Even though they battled through injuries to achieve a tenth straight 100-point season, the Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs in the second round, their first time being bounced that early since 2005-2006.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Red Wings team that isn't looking at dramatic changes this summer, expecting good health and internal improvement to put them back in the championship mix.
"A message has been sent to myself as a coach and management that we have to improve our team. So how do you improve your team?" Babcock asked the Detroit Free Press, rhetorically. "You improve your team by (Valtteri) Filppula taking a big step. He's at the point in his career where he has to take a step. You improve your team by Mule (Johan Franzen) being healthy. By (Jonathan) Ericsson taking a big step. By (Jimmy) Howard being in his second year. There are a number of things just internally that we can do and then we'll make some changes to help ourselves get better."
Babcock said this before the Red Wings knew they would have Jiri Hudler returning to the fold too so the Red Wings do have reason to expect they will be better next season.
By having the bulk of their lineup in place already, the Red Wings do have an opportunity to build on that roster continuity so that, at least theoretically, they can start strong out of the gate next season.
How set are the Wings right now?
They have two goaltenders, five defencemen and a dozen forwards (including restricted free agents that are likely to return), so thi summer figures to involve tweaking on the perimeter of that strong nucleus.
The Red Wings, as currently constructed, may not have long to rank among the league's best -- considering their top two defencemen are 40 and 37-years-old -- but there is every reason to think the Red Wings will go into 2010-2011 as one of the team's with a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup.
Even with last season's relatively early playoff departure, some things don't change in the Motor City.
Ken Holland/Mike Babcock
While 70 points and a plus-17 rating isn't a terrible season, it was Pavel Datsyuk's worst since the lockout. The 31-year-old did finish the campaign with 33 points in the last 31 games, before 13 points in 12 postseason contests, but the Red Wings' midseason offensive woes were due in part to Datsyuk's struggles.
Similarly, Henrik Zetterberg had 70 points and a plus-12 rating, but that's not the standard at which he's become accustomed to producing and his three power play goals was the lowest total of his career. The 29-year-old remains an elite two-way player, who can put up offensive numbers while also shutting down an opponent's best line.
Johan Franzen missed two-thirds of the season due to a knee injury, but he was productive when he returned and had an outstanding playoff, scoring a point in all 12 games and exploding for four goals and six points in Game Four against San Jose.
A full season from Franzen would surely help Datsyuk, as Mule not only creates space with his physical presence, but also has the hands and confidence now to create his own offensive opportunities.
Just as it appeared that 37-year-old Tomas Holmstrom might be losing steam, with years of abuse at the top of the crease taking its toll, he scored 25 goals and 45 points last season, his highest totals since 2006-2007. He also tied a career-high with 13 power play goals.
Holmstrom, who has played all 13 of his NHL seasons in Detroit, recently signed a two-year contract extension rather than test the free agent waters.
Obviously happy in Detroit, Holmstrom's deal is team-friendly, as there were fewer than 40 players in the league to score more goals per game than Holmstrom last season and, aside from a handful of players on entry-level contracts, none earned less than Holmstrom will make over the next two seasons.
Detroit has been exceedingly patient with Valtteri Filppula, but that patience does appear to be paying off, as 35 points in 55 games last season marked the best points-per-game production in his career. The 26-year-old is getting a chance to play on a scoring line, which means expectations have to be higher for next season.
While last year was his first minus season in Detroit, Daniel Cleary is a valuable top-nine forward, who has turned into a strong checking forward, but also has enough offensive upside to slide into a scoring role for short bursts, if need be.
Of more concern for 31-year-old Cleary is that he missed 18 games last season, the second time in the last three years that he's missed that much time.
39-year-old Kris Draper remains a useful checking forward. He's no longer used in the shutdown role that he was during his peak, but Draper's been durable, playing at least 79 games in four of the last five seasons, while playing a steady regular shift.
Diminutive forward Jiri Hudler had a good season in the KHL with Moscow Dynamo, scoring 54 points in 54 games before the Russian franchise folded, opening the door for Hudler to return to the NHL, under the terms of his arbitration award from last summer.
Now 26, Hudler should be hitting his peak years and he did have 57 points in his last NHL season (2007-2008), so his return could help spark the Wings' offence.
Checking centre Darren Helm got his first full season in the NHL and the 23-year-old acquitted himself well. He's not going to be a big point producer, but should be able to improve on the 24 points he had last season.
Patrick Eaves' star has dimmed since scoring 20 goals in 58 games as a rookie in 2005-2006, but provided quality depth for the Red Wings last season, scoring a dozen goals and adding some speed to the lineup.
The move to Detroit was surely the right one for Drew Miller, the winger who chipped in ten goals with the Wings while establishing his place in the lineup better than he'd done in previous stops with Tampa Bay and Anaheim. Like Eaves, he's a good depth forward who isn't completely lost when he finds himself near the opposition goal.
Justin Abdelkader saw limited duty in 50 games as a rookie last season, but he's a big forward who plays with some bite and it's not like the Wings are overrun with those guys. A more reliable defensive game will help the 23-year-old earn a more significant role.
The only Red Wings free agent of real note is Todd Bertuzzi, who is an adequate complementary scorer at this stage of his career, but if he goes elsewhere, the Red Wings could explore other free agent options like Owen Nolan, Fredrik Modin or Mike Comrie, veteran players who offer some offensive upside and may be willing to consider an inexpensive contract.
While the Wings don't typically employ an enforcer, Brad May handled that role for 40 games last season and he fought ten times while the rest of the roster combined dropped the gloves nine times.
