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By Scott BurnsideThis might make Don Cherry roll over in his over-sized collars, but what might keep the Detroit Red Wings from returning to a third straight Stanley Cup finals is the loss of too many European players.
With Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson out of the picture, the Wings have been forced to go North American with Jason Williams, Patrick Eaves and Todd Bertuzzi. Frankly, it's a step backward. How big a step? We're about to find out as the Red Wings look to avenge their bitter Stanley Cup finals loss to Pittsburgh. If you thought the road back to the finals last season was tough for the boys from Motown, you haven't seen anything yet.
"I don't know if it's a concern. Obviously, there's a little bit more uncertainty," GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com. "But there's not a lot that's going to happen to our players that they haven't been through before."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Red Wings this season:
1. Dearly departed
Let's start with those members of a Red Wings team that have found greener pastures. Individually, Hossa represents the biggest loss (he led the team with 40 goals), even though he sagged in the playoffs. The fact he jumped to division rival Chicago is just another suggestion we are on the cusp of a changing of the guard in the Western Conference. Throw in Hudler's 23 goals, Samuelsson's 19 and Kopecky's six, and that's 88 goals suddenly out of the Red Wings' lineup. That's not chump change, even for a team as talented as the Red Wings.
So, how did Holland go about filling the gap? Bertuzzi, who was once briefly a Wing at the end of the 2007 season, had 15 goals last season and seems unlikely to be able to play an entire season given his past history (he's played fewer than 70 games every season but one since the lockout). Even when he is healthy, Bertuzzi is more a perimeter player than when he was in his prime. Williams was cast off by Atlanta and Columbus, totaling 19 goals, while Eaves had six goals in Carolina last season.
3. If not them, then who?
So, 88 goals go out, and 40 come back in; that's not going to cut it in a division that may be the most competitive in the league. But Holland is a smart guy, right? Of course he is. He's not really counting on the new personnel to replace the departed, but rather looking elsewhere to plug those holes in the lineup.
Now, the question is whether guys like Justin Abdelkader, who was so impressive in the playoffs, Darren Helm (out for several weeks with a shoulder injury), Ville Leino and Valtteri Filppula will be able to grow given the opportunities. As always, though, the youngsters the Wings are relying on aren't kids out of junior or with a couple of years of college hockey under their belts. These are players who have cut their teeth at the American Hockey League level and should be ready to take that next step.
4. Do the math
Actually, Holland points out, it's not really about replacing those 88 goals in the lineup, but rather closing the gap between the goals the Wings score and the number of goals they give up. Last season, the Wings scored 295 goals, 38 more than the year before. But they also allowed 244 goals, a whopping 60 more than the previous season. Holland believes if the Wings can improve their goals against, it will take the pressure off having to replace all the goals lost in order to maintain their standing as an elite team. He also points out that a number of his regulars, including Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Cleary and Filppula, saw their goal totals drop last season. He is hopeful those totals will bounce back.
5. King Henrik II
We know Henrik Lundqvist is the king of the New York Rangers, but Zetterberg fulfills a similar capacity with the Red Wings. He was the team's best player two straight postseasons even though his point totals dropped last spring in large part because sidekick Pavel Datsyuk missed considerable time with a foot injury. What remains troubling for Zetterberg and the Wings, however, is the skilled center's durability. He has never played a full 82-game slate in the NHL and missed the early parts of training camp with a bad groin. Holland insisted Zetterberg will be fine and they are loath to use any player, let alone a top player, in preseason situations if there's even a hint of a groin problem. That's smart thinking for a team that will be relying on Zetterberg and Datsyuk even more.
Here's the thing about the Wings: no matter what changes in personnel, the core of this team remains the same and has built a culture of winning. For instance, no team in the conference produced as many wins (37) when scoring first. The Wings were also third in the league in one-goal wins and led the conference in wins when trailing after the second period.
What we're talking about here is perhaps a step back from greatness. For instance, the Wings ranked first in goals per game last season; so even with the changes in personnel, they still boast as formidable an offense as any team in the conference with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom up front and Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom on the back end.
7. That goaltending thing
We would be remiss if we didn't produce the annual question/commentary on the Red Wings' netminding situation. Last season, Chris Osgood struggled and later admitted he might have celebrated the Wings' 2008 Cup win too long and too heartily. But he righted the ship down the stretch and was once again brilliant in the postseason, going 15-8 with a 2.01 GAA and .926 save percentage.
