Detroit Red Wings season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:32 PM ET
ESPN.com

Detroit Red Wings

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Detroit Red Wings used to possess such a swagger that opponents often felt as though they were down a goal from the opening faceoff, home or away. Now, in year two of the new NHL, it appears the Wings are looking at more stagger than swagger, and, in the case of octogenarian defenseman Chris Chelios, just plain totter. We're not suggesting the Red Wings could go from the Presidents' Trophy to out of the playoffs in one swoop, but the decline many thought would begin last season will be in full evidence in 2006-07. Caught between the past and the future, the Wings will struggle to replace the leadership void caused by the retirement of captain Steve Yzerman and the departure of 40-goal man Brendan Shanahan. They will also suffer in goal with the arrival of the enigmatic (some would say cancerous) Dominik Hasek for a third go-round. After three straight disappointing postseason turns, the Wings will start to feel the pinch during the regular season.

Offense: Only Ottawa scored more than Detroit's 305 goals last season and the two teams were the only squads to break the 300-goal barrier. That number is skewed slightly by the fact the Red Wings played 24 games or more than a quarter of their schedule against Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis, three of the worst teams in the NHL. All three promise to be markedly better this season, meaning the offense will decline. Jiri Hudler will likely make an impact after finishing third in AHL scoring last season, but the brunt of the scoring weight now falls to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Robert Lang, who had just 20 goals last season, will have to step up his game to provide scoring depth. Coach Mike Babcock will look to Mikael Samuelsson to build on his breakout 23-goal season, although his production tailed off late in the season. The Wings will also need production from Tomas Holmstrom, who scored 29 times, most from within two inches of the goal line. Babcock can count on lots of help from the back end with defending Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, who led all defensemen with 80 points. Mathieu Schneider is also an undervalued weapon (59 points). The Wings led the league in power-play efficiency last season, but staying at the top of that important category will be difficult given the changes in personnel.

Defense: The Wings' defense has an element of the ridiculous and the sublime with the inexplicable return of Chelios, who will turn 45 in January. Yes, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in February (a mistake as it turns out) and he played very well for a man of his age. But at some point, a team that fancies itself a dynasty needs to cut the ties and allow its young players to develop. Plus, having the sometimes cantankerous Chelios around when things start to go sour might not be the best thing. That said, with players like Lidstrom, Schneider and stud-in-waiting Niklas Kronwall to eat up huge amounts of ice time, Chelios might not have to do more than bang his gloves on the sides of the boards in support. Under Babcock, the Wings play a sound defensive system that is enhanced by the team's terrific discipline. They were third overall in penalty-killing efficiency last season. The addition of hard-hitting Danny Markov gives the Wings a bit more bite on the back end, although he suffered an injury early in camp. The challenge for Babcock is getting ice time for emerging defensemen Andreas Lilja and Brett Lebda.

Goaltending: Such a cliché but, it does all come down to goaltending. And in Detroit, imagine that the goaltending situation is a giant powder keg and the fuse will be lit when the puck drops on Oct. 5. Does Hasek have enough magic left in his tank to prevent what many believe is an inevitable combustion in Motown? If history is any indication, the answer is no. Hamstrung by cap issues, GM Ken Holland found himself in the unenviable position of having to turn the goaltending reins over to Hasek, who was last seen pulling the chute on the Wings early in the 2003-04. Last season, Hasek looked like his former self for 43 games in Ottawa before coming up lame at the Olympics. His 2.09 GAA and .925 save percentage put him among the league leaders at the time of his injury. But Hasek not only didn't play again, he also became a significant distraction during the playoffs when he couldn't answer the bell. His Ottawa teammates weren't sorry to see him go, just as his Detroit teammates weren't sorry to see him go last time. When (if?) Hasek goes down, the chores will go to Chris Osgood, who once won a Cup as the Red Wings' starting netminder.

Coaching: Babcock has followed the same pattern as his predecessor Dave Lewis -- dominate the regular season and spit the bit in the playoffs. Last season, the Wings won the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season team only to lose in six games to eighth-seeded Edmonton. Babcock's challenge is to somehow replicate the regular-season success while getting his team to find another gear in the playoffs. He'll also have to find some new leaders in the dressing room. In some ways, that might be the best thing for Babcock and the team, giving players the kinds of challenges they haven't had to face with players like Yzerman and Shanahan to shoulder the load.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
7th It's not quite falling off the map, but the Red Wings will be supplanted in the Central by Nashville, falling to seventh in the conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Even
Stock even. Hey, it's Hockeytown. And in a town where the media gives the Red Wings a free pass (for the most part), optimism will remain high.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
So what if goalie Dominik Hasek 41 and is the biggest injury risk in the game? When healthy, he's a top 5 fantasy talent. With perhaps the game's deepest defensive corps in front of him, he's going to excel for both you and Detroit. Don't be afraid of Hasek in your drafts, but if you get him, backup Chris Osgood is an essential handcuff. Brendan Shanahan's departure also create new opportunities in the offense and Jason Williams is the best bet to earn much of their power-play time. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Red Wings:
1. Jiri Hudler, 22, LW, Grand Rapids (AHL)
Statline: 76 GP, 36 G, 60 A, 56 PIM
2. Jimmy Howard, 22, G, Grand Rapids (AHL)
Statline: 27-6-2 record, 2.58 GAA, .910 SV%
3. Valtteri Filppula, 22, C, Grand Rapids (AHL)
Statline: 74 GP, 20 G, 50 A, 30 PIM
4. Igor Grigorenko, 23, RW, Cherepovets
Statline: 50 GP, 13 G, 21 A, 26 PIM
5. Jakub Kindl, 19, D, Kitchener (OHL)
Statline: 60 GP, 12 G, 46 A, 112 PIM
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Detroit Red Wings
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record58-16-8 (124 points)
DivisionFinished first in Central
ConferenceFinished first in West
PlayoffsLost 4-2 to Edmonton in first round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Pavel Datsyuk
This gifted offensive player will have to bounce back after a disappointing postseason in which he failed to score.
Winger: Henrik Zetterberg
Comparisons to Peter Forsberg are apt. Now, it's time to see if he can assume a leadership role, a la Forsberg.
Defense: Niklas Kronwall
Kronwall has the tools to ensure that the Norris Trophy takes up a permanent residence in Detroit.
Goalie: Dominik Hasek
Can the old leopard change his spots? Doubtful, which means the Wings' goaltending situation will be in a constant state of flux.

Key Moves
Manny Legace was fitted with the goat horns after the Wings' first-round loss and cut loose. The position now becomes the team's biggest question mark. Markov will bring much-needed toughness on the back end.

SportsNation
Rating the Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings finished first in the Western Conference and had the best record in the NHL last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Red Wings in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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