TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The Detroit Red Wings returned to the ice Sunday, hoping a renewed emphasis on defence and an infusion of youthful energy will provide another shot at the Stanley Cup that narrowly eluded them last season.
“You can tell the guys are hungry,” team captain Niklas Lidstrom said after the first day of training camp, three months after they lost a seven-game NHL final against Pittsburgh. While insisting he was looking ahead, the veteran defenceman acknowledged the defeat had been hard to swallow.
“It stinks, it really hurts,” he said.
Then came the departure of free-agent forwards Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson, who scored 82 goals among them. Unable to spend heavily in the market because of the salary cap, the Red Wings will rely on younger talent to fill the offensive gaps.
Ville Leino, one of several newer players who gained valuable experience in last season’s playoffs, scored twice during a scrimmage Sunday – a good start in his quest to earn more playing time.
“I’ve got a good chance now to take a good spot and that’s why I worked hard over the summer,” Leino said. “I feel a little more secure and a little more confident than last year.”
Also expected to shoulder bigger loads are young forwards Justin Abdelkader – another midseason call-up – and Darren Helm, plus defenceman Jonathan Ericsson and backup goaltender Jimmy Howard. Helm and the six-foot-four, 206-pound Ericsson scored four goals apiece during the recent playoffs.
“Having a big body like Ericsson is so important for us,” head coach Mike Babcock said. “We’re thrilled with his development last year. Now he has to take another step.”
Most of the scoring firepower is likely to be supplied by a returning corps of offensive stars, including Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg – all signed to long-term deals. Lidstrom is among several players in the final year of their contracts, as are Tomas Holmstrom and Kirk Maltby.
Lidstrom, entering his 18th season, said he was in no rush to sign a new pact and didn’t know whether one might be concluded during the upcoming year. “I’m just going to start the season and see what happens,” he said.
Detroit also brought on board veteran free-agent forwards Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams, both of whom played for the Red Wings previously. Williams spent six years in Detroit, while Bertuzzi had a brief run with the team in 2007.
Bertuzzi, 34, signed a US$1.5-million, one-year contract. He scored 15 goals and had 44 points last season with Calgary.
“When he came here last time it was late in the year; he had no time to kind of figure out how we play,” Babcock said. Now he has a better chance to fit into the Red Wings’ offensive plan, he added.
Yet whether Detroit seriously challenges for another championship will depend largely on shoring up a defence that allowed 240 goals and had a goals-against average of 2.93 in 2008-09. The Red Wings’ prolific scoring machine compensated for the defensive shortcomings for the most part. That seems less likely to happen this year, given the personnel changes.
Defence is “something we have been good at in the past,” Lidstrom said. “Last season we got away from that. We scored a lot of goals but we also let in a lot of goals. We know that’s something we have to correct.”
Sunday’s workout included team meetings dealing specifically with power plays and penalty kills.
“Our penalty kill wasn’t as good as it needs to be last year,” Babcock said. “That’s a major emphasis for us.”
Abdelkader said the players had gotten the message.
“We’re more worried about keeping pucks out of our net,” he said. “That’s definitely the focus here in camp.”