With 31 postseason victories over the past two years, it remains a bit of a mystery how Osgood didn't receive an invite to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp, but that's another story for another day. With the offseason departure of the steady Ty Conklin, Osgood's workload will be interesting to watch, especially now that the Wings will be looking to a youngster as a backup for the first time in years.
At 25, Jimmy Howard isn't really a kid, but he's going to get his chance to prove he's an NHL netminder. Ideally, the Wings would like Osgood to play about 50 games, which means Howard will counted on for roughly 30 games.
If Howard struggles, look for the pressure to build on Holland to add another Conklin-esque netminder before the end of the regular season.
8. Olympic hangover
Perhaps no team suffered as much of an Olympic hangover in 2006 as the Red Wings, who won the Presidents' Trophy, but had no second gear en route to being upset by eighth-seeded Edmonton in the first round. Holland and coach Mike Babcock have talked at length about how to manage the team's assets, factoring in what will again be heavy participation by Wings' personnel in Vancouver.
Top players like Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom, among others, will perhaps see their ice time scaled back at various points in the season to ensure a full tank come playoff time. But Holland acknowledged that plan only works if the team is able to bank some points early in the season and allow secondary players to move into those roles and extra ice time.
9. A scheduling note
Between the start of the new year and the Olympic break, the Red Wings have two separate five-game road trips. Not exactly the best way to rest up before sending half your team off to the Olympic tournament.
10. Olympic exposure
Once again, the Wings will have a bevy of players in action in Vancouver, including Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Filppula, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Holmstrom, Rafalski, possibly Cleary (who has an outside chance to make the Canadian Olympic team) and Swedish defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 51-21-10
• Division: First in the Central
• Conference: Second in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in Stanley Cup finals by Pittsburgh
• Too much transition to keep the Wings at the top of the Central Division, but rest assured, they'll return to the playoffs for the 19th straight season as they'll finish in second behind Chicago.
• This might be Mike Babcock's biggest challenge since joining the Wings for the first post-lockout season in 2005-06.
After going to the finals two straight seasons and winning one championship, Babcock has to juggle a clutch of new additions to his lineup, plus keep a team that will have a significant Olympic presence fresh for the postseason. And, oh yeah, Babcock has to guide the Canadians to a gold medal in Vancouver while he's at it.
Talk about a full plate. But if there's one guy who has the intestinal fortitude to get all those jobs done, it's Babcock.
F -- Pavel Datsyuk
• If he's healthy, he's a 100-point guy, not to mention the game's best two-way forward.
F -- Henrik Zetterberg
• One of the best two-way players in the game. How will the Olympics affect his durability?
F -- Tomas Holmstrom
• The game's most fearless crease-crasher is starting to see his body break down.
D -- Nicklas Lidstrom
• Laying a claim to being the greatest defenseman of all time. Still bringing it at age 39.
D -- Brian Rafalski
• Not a bad one-two punch from the blue line, eh? Will be the cornerstone of the U.S. blue line in Vancouver.
Best Bet: Pavel Datsyuk, F: Plus/minus is one of the more unpredictable fantasy categories, but we still project it because it's equally unpredictable for 99 percent of the league. Then there is Pavel Datsyuk. He has averaged (averaged!) plus-37 for the past three seasons and has averaged a plus-23 for his seven-year NHL career. He is to plus/minus what Alexander Ovechkin is to shots on goal: a significant advantage. Then there is the fact that Datsyuk is also quite the accomplished scorer. His four-year average is 92 points. He won't help you in penalty minutes, but that is Datsyuk's only drawback in fantasy hockey.
Risky Move: Henrik Zetterberg, F: Consider our projection for Zetterberg as the absolute basement for his season. If you are feeling a bit daring, you can bump him up several spots in the rankings. The arguments for leaving him here: He was quite effective as Detroit's second-line center and spreading out the offense really did make the Red Wings a better team last season. The arguments for bumping him up: With Marian Hossa out of town, Zetterberg could easily slide back onto Pavel Datsyuk's line, where he finished the 2007-08 season with 92 points and a plus-30. Zetterberg is a nice, safe second-round pick with first-round upside.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Detroit Red Wings finish this season in Central Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.