DETROIT – Eight months ago, prognosticators predicted the demise of the Red Wings as they set sail on an uncharted course. It was the first time in 20 seasons that the Wings were going to be without all-everything defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, and many believed his retirement would prove costly.
Since 1992, the Red Wings counted on Lidstrom to lock down the blue line, but without the greatest European-trained player in league history, it was expected that Detroit’s team would struggle to extend its 21 consecutive playoff appearances. The Wings also lost another valuable piece to the defense when Brad Stuart decided to sign with San Jose.
Without Lidstrom and Stuart there wasn’t much optimism as the Wings entered their abbreviated training camp following the NHL lockout last January. How would the Wings defense be without their stalwarts?
Early season injuries compounded the Wings’ defensive problems. Then came the surprise that nobody predicted. Unproven youngsters like Brian Lashoff, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and the emergence of undrafted rookie free agent Danny DeKeyser played significant minutes and made big contributions as the team qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 22nd straight season.
Now, as teams open training camps this week, some of the same forecasters like the Red Wings for their additions of forward Daniel Alfredsson and center Stephen Weiss in the off-season. Obviously, the guys in the Wings locker room like the acquisitions, too, but it’s the development of the young guys on defense, as well as up front, they like most.
“There's a lot of positive stuff that's surrounding us right now,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “Last year in the playoffs the young guys got a lot of experience playing in two Game 7s in hostile environments. Danny coming in was a little unknown. He was a heralded college player. You heard about him, how big he was and how smooth a skater and passer he was, but I think him coming in, it was sort of ‘What are we going to get?’ He stepped in and played tremendously for us. I remember after the first game saying, ‘Wow, this kid's legit.’ Smitty, same way, he stepped right in and started playing big minutes for us. He really grew as a player throughout the year. Kindl had probably his best year as a professional.”
Optimism is riding high in Hockeytown, and not just because of the arrival of Alfredsson and Weiss. The franchise is encouraged by the development of the young players in Grand Rapids. The Griffins captured the AHL’s Calder Cup last spring, and on Monday, a group of youngsters won the prospects tournament in Traverse City.
Granted, much of this year’s optimism is heaped upon Alfredsson and Weiss, who, along with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, will give the Red Wings a much needed scoring punch, something the team lacked last season after finishing among the top 10 in league scoring the previous two campaigns. Moving to the Eastern Conference, the Wings, who averaged 2.54 goals in 2013, will need to average three goals a game.
“The additions of Weisser and Alfie are really going to help us,” Howard said. “Gives us a great No. 2 centerman. Alfie's going to be great on the power play for us. Gives us another weapon, possibly free up Pav and Z a little more. It's exciting time of year. I'm looking forward to getting through training camp and starting Oct. 2.”
The Wings enter this season feeling much more confident in their young defense. Last season, the Wings were fifth in the league in goals-allowed, surrendering 2.29 goals per game. Only Chicago, Ottawa, Boston and the New York Rangers allowed fewer.
Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson will be the top defensive pairing with Kindl, Smith and Kyle Quincey challenging for spots three through five at training camp. Lashoff and DeKeyser are likely to battle for the No. 6 defensive role on the roster.
While the future seems bright, Wings coach Mike Babcock prefers to view the team’s defense a little more cautiously.
“I had no idea Smith and DeKeyser and Kindl could do what they do,” Babcock said. “Smith and DeKeyser are in their second year, so are they going to fall off the face of the earth or be like they're capable of being? That's going to determine lots of what happens around here.”
The youth movement isn’t just on defense. Several young players should play key offensive roles this season. Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar could be impactful while pushing some of the veterans in camp this week. Guys like Jordin Tootoo, Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi know that with 16 forwards competing in camp this week, the team’s landscape is changing.
“It’s a full out tryout training camp for a lot of people, excluding Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Weiss and if I don’t say Mule he’ll be pissed off … so Mule,” Bertuzzi said. “There’s jobs to be had and jobs to lose. You have to go into camp and you have to play for a spot. It’s not like the old days when you pretty much know where you’re stationed. You have to earn your spot.”
It’s that depth and experience that has the Red Wings optimistic.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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