McKenzie: Don't write off the Red Wings just yet

Bob McKenzie
9/22/2010 10:44:08 AM
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It's far too early in NHL training camp to get into the silliness of predictions and who will finish where, but I suspect the Detroit Red Wings are going to be a much better team this season than last.

Could they return to their halcyon days at the Best in the West? Perhaps. It wouldn't surprise me, even though there are bound to be many who think the aged Wings are more likely to be on the slide than the rise.  

Defending Cup champion Chicago is still a force in spite of the players it lost. The Hawks' core is still very much in place. Vancouver should be better and many will see them as a legit contender this season. San Jose will still be a handful. But if the Wings can maintain some semblance of good health, they could be back in a big way.

One has to imagine that Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will revert to form after off-years, where Zetterberg and Datsyuk had only 70 points apiece.

Head coach Mike Babcock knows any Detroit success is predicated on these two being amongst the best players in the game, which is why he plans on playing them together on the same line, Zetterberg on the left wing and Datsyuk at centre. They need to feed off each other and get their magic back. Zetterberg has slimmed down significantly -- he thought he needed to bulk up in the last year or two -- and should be a lot quicker off the mark.

If that duo is dynamic, the table is set for Detroit.

In fact, Babcock likes the duo concept a lot. Tomas Holmstrom is slated to play right wing with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but in Babcock's world. one player on each line is effectively interchangeable. Holmstrom is one of those pieces.

If Johnan Franzen, who missed 55 games last season, and Valtteri Filppula, who missed 27, can stay healthy, the Wings should have an unbelievable one-two punch offensively. Todd Bertuzzi is the moving piece on that line.

Newcomer Mike Modano is clearly the X factor, paired with long lost (one year anyway) Jiri Hudler, who should provide a huge offensive boost and some needed youthful enthusiasm. Daniel Cleary is the movable piece on this line, but whether it goes or not will have everything to do with where Modano's head is at.

There are many in the Dallas Stars' organization who believe Modano, more or less, retired a year or two ago, that after a brilliant NHL career, he just stopped working at it and doing the things necessary for a player aged  40  to be successful in today's NHL. If that's the case in Detroit, where Modano is expected to shoulder a significant third-line role behind Datsyuk and Filppula  , it will become apparent early. If, however, the challenge of being on a new team in his hometown energizes Modano, he could be one of the summer's best free-agent bargains. Either way, you ge the feeling this Modano move has boom or bust written all over it.

The fourth duo for Babcock is speedy Darren Helm and big Justin Abdelkader, both of whom look like they're ready for regular duty this season. That leaves four players -- veteran Kris Draper, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and the promising Mattias Ritola, competing for the 12th and 13th forward positions.

Draper, who is currently sidelined with a minor groin injury, gets one of those spots by default because of seniority, experience and Red Wing loyalty. (Kirk Maltby, who will start the season in Grand Rapids, doesn't get the same benefit of the doubt as Draper). Ritola is an interesting guy who may be ready to blossom in the NHL after scoring 19 goals and 42 points in Grand Rapids, but he also requires waivers to go back to the minors and it's doubtful he would clear. But just as the Red Wings had to sacrifice Kyle Quincey and Ville Leino to protect a roster spot for a veteran player, that is simply how the Wings do business. It's part of what makes the Red Wings the Red Wings.

On defence, the Wings know their best guys are getting a little long in the tooth. Nick Lidstrom is 40; Brian Rafalski is 36. There will be a conscious effort made this season to balance their minutes, especially early in the season, and instead of playing the two veterans together, Babcock may try to mix things up a little to get more out of the younger players and conserve engery for the oldsters.

Detroit desperately needs hard rock defenceman Niklas Kronwall to a) stay healthy, and b) take the next step in his development. Kronwall is likely to get a lot more time paired with Lidstrom. Ralfalski is likely to get paired a lot more with defensive stalwart Brad Stuart.

The Wings also need big Jonathan Ericsson to rebound and start fulfilling the promise that was evident when he was in Grand Rapids. Veteran Ruslan Salei and youngster Jakub Kindl should round out the blueline corps.

Jimmy Howard is now the undisputed No. 1 in net and just has to ensure he doesn't slide after a terrific rookie season.

The biggest variable overall is health. So many of the Red Wings' good players missed significant chunks of last season to injury and those that didn't, simply had off years. The effectivess of the Modano-Hudler combo will be a critical factor, too, but it's not difficult to look at this Detroit roster and see the potential for a much better season this year than last year.

Whether that's good enough to unseat the champion Blackhawks, or fend off the charging Canucks or Sharks or whomever remains to be seen, but there's still something to be said for the Red Wings' pedigree...if they're healthy.

Bob McKenzie


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