For the first time in 20 years, the Detroit Red Wings enter a season with genuine concern over their post-season hopes.
The retirement of long-time defense stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, the departure of reliable blueliner Brad Stuart and the inability of GM Ken Holland to land suitable replacements were significant blows.
Factor in their best forwards (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi) are well into their 30s – Zetterberg is the youngest having just turned 32 – and Wings fans are worried their club will struggle to make the playoffs.
True, their best forwards are aging, but Datsyuk and Zetterberg remain among the game’s best and the streaky Franzen is still a clutch scorer. Valtteri Filppula, 28, had a breakthrough performance last season with 66 points and promising left winger Gustav Nyquist has top-six potential.
The losses of Lidstrom and Stuart definitely hurt the Wings defense, but hard-hitting, hard-shooting Niklas Kronwall and steadily improving Jonathan Ericsson and Ian White remain, while the addition of Carlo Colaiacovo via free agency provides another skilled puck-moving blueliner. Some observers consider 23-year-old Brendan Smith a Calder Trophy candidate this season.
Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue for the Wings. Jimmy Howard’s goals-against average, save percentage and win total last season were among the league’s best, while free agent addition Jonas Gustavsson should alleviate their backup concerns.
The Wings are also guided by one of the best coaches in the game in Mike Babcock. Add in their experience and pride and it would be a mistake to take this team lightly.
Still, there are potential problem areas worth watching that may require a trade or two to address.
Apart from Franzen and the 37-year-old Bertuzzi, Detroit lacks big, skilled forwards on the scoring lines and sizable grit on the checking lines. The addition of agitating Jordin Tootoo should provide more toughness, provided he maintains his focus and avoids taking bad penalties.
Holland replaced right winger Jiri Hudler, who departed for Calgary via free agency, by bringing back Mikael Samuelsson, but the club could use scoring punch on the wings. Bertuzzi is no longer capable of reaching big offensive numbers and the inconsistent Franzen has an injury history.
On defense, Ericsson or White should be a suitable replacement for Stuart, but there’s no one on the roster to replace Lidstrom’s greatness, though truthfully, there’s no one in the NHL who could.
Lidstrom’s retirement created a need for a proven puck-moving blueliner to control the power play.
That sent Holland into the free market in an unsuccessful pursuit of Ryan Suter and had the Wings linked to Calgary’s Jay Bouwmeester and Phoenix’s Keith Yandle in the off-season trade rumor mill before they settled on Colaiacovo.
Holland could make another attempt to bolster his offense whenever the NHL returns to action. If a new collective bargaining agreement forces rival clubs to dump salary, he might be able to find that scoring depth via trade.
Otherwise, he’ll assess his roster over the course of the season and, depending on where the Wings are in the standings by mid-season, make additional moves leading up to the trade deadline.
Making a significant trade, however, would cost Holland some of the younger players (Filppula, Ericsson, Nyquist) he might wish to retain for the long run. Depending on what’s available, he’ll be reluctant to part with them.
The Red Wings are no longer elite Stanley Cup contenders, but if the aging talent can stay healthy, the younger players step up and management adds another scorer, they should remain in playoff contention.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla's Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.