Looking Back

Every NHL fan outside of Detroit has been waiting a long time for the leagues longest running semi-dynasty to fall back to the pack. Those prayers seemed to be answered in the first half of last season when the club, hampered by cap issues, depth problems and a spate of injuries, struggled to a mediocre record and a spot outside of the playoff picture. Of course, a team featuring heavy hitters like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and the apparently ageless Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t going to stumble forever and the Red Wings broke out of their funk in the latter half of the year. By April, Detroit had charged by teams like Calgary, Colorado, Nashville and Los Angeles to post yet another 100+ point campaign en route to a first round decision over the upstart Phoenix Coyotes.

The post-season didn’t end in the Stanley Cup finals for the Red Wings for a change, but they proved that their first half struggles were more a product of bad luck than a true fall from grace.

Key Additions

The Red Wings were relatively quiet this summer. Prodigal son Jiri Hudler returned from his one-year stint in the KHL and should be another weapon for the club’s top six forward group. Erstwhile Dallas Star captain Mike Modano was signed to provide some depth and leadership at the other end of the roster. On the back-end, 35 year-old Ruslan Salei was acquired to round out the bottom defensive pairing.

Key Subtractions

Only depth players walked away from the Red Wings this off-season. Brett Lebda signed with the Maple Leafs while UFA Andreas Lilja is still looking for a home. The oft-injured Jason Williams was also allowed to escape to the open market and remains unemployed. ‘tweener Derek Meech was recently waived by the club and it remains to be seen whether he’ll land back with the team or not come October.

Offence

For the first time in recent memory, the Red Wings were a middling club in terms of generating offence last season, with just 226 goals for (14th overall). That seems to be more a function of bounces than anything else, however, given the fact that Detroit managed the second most shots on goal (33.4) behind only the Chicago Blackhawks. Keep in mind, the Red Wings struggled with injuries – Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary and Thomas Holmstrom all missed significant chunks of time.

Assuming those guys are healthy this year, Detroit is poised to climb back into the elite ranks. Particularly with the re-addition of Jiri Hudler who was a point-per-game player for Moscow Dynamo of the KHL last year. The club will also be looking for steps forward from guys like Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader who are still finding their legs at the NHL level. Once again, the dynamic duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will drive the bus up front. Todd Bertuzzi was re-signed this off-season despite an inconsistent campaign. He’ll be relied on for scoring from the third line and the power play.

Defense

Although he turned 40 years-old in April, there’s little evidence that Nicklas Lidstrom is slowing  down. The best defenseman of the modern age appeared in all 82 games, placed third on the team in scoring with 49 points and still routinely faced the best opposition on a nightly basis. Until time finally catches up to Lidstrom, there won’t be a lot of question marks on Detroit’s blueline. I have a suspicion that he is actually some sort of Terminator robot from the future, sent back in time to teach us pathetic humans how this game is really supposed to be played.

Not that the rest of team’s defense corps is lackluster. Quite the opposite in fact. Brian Rafalski continues to carry the mail with Lidstrom on the top pairing and Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart round out a very capable top four rotation. The aforementioned Ruslan Salei will likely skate with the towering Jonathan Ericsson on the bottom pairing.

Goaltending

Jimmy Howard finally usurped the doddering Chris Osgood after the latter struggled (again) to put up even middling results early in the season last year. The 26 year-old unexpectedly jumped into the Calder race by garnering one of the best save rates in the league at .924. That seems like good news for an organization that has struggled between the pipes recently, but the truth is Howard doesn’t have the best resume (he never once cracked the .920 save rate at the AHL level) and is a better than even bet to regress this year rather than build on his surprising debut. If Howard stumbles as badly as, say, Steve Mason in his sophomore season, the club will (reluctantly) have to turn back to Osgood. That’s doesn’t matter as much to a team as dominant as the Red Wings, but it’s hardly ideal either.

Best Case Scenario

Everyone stays relatively healthy and Jimmy Howard continues to be a capable puck stopper. The Red Wings could climb back up to the top of the Western Conference and challenge for another championship if things break right for them this coming year.

Worst Case Scenario

Jimmy Howard falls back to earth hard, Osgood is still terrible and time starts to catch up to the Red Wings various heavy hitters. If guys like Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg miss time or start to feel the wear and tear of age, the Red Wings could conceivably be battling for a playoff spot.

Prospecting

A 19th overall draft pick in 2005, 23 year-old Jakub Kindl is just about ready to make the leap. A product of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, Kindl played his second professional season for the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins in 2009-10, scoring three goals and 33 points in 73 games played. That was the second best point total by a defender on the club behind veteran Doug Janik.

Kindl was shaky in a brief three-game stint for the parent club last December, but the organization fully believes he is a future top-four defender. Watch for him to get a shot at making the Red Wings out of camp, especially if Derek Meech is demoted or traded prior to puck drop.

All Eyes On…

Jimmy Howard seems like a natural choice, but we’re going to go with Nick Lidstrom. His play was still top-notch last season, but at 40 years-old his time as an elite difference maker is strictly limited. If he finally steps into the elevator shaft this season, his slide will cause a ripple though the defense corps and across the team as a whole: it’s simply not possible to shrug off the decline of a player like Lidstrom.

Lyrically Speaking

Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years
Rocking my peers and putting suckas in fear

- LL Cool J, “Momma Said Knock You Out”