Well folks, it’s almost that time of year again. The time of the year where, about three times a week, you dedicate a roughly three-hour time slot to your favorite hockey team. For us here at On the Wings that team is obviously the Detroit Red Wings and with the start of the regular season just around the corner, I am going to attempt to give you an idea of what our Wings will look like this year.
So here we go:
The Wings’ most recent “addition” has been a familiar face with the team for three years: Pavel Datsyuk. After lengthy and confusing series of negotiations finally wrapped up early last week, Datsyuk arrived in Detroit Monday and formally signed a two-year $3.9 million contract. It was the most important signing of the off-season and should give Wings fans plenty of reason to be positive about this season. The Wings will be relying on Pavel to provide plenty of offense this year and if he’s really the player we all hope he is, he’ll have another good year. He will need to translate success into the playoffs, however, to make his signing truly worthwhile. Whether he can do that remains to be seen.
Next we have Kris Draper, who is coming off a career year in 03-04 (Selke Trophy, 24G, 16A) and seems to have picked up right where he left off by having a strong pre-season. The Wings signed Draper to a four-year $11.2 million deal after the 2003-2004 season and are counting on him to provide the same versatility he has added to the team since he came here.
Due to injuries and the shortness of the Wings’ playoff run, we haven’t seen a whole lot of Robert Lang since he came to the team at the end of the 03-04 season but that will change this year. He showed us a little of what he is capable of during the playoffs last year and I’m looking forward to getting a full season out of him. Lang and Datsyuk will share the unspoken #1 Center title. His more physical style and strength will compliment Datsyuk’s small size and pitiful physical weakness.
Next we have Jason Williams, who had a very good year in Finland over the lockout, notching 26 goals and 17 assists in 43 games. Williams has been somewhat of a disappointment over the years because he has not lived up to his potential. He has a lot of skill and has shown flashes of it in the past but not very consistently. Hopefully this year will be different, as he should be getting an increased role.
Finally, we have Steve Yzerman, who is not returning for a farewell tour but is expected to make a significant contribution to the team. The last time we saw The Captain, he was writhing on the ice and though he says this is not necessarily his last season, we should be left with a better final memory of the man who has led the Wings as long as I’ve been a fan. I like what little I’ve seen of Yzerman during the pre-season and I do not buy the notion that he will be a non-factor this year. He will contribute and will be an important piece of the puzzle. However, he is currently day-to-day with a groin injury and may miss the start of the season.
Tomas Holmstrom comes first alphabetically among the left wings. He’ll fulfill his usual role of goalie pest and he’ll hopefully score a lot of key goals like he’s good at doing, both so the Wings win and so my hockey blogger league fantasy team does well (the rest of you hockey bloggers are going down!). He had a decent year with Lulea of the SEL (14G, 16A) and while he’s never been a big goal scorer, he should contribute some back-breaking goals often enough. Don’t expect him to draw any penalties though. The refs hate him.
Next is another pest, Kirk Maltby. Malts’ value is in his penalty killing and work ethic along the boards. His mouth is another important asset and has been responsible for sending opponents to the penalty box many, many times over the years because of his penchant for vocal jabs and provocation. He won’t have someone to back him up as he scurries away this year, though, so maybe he’ll tone it down a bit.
Now we get to the offensive left wingers. Brendan Shanahan is back after picking up his player option and says he has something to prove. He hasn’t been up to snuff the past couple years, in the playoffs especially, and Wings fans have begun to lose patience. I think we’ll see something of the old Shanny this year. Not the ’97 Shanny but I do think he’ll be a stronger offensive presence this season. He has nothing to lose at this stage in his career.
Next is Henrik Zetterberg, who returned to the ice last night after healing from a hip injury and lit it up with three points in the Wings’ 9-0 romp over the Jackets’ B-team at the Joe. He’s due for a breakout year and even if he doesn’t score as much as Pavel, his two-way ability makes him highly valuable.
On to the right wingers. Mark Mowers spent some time with the Wings last season and is a solid role player. He has shown at least once that he has a good set of hands and may be able to contribute more if given more ice time.
The last forward I’ll look at is newcomer Mikael Samuelsson. I have to say I do not know anything about this guy except that he has some decent size (6’2″, 211 lbs). He doesn’t appear to be much of a goal scorer or a tough guy. He is expected to arrive in Detroit tomorrow, after finally getting a visa.
The Wings will be without Ray Whitney and Darren McCarty, after being forced to buy them both out in July. I doubt anyone will notice Whitney’s absence much but McCarty will certainly be missed, both for his off-ice relationship with the fans and for his on-ice toughness. Though he was not as much a physical presence as before, he brought a level of grit that the team does not have any more. They did not do an adequate job of replacing him and may suffer for it down the road.
The Wings are in good shape with their forwards, as long as they stay healthy. They still have a good amount of talent and the best part is that they have a mix of youth and experience. They will not be staking their Cup hopes on a group of unknown youngsters nor will they rest on the old legs of a group of veterans. Hopefully they’ve struck the right balance.
Chris Chelios comes first alphabetically so he comes first here as well. The Wings signed the 43-year-old to a one-year, $1 million deal back in August and will count on him to mentor the team’s younger defensemen while taking a reduced role.
Next on the list is the newly-acquired Andy Delmore. I’ve gotten mixed reports on him but the final word seems to be pretty negative. I suppose there’s a reason Sabres fans call him “Any Elmore – No ‘d.’ ” He does have a two-way contract, though, so it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be on the main roster. If he does play in Detroit, he should at least be an asset on the power play.
