Last season, the Red Wings teetered on the edge of the Western Conference's top eight for much of the season. As whispers spread that Detroit's remarkable run of 21 consecutive postseason appearances was in its final throes, the Red Wings managed to pull themselves together and squeak into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the seventh seed. Then Detroit pulled off a stunning first-round upset of the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks and pushed the Presidents' Trophy-winning and eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to the brink of elimination.
Indeed, reports of the Red Wings' demise may have been premature, and after reloading up front they appear to be not so much rebuilding but retooled for what could be a deep postseason run.
Even if the Red Wings don't end this season with a 12th Stanley Cup championship, their string of playoff berths doesn't appear to be in much danger. However, with new faces in the locker room and a new group of division foes, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered in Hockeytown. Here are three things to watch for as the Red Wings go through training camp and gear up for 2013-14:
1. How will Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss fit in? -- Red Wings general manager Ken Holland made waves within hours of free agency opening when he allowed both Damien Brunner and Valtteri Filppula to test the market and then signed both Alfredsson and Weiss to bolster what is already a deep group of forwards. For Alfredsson, the move was particularly shocking given his nearly-two-decade tenure with the Ottawa Senators, the only organization he's ever known in the NHL, but Weiss is also making the first big change of his career. Weiss had been in the Florida Panthers organization since the team drafted him with the No. 4 pick in 2001, and no one in the franchise's history has played more games for them.
Both players will be dealing with a transition, but fortunately for the Red Wings they should be easy ones. Aside from being energized by joining a perennial contender, Weiss, a Toronto native, should be familiar with the Detroit area after playing his junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers. Alfredsson, meanwhile, will be one of at least eight Swedes on the roster, including players like Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen whom he knows from their time with the Swedish national team.
Those facts should make the superficial aspects of moving to Detroit easy for Alfredsson and Weiss, but there is also the matter of how they will adapt to being Red Wings on the ice. Weiss was signed with the expectations of being Detroit's second-line center, and given his sizable $24.5 million contract he is expected to do it quite well. In his last full season, Weiss tallied 57 points in 80 games for a Panthers team that, while it did win the Southeast Division, was not quite as talented as the one Weiss is joining in Detroit. That could mean his numbers might get even better with stronger options on his wings.
Alfredsson, for his part, is used to being an offense's top scoring option, but with players like Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the roster he may be able to relax with an eased burden. Weiss and Alfredsson played together on a line with Franzen at the Wings' Red and White Game in Traverse City earlier this month. At the very least, as the two learn to adapt to their new team, they may be adapting together in more ways than one.
2. Is the young defense ready? -- Because of last season's abbreviated 48-game schedule, Detroit has still not played a full 82-game season without Nicklas Lidstrom, arguably one of the greatest defensemen of all time. Veterans Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey did their part to help shepherd a fairly young defensive corps last season, but Detroit's blue line still appeared shaky at times until Danny DeKeyser joined the team with 11 games remaining in the season.
While DeKeyser, who only played two playoff games before suffering a broken thumb, is expected to make the team out of camp this year, his resume still has just 13 total NHL games on it. That is hardly a large enough sample size to indicate there will be no youthful hiccups along the way. In addition, fellow young defensemen Brendan Smith, 24, and Brian Lashoff, 23, have just 79 regular-season games of NHL experience between them.
All three are expected to play considerable minutes at the back end for Detroit this season, and with the experiences of 2012-13 under their belts, the hope is last season's inconsistency will breed a more stable defense in 2013-14. The man who may have the best view of their development, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, is confident the group will be more than able this season.
"They came a long way," Howard told NHL.com earlier this month. "I just think the experience the guys got last year in playing, and now how familiar they'll be with each other this year, we'll be even better on the back end."
If Howard is right, Detroit could be in for a big year, but building the cohesion and chemistry necessary starts in September.
3. Who is the odd man out? -- While the usual suspects are locks to be on the roster -- Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen -- much remains to be decided regarding which forwards will be with the team when the season opens Oct. 2. The re-signing of Daniel Cleary only complicates that further.
Holland and Red Wings coach Mike Babcock will be forced to make difficult decisions as the team comes up against the Sept. 30 deadline for meeting the NHL salary cap and trimming the roster to 23 players, and there is a very good chance a talented player with NHL experience could be on the chopping block. Two players who might be in the crosshairs are Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, each of whom seems on the bubble now that Cleary is back with the team. Of the two of them, Nyquist would seem the more likely choice to be sent down to the Wings' AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids because, unlike Tatar, he wouldn't have to pass through waivers to get there.
The options Detroit has only underscore the significant depth the Red Wings have in their organization, but that makes the choice of who to keep and who to send to Grand Rapids no less complex. In many cases, minor league options and the ability to retain a player's rights will play a role, as they very well might with Nyquist, but no observers can say with certainty just what the final lineup will be. With so much to be decided and so many talented players, the fight for the final roster spot is shaping up to be the most intriguing question in training camp.
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