2011-12 Detroit Red Wings Preview
The retirement announcements of Chris Osgood and Brian Rafalski this summer are a clear sign that the Detroit Red Wings are getting older.
Want more evidence to support that fact? The club's best defenseman, and possibly its best player -- Nicklas Lidstrom -- is 41 years of age and also contemplated retirement this summer. However, Lidstrom quelled fears in the Motor City by signing a one-year deal with Detroit just days before being awarded with his seventh Norris Trophy.
Even Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who were once the symbols of a youth movement in Detroit, are 33 and 30 years old, respectively.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland did little to offset the age issues this offseason. One of the reasons is that he knows head coach Mike Babcock will make the roster work. Babcock did just that last season when everyone was only a year younger and Detroit made the playoffs for the 20th straight time and claimed its 10th division title in 12 seasons.
Still, after winning four of the last 14 Stanley Cup titles, the Red Wings are not judged merely by postseason appearances and division titles. Therefore, the burning question for 2011-12 is not whether Detroit can make it 21 consecutive playoff appearances or claim yet another Central Division crown, but rather, is the club a legitimate threat to win another Stanley Cup?
The Wings last won it all in 2008 and even made it to the Cup Finals the following year, but Detroit was eliminated in the second round by San Jose in each of the past two springs, a possible sign that the championship days of Lidstrom and Co. are coming to an end.
Then again, there is still loads of talent in Motown and counting them out of Cup contention before the season even begins is folly. After all, the Wings were deemed too old to contend for a title by many prior to the 2007-08 campaign and that year ended with the franchise's 11th Stanley Cup.
FORWARDS - Even with Datsyuk sitting out nearly a third of last season due to injuries, the Red Wings boasted the second-best offense in the NHL, averaging 3.13 goals per game.
With Datsyuk ailing, Zetterberg took the reins and turned in his best point total (80) since setting a personal mark with 92 points in the championship year of 2007-08. However, the Swede was under 25 goals for the second straight season, notching just 24 after averaging nearly 37 tallies a year from 2005-06 to 2008-09.
Datsyuk was fantastic last year when not battling injuries, as the slick Russian recorded 59 points (23 goals, 36 assists) in just 56 games. Along with Zetterberg, Datsyuk is counted as one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. Both players are also extremely versatile and can dominate from the wing or center.
Johan Franzen is Detroit's next-best forward after the stellar duo of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. However, the man known as "The Mule" struggled down the stretch in 2010-11, posting just two goals in his final 27 games of the season. Franzen can be an explosive goal-scorer, however, as the Ottawa Senators can attest to after allowing him score five times against them on February 2 of last season.
All told, Detroit boasted nine forwards with 30 or more points last year and all of them are returning this season. That group includes older players like Danny Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi and Tomas Holmstrom as well as their relatively younger counterparts (Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm and Jiri Hudler).
Cleary had 26 goals and 46 points last year and Bertuzzi added 16 markers and 45 points. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Holmstrom, who could be entering his final NHL season, managed 18 goals and 19 assists while fulfilling his role as an unmovable object in front of the opposition's crease.
The 27-year-old Filppula posted 16 goals and 23 assists in 2010-11, while the speedster Helm, 24, potted a career-best 12 goals and 32 points.
An intriguing option for Detroit this year could be winger Fabian Brunnstrom, who has been offered a chance to try out for the team in training camp. Brunnstrom had many suitors a few years ago when Dallas outbid the Red Wings and several other teams for his services in the spring of 2008. However, the Swede severely under-performed in Big D, posting just 19 goals and 21 assists in 99 games with the Stars.
Brunnstrom's chances of making the team certainly improved when left winger Jan Mursak broke his left ankle this preseason. Mursak, who had 24 goals and 18 assists in 79 games for Grand Rapids of the AHL last year, is expected to be sidelined until December.
DEFENSE - After claiming the Norris for the seventh time, only the legendary Bobby Orr can say he's won more of the NHL's best defenseman award more than Lidstrom.
Lidstrom's offensive numbers were up to snuff, as he finished second on the team with 62 points (16g, 46a), but the Detroit captain finished a season with a minus rating for the first time in his NHL career. He was a minus-2 for the Wings while playing in all 82 games for a second straight year. Maybe it was just a blip on the radar, or perhaps Lidstrom is showing signs that he is indeed human and not some sort of defensive cyborg.
Even with the minus year, it's hard to find fault with Lidstrom's game. He seemed to be just as smooth and intelligent a player as ever, and although his physical skills may be dwindling he's still one of the best in the world at his job.
Rafalski's retirement, meanwhile, came as a big surprise, and as Lidstrom's former skating partner, the 37-year-old will be missed this year on the Detroit blue line.
It appears Babcock will use Lidstrom's countryman, Niklas Kronwall, to complete the top pairing. The 30-year-old Kronwall finished third behind Lidstrom and Rafalski on the Detroit blue line with 37 points (11g, 26a) in 2010-11 and was second only to Lidstrom in ice time.
Holland's two biggest offseason acquisitions came with the signing of Ian White and Mike Commodore. White bounced around last year, registering 26 points (4g, 22a) while playing in Calgary, Carolina and San Jose. Commodore played the previous three years in Columbus and is looking to rebound from a dreadful 2010-11 campaign in which he played in just 20 games at the NHL level.
Steady veteran Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson, who had 20 and 15 points, respectively, last year, will also be back on Detroit's blue line.
GOALTENDING - While Rafalski's retirement was a bit of a shock, Osgood's decision to leave the game was overdue. The possible Hall of Fame goaltender was dogged by groin issues in recent years and when he was healthy, Osgood didn't warrant a start over new No. 1 Jimmy Howard.
Speaking of Howard, the 27-year-old is hoping to regain the form that made him a Calder Trophy finalist in 2009-10 after experiencing some ups-and-downs last year.
Howard won the same amount of games (37) last year as he did as a rookie, but his goals-against averaged ballooned from 2.26 to 2.79 and his save percentage dropped from .924 to .908. The American goaltender did have a solid postseason, however, going 7-4 with a 2.49 GAA and .923 save percentage before Detroit bowed out to San Jose.
Back for a second go-round in the Motor City is perennial backup Ty Conklin. The 35-year-old Conklin also spent 2008-09 in Detroit as part of a highly- successful platoon with Osgood. However, he was just 8-8-4 with a dismal 3.22 GAA and .881 save percentage with St. Louis last season.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Red Wings will once again compete with Chicago for division supremacy and a 21st consecutive playoff appearance is practically a lock. Although there are many folks out there who believe Detroit has a solid chance to win it all this year, it's much more likely that they'll exit before the final round. With Holland and Babcock at the helm the Red Wings aren't going away, but the club will still need an influx of youth at some point.