finish in the top two in the Atlantic.
Which brings me to the third problem the Wings faced last year. Injuries. Todd Bertuzzi missed most of the year, Darren Helm missed all but one game, and Mikael Samuelsson missed most of the year too. If healthy, Bertuzzi can still be a big factor on the Wings top two lines, clearing space, agitating the opposition, and making plays. Samuelsson can also still be an offensive weapon for these Red Wings, although it’s likely that he won’t see much time this year. Perhaps the biggest injury last year was the one to Helm. He gives the Wings the depth to have a great center for all four lines and makes the Wings a much better team on the defensive end of things. If he returns, he’ll give the Wings the ability to roll four deep lines. However, that’s a big IF. As it remains, Helm’s health is still uncertain and may not improve for some time. And when you dress a roster with older veterans like the Wings often do, injuries are an inevitability.
So, do I see this team pulling it together? Will they overcome these glaring problems? The short of it is, yes. Because no matter what happens, no matter who they lose, the Red Wings have one thing that has been consistent over the past twenty postseason filled seasons. Leadership and the dedicated to details and hard work that comes with a top to bottom philosophy. There is no cherry picking in Detroit, there is no single player that is bigger or more important than the team. This is a legacy that has gone from Yzerman to Lidstrom and has found a natural and worthy successor in Zetterberg. It’s that work ethic that comes from the top that sets the tone for this continued success in Detroit, and it’s unlikely that this roster would ever become complacent or downtrodden enough to miss the playoffs.
Oh yeah, and they still have this guy for a while:
Optimism rating (out of 5): 4.0