Update (3:30 PM): Something I forgot to mention in my preview below (firebettman’s comment below was one of the things that reminded me): the loss of Danny Markov. Danny is a good defenseman, but I’m not shedding any tears over him. His departure is mainly due to the fact that the Wings would have had to juggle things around to fit him in, but you have to think that had he been more reasonable in his salary demands, he’d be a Wing. Still, I think the Wings are better off without him in the long-run – Matt
Update (12:55 PM): I just noticed that, on top of JS Giguere, the Ducks will be without two other key players: Mathieu Schneider (broken foot) and Sammy Pahlsson (hernia). The loss of those two will significantly hamper the Ducks’ defensive efforts. Good news for the Wings. – Matt
I had hoped I wouldn’t be doing this last-minute, but it’s my senior year of college and I don’t think I’ve ever been busier. So, I’ve had a hard time fitting the site in. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up regular posting as I get into the swing of things as far as day-to-day operations go.
With that said, here’s my look at the upcoming season.
Much ink has been spilled over the fact that the Wings lost “a whole scoring line” this off-season in Robert Lang, Todd Bertuzzi, and Kyle Calder. I don’t think there are many Wings fans, if any, who are shedding tears over those three. Lang was a disappointment ever since he wowed us in the Predators series in the 2004 playoffs. Bertuzzi didn’t pan out and most of us are, I think, relieved to be able to hate him again. Calder fell off the face of the earth and, aside from some sparks at the beginning of his time here, never was an impact player.
Still, whatever you might think of those guys, the Wings lost three forwards and only made one signing, Dallas Drake, to fill in the hole. They’re betting a lot that a number of guys will either repeat their performance of last year, or have breakout years. I’m talking about guys such as Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Johan Franzen, and Dan Cleary. This is the year for these four to really make names for themselves.
Filppula, aside from having the most commonly mis-spelled name in the organization, is one of the better young players in the league and should be given the ice time this year to prove it. The pre-season projections had him centering the third line with Cleary and Kris Draper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually moves up. He showed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs last year and just needs to find a way to finish his plays. He’s responsible in both ends of the ice and the fact that he sees penalty kill time speaks volumes of Mike Babcock’s confidence in him. Though I hesitate to tack on numbers predictions, I expect things of Fil this year, and I don’t think I’m too far out there to believe he could double his goal total and triple his assist total from last year (10 and 7 respectively).
Hudler showed last year that he’s capable of producing even when given little ice time. Seeing him regulated to under-10 minutes every night was one of the most frustrating things about watching the Wings last season, so I was glad to hear that he’ll be given significantly more responsibility as Henrik Zetterberg’s winger. Jiri has developed from a lazy, one-dimensional player to a relatively hard-working, potent offensive threat. His defensive game has improved and will only get better under Babcock. I’m not quite as confident in Jiri as I am in Fil, but 25 goals doesn’t seem out of reach, especially after he scored 15 last year.
Johan Franzen is one of those players with a perfect nick-name: Mule. He’s one of the biggest and strongest Wings and has a mean streak to go with his size. He’s great on the puck and has a developing nose for the offensive side of things. His work ethic and pain threshold make him an invaluable defensive asset, but the Wings have a lot hanging on his being able to pick up where he left off in the playoffs. Given how Franzen performed in the pre-season (5 goals in 6 games), things are looking pretty good.
Dan Cleary cracked the 20-goal mark for the first time his career last year and everyone’s hoping he can do it again. He’s another one of those guys with a great work ethic and seems to be busting his butt on every shift. Like Franzen, he’s a great defensive asset who’ll be relied on to contribute offensively. He was injured during the pre-season, but played in the last game and should be big for the Wings like he was last year. If I had the money to spend, my next jersey would probably have Cleary’s name on it, so I obviously think highly of the guy.
So, those are the guys that are the question marks going into the season. As you can see, I’m pretty optimistic about their chances of producing. The rest of the forward corps is made up of guys of whom much is expected, without any room for doubt, such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The pressure is on them both to produce on separate lines, and while I was skeptical of that move at first, I think it’s a necessary experiment. I think the benefits of the two playing together will keep the split from being permanent, but, if nothing else, it’s necessary until Filppula proves he’s ready to handle the second line center spot. Both Pavel and Hank should put up big numbers and be in the running for some awards (maybe Zetterberg will finally win the Selke).
It looks like Pavel will have Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom on his wings. Homer is another player facing big expectations, but he’s demonstrated he’s capable of performing before, so there really isn’t any question mark there. Hank will play between Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson. Sammy is perhaps the biggest question mark among the regulars. Who will we get, the injury prone Samuelsson of last year, or the 23-goal scoring edition? For both his sake and the teams, I hope it’s the latter. I also hope we don’t see him on the point during the power play. His shot is much better suited to the slot or the circles, not to mention his puck-handling ability.
The surprise move of the off-season, at least in my mind, was Babcock’s decision to put Kris Draper on Filppula’s wing with Cleary. The hope is that Drapes can repeat his big 24-goal season of four years ago, but you can color me a skeptic on that one. Draper is a great player and is invaluable to the team, but I have a hard time seeing him as an offensive forward. He notched 14 goals last year and could very well do it again, but I’m not expecting more from our best penalty killer.
