The atmosphere held little intrigue as the Red Wings drilled at Centre ICE arena in this northern Michigan town, located about 331.5 kilometres northwest of Detroit, which has hosted their pre-season workouts for the past decade.
That’s hardly surprising. A year ago, they were dealing with the retirement of franchise icon Steve Yzerman and the departure of free-agent sharpshooter Brendan Shanahan to the New York Rangers.
This time, the foundation is mostly intact from the team that won the NHL’s Central Division – the Wings’ sixth straight – and advanced to the Western Conference finals before losing to eventual Stanley Cup winner Anaheim last May.
Still, coach Mike Babcock insisted no one should feel tempted to treat camp like vacation.
“All the spots are available,” Babcock said. “There’s no entitlement whatsoever.”
Goaltender Dominik Hasek, 42, who considered retirement before signing a one-year contract, said last year’s experience – the good and the bad – whetted his appetite for more.
“I can compete at the highest level, there is something I could contribute to this team,” the two-time MPV said. “I felt I could still be excited to be back on the ice.”
Defenceman Chris Chelios, returning at age 45, said he was just as eager. “My passion for the game hasn’t changed one bit,” he said.
Despite the leadership and experience of Hasek, Chelios, Kris Draper and other long-timers, the Red Wings’ fortunes will depend largely on how well the next generation performs.
Pavel Datsyuk, a 29-year-old who signed a seven-year contract extension before the playoffs, was the team’s leading regular-season scorer. He also had eight goals and eight assists during the playoffs.
Henrik Zetterberg, 26, was a solid contributor and will need to step up his game. Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Kopecky and Jiri Hudler will get more ice time. Babcock liked what he saw from the group on opening day, saying Hudler – beginning a two-year contract – “was shooting the puck a ton.”
“We’ve got good push from the bottom from our kids, which is really important,” Babcock said. “We think those are guys that can win us games.”
The top veteran acquisition is former New Jersey defenceman Brian Rafalski, who struck a five-year, US$30-million deal to return home. A native of Dearborn, just outside Detroit, he grew up a Red Wings fan – “even through the bad years in the ’80s,” he said. “It’s been good to see the franchise turn around the way it has.”
Rafalski was acquired after defenceman Mathieu Schneider defected to Anaheim. Although Schneider “had the big shot,” Rafalski demonstrated his ability to generate offence by scoring 55 points, general manager Ken Holland said.
“We expect it to be a perfect fit, the way he plays the game, the way he can move the puck,” Holland said.
Nicklas Lidstrom said he was looking forward to teaming with his former rival.
Rafalski is “very skilled,” Lidstrom said. “He’s going to be a great addition to our team.”
Also celebrating a homecoming is newcomer Dallas Drake, a former Detroit draft choice placed on waivers by the St. Louis Blues last year. He played at Northern Michigan University and has a summer house in Traverse City.
Drake promptly made his presence felt at camp, scoring a goal in his team’s intrasquad scrimmage victory.
“Playing for us, he’ll be re-energized again and will be a huge part of our hockey club – from a leadership standpoint, from a physical standpoint,” Babcock said.