Every season the hockey world wonders whether this will finally be the year the Detroit Red Wings cross that divide from perennial Stanley Cup contender to a middle of the road team. And when they fell into a 3-0 hole to the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the playoffs last spring, it looked like the Red Wings had reached that pivotal moment in time.
Yet they roared back to force a Game 7, so never mind. Still, as they enter this season, we’re faced with more questions than answers about a franchise that has been the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL has produced the past 15 years.
When the top end of his lineup is healthy, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock knows exactly what to expect. Pavel Datsyuk will be impossible to knock off the puck and a force at both ends of the ice, Henrik Zetterberg will be great on faceoffs and a wizard with the puck, and Nicklas Lidstrom will quietly and efficiently be one of the best defensemen in the league.
But what will dictate the Red Wings’ fortunes even more this season, and decide whether they remain a serious Stanley Cup contender or drop to the middle of the pack, will be the play of their players who until now have occupied the lower tier of the lineup. Players such as Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves will have a real opportunity to prove they’re capable of doing more than what they’ve been expected to do so far by the Red Wings.
“For myself and Abdelkader and a couple of the other younger guys, it is pretty much time to get it going,” said Helm, who was the best player on the ice when the Red Wings defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 in pre-season action Saturday night. “We’ve just been relied on as fourth-line guys. One of my goals this year is to produce more and take some pressure off our top guys. We count on those guys to do a lot of big things and if some of us can take a little bit of pressure off them, we’re all going to be a lot more fresh and healthy down the stretch.”
You could excuse the Red Wings’ big guns for starting to feel their age. In fact, Datsyuk missed much of the pre-season with a bad back. Must have been all the heavy lifting he’s done over the years. With a combined age of 104, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Lidstrom need some of the 20-somethings to start picking up more of the load. On the one hand, the Red Wings have not exactly allowed their young players to spread their wings, but when they have, the results have been decidedly mixed, which is why none of them has supplanted any of the Red Wings’ stars.
“Miller and Eaves and these guys, they’re better players than people think and (Jiri) Hudler looks like he’s skating better and coming,” Babcock said. “But we need (Johan) Franzen, (Valtteri) Filppula, (Jonathan) Ericsson, (Jakub) Kindl and Helm and Abdelkader – that’s where our push is going to come from. I’ve been telling a lot of people that they were probably sitting on the bench lots of times last year saying, ‘That dummy behind the bench won’t give us any ice time.’ They’ve been waiting their turn and they’re going to get an opportunity.”
Another player who will have an opportunity to lead the renaissance is Fabian Brunnstrom, the future star a few years ago who fell flat on his face in stints with Dallas and Toronto. On a tryout contract with the Red Wings in camp, he impressed them enough that they will likely sign him and rely on him to provide secondary scoring. With Lidstrom in his 40s and Brian Rafalski retiring, the defense corps looks particularly vulnerable and if the Red Wings don’t improve their uncharacteristically porous defensive play from last season, they’ll need all the goals they can get.
The Red Wings could do with a little less of a gap between their stars and their support players to be sure, but when you have just one top 20 pick in two decades of entry drafts, it can be difficult to supplement your roster. Since 1992, the Red Wings’ first pick, on average, has been in the No. 41 spot. That’s due in part to the fact they have been victims of their own success and partly because, for an organization that does so remarkably well at the draft table, they have a stunning propensity for dealing their first round picks. In the past 20 drafts, the Red Wings have picked in the first round only 11 times.
So it’s imperative for their lower picks to follow the leads established by Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Nobody expects them to be as good as those stars, but they’ll have an opportunity this season to take far more prominent roles and prove to the hockey world this will not be the year the Red Wings begin to swoon.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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