It has been a long four months since the Boston Bruins hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug that June night in Vancouver. Now, we are mere hours from puck drop on another NHL season, a fresh slate for all 30 teams with aspirations of glory.
The Red Wings have been yearly favourites to win it all since the early 90s, and that hasn’t change this season.
Sure, some of the familiar faces – Draper, Rafalski, Osgood – may be gone, and some of the key pieces may be getting a little long in the tooth. That’s nothing new for the Wings. We’ve been hearing for years that they are too soft, too old, too European.
All I hear is the sound of Hockeytown celebrating championships in 1997 to break the drought, in 1998 for Vladdy, in 2002 with the best NHL squad ever assembled, and in 2008 with a new-look unit.
The 2011-2012 Red Wings team features enough talent to bring it all together for another magical mid-summer run. With that being said though, there are some questions that will need to be answered along the way.
-Is this the year we start to see a decline in Nick Lidstrom’s production?
In his career with the Red Wings, beginning as a fresh-faced rookie in 1991, Lidstrom has put up 60 or more points 9 times. The first was in that 1991-92 season, with the most recent coming last year. There were no signs of slowing down offensively last year, as Lidstrom captured his 7th Norris trophy, leaving him just one behind the legendary Bobby Orr for most all-time.
Where Lidstrom has slowed down noticeably in the last couple of years is defensively. In his first decade and a half in the league, I could count on one hand the number of times I saw him get beat in a one-on-one situation. I could probably have done it if you had taken away all of my fingers, he was that good. In the last couple seasons, Lidstrom, never the fleetest of foot to begin with, has been getting beat to pucks or to the net by attackers.
He is still superb positionally, and his hand-eye coordination is second to none, but his lack of foot speed has cost him a bit in his own zone.
Will this be the year Lidstrom starts to slide offensively as well?
-Will players like Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen rebound from down seasons?
It’s hard to put a guy like Jiri Hudler, who came back from a one year Russian vacation and scored a measly 10 goals, in the same sentence as Johan Franzen, who led the team with 28 goals.
It shows you how high the expectations are for the Mule when he scores more than anyone on the team, but he is being scrutinized for having a bad year. The truth of the matter is Franzen could easily be a 40 goal scorer in the NHL if he came to play every night. Injuries have certainly played their part in hampering his effectiveness, but Franzen is a player who is so talented that he can take over a playoff series all on his own, as we saw against Colorado in 2008. I expect this to be the year that Franzen eclipses 35 goals and 60 points for the first time in his career. Playing on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula should help him easily accomplish those goals.
Hudler spent the off-season strengthening his body with a mixed marital arts regiment in Montreal. Hopefully the hard work pays off for he and the Wings, as he is in a contract year, and another season like last year will mean the end of his time in a Wings sweater. He is currently slated to play on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Danny Cleary. There is no reason why he shouldn’t set career highs in goals (23) and points (57) this year.
-How does Jimmy Howard do in his third season as the Red Wings starter?
Howard won 37 games in each of his first two seasons as the Wings starter, while playing 63 games in both seasons. His secondary numbers (GAA, SV%, SO) all took hits, however.
Some started pointing to Howard as potentially the weak link in the Wings chain when the playoffs opened, but after sweeping Phoenix and helping dig Detroit out of a 3-0 hole against San Jose to force Game 7, those questions seem to have been answered.
The Wings need him to take the next step in his career now. He spent three years at the University of Maine, followed by four seasons in Grand Rapids, honing his craft, and racking up the accolades along the way. He needs to become one of the top goaltenders in the league for the Wings to continue to be successful in the coming years. He is the most talented goalie the Red Wings have ever drafted and developed, and he needs to show he can put it all together on a daily basis.
-How many games do the youngsters get into?
Last year, we got a look at a trio of talented young forwards: Tomas Tatar, Cory Emmerton and Jan Mursak. While Tatar is still a year away from joining the big club full time, both Emmerton and Mursak made the team out of training camp. Emmerton looks to have secured the fourth line center spot, while Mursak would have provided a solid part-time checking line player had a broken ankle not put him on the shelf.
Gustav Nyquist, the most impressive player in training camp for the Wings, might have earned the coveted spot of first call up. Tomas Tatar likely isn’t far behind. Brendan Smith, for all of his struggles, may get into a game or two, though the chances of that happening took a hit with his 5 game suspension and poor preseason play.
If I had to put a ballpark on the number of games those three will play this year, I’d rank them as such: Nyquist 12, Tatar 8, Smith 2.
-What do the Wings do with all this spending money?
For the first time since the inception of the salary cap, the Wings are going into a season with money to spare. The retirement of Brian Rafalski freed up $6M in salary cap space, and the Red Wings have hung on to their breathing room. With about $5.5M in cap space, the Wings could be major players at the trade deadline. They have the room to acquire just about any player, or plug any hole, so I will be keeping a close eye on how Ken Holland chooses to spend his money.
-Who exactly sits where on the defensive depth chart?
This has been an easy enough question to answer in recent years. Lidstrom has always been the unquestioned number one. Rafalski was his right-hand man (literally). Kronwall and Stuart were 3 and 4, and so on.
However, coach Mike Babcock has been easing off of Lidstrom as the horse of the defense. Lidstrom was always among the league leaders in ice time, but apparently this season he won’t even be the leader of his own team.
Babcock has gone on record saying that Nik Kronwall will be the team’s ice time leader this season, and one would have to assume that Kronwall will be sporting an A on his jersey sooner than later.
While I’m still not ready to take away the title of “number one defenseman” from Lidstrom, it is certainly Kronwall’s for the taking if he proves he can handle the increase in responsibilities.
From there, according to salary at least, the third guy should be Jonathan Ericsson. If you ask me though, I’m not even certain he deserves a spot in the top 6 when everyone is healthy.
He had a bit of a bounce back season last year after a disastrous 2009-2010 campaign, but his preseason has done little to instill any confidence in the big contract Ken Holland bestowed upon him.
Kindl has, in my eyes, leaped over both Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Commodore on the team’s defensive depth chart. Once Commodore’s knee is healthy again, I’ll be interested to see who sits and who plays on the bottom pairing.
The 3/4 spots on the depth chart, behind Nick and Nik, but ahead of Kindl, Ericsson and Commodore is more based on preference of play than anything else. Do you want to give the title of third defenseman to the guy who will help quarterback your power play, or the one who will be the ice time leader on your penalty kill? That’s basically where it sits with Ian White and Brad Stuart respectively.
Personally, I’d have the rankings look like this: 1. Lidstrom 1a. Kronwall 3. White 4. Stuart 5. Kindl 6a. Commodore 6b. Ericsson
What do you think of these pressing questions as we head into another season of Red Wings hockey? Share your answers in the comment section, or if there are other questions you feel need to be answered, let’s hear those as well!