The Detroit Red Wings officially kick off a brand new era of hockey tonight at Little Caesars Arena as they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. And for the first time, they'll be without a captain following the unofficial retirement of Henrik Zetterberg.
Zetterberg's absence means the team now has a void not only in terms of offensive production, but in leadership. To that end, they'll be counting on an even mix of veterans and young players to lead the way. At the forefront of Detroit's rebuild is fourth year forward Dylan Larkin, whom many expect will be named captain of the team starting possibly next season. While being realistic at his team's chances of competing for a playoff spot, Larkin didn't hesitate to say that Detroit certainly won't be giving opponents any easy nights.
“I think we’re going to be an exciting team to watch,” Larkin said. “We’re going to be youthful, we’re going to have a lot of speed and I think hard to play against. It may not be pretty but we’re going to outwork teams.”
Detroit's offensive game will be aided by the return of Thomas Vanek, who played the first part of the 2016-17 season with the Red Wings before being dealt at the trade deadline. He developed instant chemistry with speedy forward Andreas Athanasiou, and fans can expect to see the two of them together more again this season.
“We have a good mix of young kids who can play the game and good older veterans,” Vanek said. “We’re not one of the top teams in the league, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win hockey games. I think we’re going to have to win by committee and hopefully that is going to be our identity — the strength of our four lines and the young kids.”
For many years, the Red Wings were known for icing a veteran-laden team with an average team age that was near or at the very top of the NHL. But with 11 players under the age of 25 to start the year, those days are well in the rear-view mirror. Head coach Jeff Blashill is looking forward to the energy the young players can provide as they continue to develop.
“Youth can certainly energize,” he said. “These young guys, in order to help us, have to be better than the guys who have gotten those minutes previously. It’ll be a great challenge for our younger players, not just the new faces but the guys that are trying to step into bigger roles.”
Blashill coined the phrase “Sixty Minutes of Hell” for how he wants his team to play, and for what he wants his team to put the opposition through each night. Though Detroit doesn't have the skill they once boasted, he's determined that Detroit will be a difficult matchup for their opposition.
“For a long time, this team was hard to play against because it was more supremely skilled than some of the other teams,” Blashill said. “As we’ve evolved we got to make sure we’re harder to play against in other ways.
“We can control how hard we play, what type of space we take away. We can control how much we’re jamming it down the other team’s throat, if we win all those little physical battles all over the ice.
“We’d like teams to come in here and almost not look forward to playing us.”