The Wings would seem inclined to look for a forward capable of playing more regularly, yet still provide some toughness. Arron Asham, Eric Nystrom or Fredrik Modin could be among the free agents that might fit the bill, assuming the price isn't prohibitive.
As long as the Red Wings have Nicklas Lidstrom signed for another year -- and they do -- then there is a certain level of calm composure that can be expected when dealing with the defence.
Now 40, Lidstrom struggled some on the power play, scoring 20 points with the man advantage -- his lowest total since lockout-shortened 1994-1995 -- but he remains a force at even strength, registering a plus-22, his fifth straight season with better than a plus-20 rating.
For the first time since before the lockout, Brian Rafalski's point total declined, though he finished strong with 19 points and a plus-9 rating in the last 27 games before a solid playoff showing (3-8-11, plus-4 in 12 GP), so it still seems fair to hold high expectations for the 37-year-old.
Niklas Kronwall has the tools to be a premier defenceman; he can skate, handle the puck, and hits like a much bigger player, but (and there had to be a 'but') he's had a hard time staying healthy, missing 34 games last season and playing more than 70 games just once in six NHL seasons.
While it seems like Brad Stuart has been around forever, he's still just 30-years-old. A strong physical presence who was effective in the playoffs, Stuart struggled during the regular season and finished with a career-low minus-12, which isn't good enough, especially when considering that Stuart doesn't have to take on the toughest defensive assignments.
After showing promise in limited late-season and playoff duty in 2008-2009, Jonathan Ericsson struggled in his first full NHL season, finishing with a minus-15 rating in 62 games. The 26-year-old needs to be better and likely needs a new partner to help make Detroit's third pairing more reliable.
Early indications are that prospect Jakub Kindl could be given a chance on the Detroit blueline, but the Red Wings could also look to a veteran free agent. Perhaps Jay McKee, Niclas Wallin or Nick Boynton would be safe veteran defensive options.
26-year-old Jimmy Howard finally got a chance to carry the mail for the Red Wings and he turned in an outstanding season, starting 61 games and ranking among the league leaders in goals against average (2.26) and save percentage (.924).
His first playoffs proved to be more challenging for Howard, as he allowed four goals or more in six of his 12 games, but he is the future and the present between the pipes for the Red Wings, so it can be chalked up to a learning experience.
Chris Osgood started slowly, then lost his job to Howard and couldn't get into a regular playing routine. For the second straight season, Osgood finished with a goals against over 3.00 and save percentage under .890, only he didn't have the opportunity to redeem himself in the postseason in 2009-2010.
While Osgood may not be wholly enamoured with the idea of playing the backup role, the 37-year-old has been a good mentor to Howard, which gives the Red Wings a cost-effective duo in goal.
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||16-16-32,+8, 58 GP
||15-37-52,+14, 42 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||3-30-33,-4, 73 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||24-18-42,+12, 79 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||10-16-2,3.48 GAA, .881 SVPCT, 30 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||19-23-42,-3, 73 GP
||Grand Rapids (AHL)
||12-25-37,even, 76 GP
||13-37-50,+4, 58 GP
||Red Deer (WHL)
||16-30-46,-18, 53 GP
||6-12-18,+5, 55 GP
Only 19, Tomas Tatar made a smooth adjustment to the American Hockey League and he's a dynamic offensive talent who may need another year of seasoning, but could be an impact scorer in the not-too-distant future.
2007 first-rounder Brendan Smith is coming off an exceptional junior season at Wisconsin, scoring 52 points in 42 games, and will get his first taste of pro hockey next season. Some time in the AHL to improve his defensive game will help prepare Smith for the top-four role that awaits him eventually in Detroit.
Jakub Kindl has three full AHL seasons under his belt and may get his chance in Detroit next season, but while the 23-year-old has improved defensively, he's still been a minus player in each of his three pro campaigns, so cautiously optimistic may be the way to enter camp next season.
22-year-old Jan Mursak emerged as an offensive contributor in his second pro season. The small forward is shifty and willing to pay the price, but he may be even more productive with another year in the AHL.
Since Daniel Larsson signed for two years to play in Sweden, Thomas McCollum should have ample opportunity to bounce back after a difficult first year in the pros.
Stocky winger Mattias Ritola has played three seasons in Grand Rapids and could get a look in a depth role with the Red Wings next season after five games in the regular season and one playoff contest last season.
Though he was a pretty fair scorer in junior, Cory Emmerton hasn't been able to break through offensively in the AHL, scoring 22 goals and 72 points in his first two seasons, so if he's going to make a push for a job in Detroit, it will have to be with sound play in all three zones.
Gleason Fournier saw his production jump nicely in his third junior season. Only 18, he has plenty of time to round out the rest of his game, but the surge in his offensive numbers is encouraging.
A second-round pick last summer, Landon Ferraro went through a tough season in the WHL, with his goal total dropping from 37 in 68 games 2008-2009 to 16 in 53 games last season. The 18-year-old has time to develop, but could use a big year next season to serve as a springboard for his pro career.
Joakim Andersson is a two-way forward with good size and the 21-year-old is ready to give the AHL a try after two years with Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League.
Detroit has a couple of collegians on the way as well, with Gustav Nyquist (Maine) and Max Nicastro (Boston University) making good progress in the NCAA.
21st - Quinton Howden, Tyler Pitlick, Evgeny Kuznetsov.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Red Wings have approximately $50.9 M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: Depth forwards, two defencemen.
What I said the Red Wings needed last year: Two top nine forwards, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Todd Bertuzzi, Jason Williams, Patrick Eaves, Jimmy Howard.
TRADE MARKET Prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.