Jiri Fischer is one of the two men the Wings see as their defensive pillars of the future. The pillar metaphor is apt because at 6’5″ Fischer is the tallest player on the team. He had a somewhat disappointing season with the Wings in 03-04 but has looked good in competition since then. He will be an important part of the defense this season and should begin to take a leading role with Chelios on the way out.
The highest paid and arguably most important player on the team is Nicklas Lidstrom. He is certainly the anchor of the defense and is an amazingly steady player. He’s one of the best in the business at what he does and that is why the Wings are paying him $7.6 million this season. It’s the final year on his contract and he may be moving on afterwards so enjoy watching him shut down the opponents while you can. I fully expect him to make a run for the Norris this year.
Next is Mathieu Schneider, who the Wings re-signed in August to a two-year, $6.6 million contract after negotiations that began before the lockout. Schneider was up there in Norris voting last season and will be another key component of the defense. He’ll carry a lot of minutes and will bring a nicely balanced game to the ice. He has a good shot and is a good asset to have as a top-level defenseman.
Another newcomer to this defensive corps is Andreas Lilja, who I confess, I know little about. He has good size at 6’3″, 228 lbs and has recovered from an injury suffered in training camp. If nothing else, he should have decent chemisty with the Swedish players on the team, especially if Mike Babcock creates a sort of “Swedish Five” unit.
Just a couple days ago, this section would only included Derian Hatcher and Jason Woolley. However, the events of Tuesday night’s Avalanche game changed things a bit, as the Wings will now be without Niklas Kronwall’s services for at least six weeks as well.
Hatcher was bought out and will only be missed out of regret that he didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself due to suffering a knee injury early in the 03-04 season. I will personally miss Woolley, though there is a chance that he will be signed after all.
The Wings had high hopes for Kronwall and are sort of left with little recourse by the hockey gods. There was considerable buzz about the young Swede and that has since been replaced by a whole lot of disappointment. Hopefully, Nik will get well as soon as is safe and be back on the ice wowing us with open ice hits and his offensive abilities. UPDATE (1. Oct 05): Kronwall will have surgery on his left knee and will be out 4-6 months. That puts his return at or near the end of the season. The Wings will likely put him on the injured reserve list now and free up some space to grab a replacement.
Here too the Wings have what looks to be a good mix of youth and experience. How it will all play out over the course of a season obviously remains to be seen but on paper they should be fine defensively. The injury of Kronwall adds a bit of concern to the equation but I think with Lidstrom and Schneider anchoring the top two pairings, they’ll be pretty well off until he gets back. I think Fischer will become more important this season so I expect him to be on top of his game. There are two unknowns in Delmore and Lilja but at least they’ll have quality players around them and that should help them adjust if they need to.
I’ll begin with the man who is likely to be in net at the start of the season, Manny Legace. In 2003-2004, Manny showed the league that he is ready for a starting role after so many years of playing backup to star goalies. It’s something Wings fans have known for years but were satisfied to ignore because the Wings could always afford a top goalie. Well, now Manny could be the guy we see in the net night in and night out. I expect him to be his usual self this year, solid but not stellar.
Chris Osgood is back in the Winged Wheel and while that doesn’t thrill a lot of people, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Osgood has his big faults like every other goalie but he has even bigger strong points. Everyone remembers the bad goals he lets in (and they were bad, no disputing it) but it seems no one remembers the times where he was the only thing keeping the Wings in a game. He can be a very good goalie when at the top of his game and in those times, bad goals are few and far between. He has to recover from a torn groin muscle, however, and may not be ready to play until a couple weeks into the regular season. At that point, expect a battle for the number one spot because, although they’re in a great position to give significant time to both men, Babcock would like to have either Osgood or Legace be The Man.
In the meantime, we’re likely to see would-be U. Maine senior Jimmy Howard on the bench in all the goalie equipment. Howard was a standout in college and the Wings have high hopes for him in the future. He’s looked good when I’ve seen him play and should be alright backing up Legace for the first few weeks. I am a little worried at the prospect of Howard becoming the starter because of injuries but the Wings wouldn’t be the first team to rely on a rookie goalie.
The Wings’ goalie corps included Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace in 2003-2004 but now only Legace remains. Hasek moved on to the Senators (and appears to be kicking some serious butt) while Joseph signed with Wayne Gretzky’s Coyotes, thereby moving even further away from Toronto, where his heart lies. I don’t think Joseph ever really fit in here and the whole fiasco with Hasek last season is better forgotten.
The Wings’ goaltending situation is maybe as not as reassuring as previous years because they don’t have a big name starter but they do have two experienced goalies who should be able to pull them through a regular season. Not many teams can say they lost two goalies of the Hasek and Joseph’s caliber and yet end up with starters of acceptable quality. Their goaltending probably is their weakest point but I’ll still be reletively confident with either Legace or Osgood in net as long as the rest of the team is playing well.
The Wings have a totally new coaching staff this year, headed by former Ducks head coach Mike Babcock, who brought his assistants, Paul MacLean and Todd McLellan with him to Detroit. I’ve really only heard positive things about Babcock, though I haven’t seen enough of him yet to form my own opinion. It sounds like he is just what this team needs, which at the very least means a new face behind the bench. He is a good coach for development of young players and will become even more valuable as more and more veterans leave the team. I am looking forward to seeing what Babcock and his assistants can get out of this team. It’s certainly one of the more positive points going into the season.
I believe Wings fans have many reasons to be optimistic about this season. Sure, things aren’t as slam-dunk as they have been in recent years but given the results of the team’s latest trips to the playoffs, I think they have as good a chance this season as any to go far. It won’t be an easy ride and could get ugly at times but that will be more because of a more level playing field across the league than anything else.
I don’t know about you guys but I’m looking forward to Wednesday night.