The fourth line promises to be a fan favorite. I mean, we Wings fans will love watching Dallas Drake, Tomas Kopecky, and Kirk Maltby wreck havoc, but the fans of the opposition teams will no doubt hate those guys. I think it’s going to be great.
The outsiders are, as of now, Aaron Downey and Matt Ellis, neither of whom will be able to crack the lineup unless there is an injury. I don’t know much of anything about Downey, but I know Ellis is one of the hardest working players in the organization and that he will make the most of whatever time is given him. Unfortunately for Downey, he’ll likely be the odd man out when Igor Grigorenko, deserved or not, returns to town in about three weeks. At that point, Igor will be an outsider, unless one of the regulars is really having a slow start.
The Wings lost a key piece of their defense when Mathieu Schneider left for Anaheim this summer. Schneider’s importance to the team was such that, had he not been injured, the Wings would have gone to the Finals. He’s not a guy the Wings could fully replace, but they seem to have found a viable alternative in Brian Rafalski. I expect Rafalski to fit right in with the team, something that will be made easier by the fact that he’ll be paired with Nick Lidstrom.
The biggest question mark on the defense, in my mind, is Andreas Lilja. Which Lilja will we get? The sluggish, pylon Lilja, or the hard-working, PK-specialist Lilja? Will we get the guy who impressed so much through most of the playoffs or the guy whose gaffe in Game 5 put the Wings down 3-2 in their series against the Ducks? Only time will tell, but I won’t be surprised if Lilja returns to his old status of the Amazing Rotating 4th and 7th Defenseman.
Another big question on the blueline is Niklas Kronwall. Everyone knows Nik has the ability to be a top defenseman in the top league in the world, but given that he’s had a major injury in each of his NHL seasons, there is some uncertainty about where he has the body for it. His injuries have, to some extent at least, been freak accidents, but the fact remains that he has not finished a season here. With Schneider gone, Kronwall is the guy who will be expected to step up most and to do that, he’ll have to remain healthy.
The remaining regular defensemen are known quantities. With Nick Lidstrom, you know you’re getting the best and there isn’t much else to say beyond that. He showed he’s more than capable of handling the captaincy in Detroit and all that is expected of him is yet another Norris-caliber season.
Chris Chelios is a rock and, in some ways, seems to be getting better with age. He lit up the scoreboards in the pre-season and certainly made a case for more ice time. Expect him to see more minutes on the power play this season.
Brett Lebda isn’t flashy, but he’s steady and has developed into a fine defenseman. I believe he’s ready to move up in the corps, but he’d have to push Lilja to the bench to be able to crack the top four. I think it’s possible, but he’ll probably need some help from the 7th defenseman, Derek Meech.
Unfortunately for Meech, he got the 7th spot sort of by default. With Quincey’s injury and Sopel’s somewhat classless signing with Chicago, his main competition fizzled out. It helped that he was out of minor league options, of course. That’s not to say Meech doesn’t deserve to be with the Wings, but he’ll have that hanging over his head a bit. It should be a good thing, though, as it will give him something to prove. With the Wings’ defense as stacked as it is, Meech’ll have a tough time cracking the lineup, but if he impresses in practice and a regular such as, say, Lilja hits a bad patch, he could see the ice with Chris Chelios (which would move Lebda up). Of course, if there is an injury, he’ll also stand ready to fill in.
Dominik Hasek is back for another year and this time I’m not so freaked out about it. It’s still a bit of a gamble, but the Wings handled him so carefully last season and Dom showed such a great commitment to his health that I’m fairly optimistic that it will work again. If it does, the Wings will get solid actual goaltending, but more importantly, they’ll have a goaltender they have obvious confidence in. The Wings just play better hockey in front of Dom than most of their recent goalies.
If Dom goes down or needs a rest, the Wings have a great backup in Chris Osgood. More than any other goalie that I can remember, Ozzie has shown he can handle the pressure of playing in Detroit. He’s a good safety net for the Wings to have.
If in the event that Dom does become injured and Osgood becomes the team’s #1, Jimmy Howard will move up to the Wings. Howard has demonstrated marked improvement over last year and looks to be poised to have a career year in Grand Rapids. I hope he does not have to come to Detroit this season, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, either.
Can you tell I’m optimistic about the team this year? I really like what I saw out of them last season and I firmly believe that they can be right back where they were come May. They have a tough month of October ahead of them, but if they have the same drive and play with the same energy they had last season, they should be able to come out of this month ahead and carry it through the season. I expect great things of this team.
The Wings open the season against the Ducks tonight at 7:00 on Versus. It’ll be the first time the two teams have met since the Western Conference Finals and it should be an interesting start to things. I’ve said that there is a budding rivalry between the two teams and tonight may be an indicator of how much animosity from the playoffs will carry over.
The Ducks are already 1-1-0 after starting the season in London with the Kings. They are without JS Giguere, who is out with a hernia, and will no doubt be fatigued from their trip to the UK. That said, the Wings will need to start the season with some good jump if they want to go 1-0-0.
Unfortunately, the 7:00 start presents a bit of a problem for me. I work until 7:30 or so, and won’t be able to catch the beginning of the game. It’s tragic, I know. This probably a good spot to mention that I will be in class until 8:30 or so on Tuesday nights, so I’ll miss the beginning of any games on those nights that don’t begin later.
Links to other season previews