Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 09/24/07 at 01:13 PM ET
by George James Malik
It’s that time of year again—time to prognosticate and make grandiose claims about a team’s potential successes or failures based upon a few exhibition games, last season’s performance, and a “gut feeling” or five. Woo, yeah, party!
Seriously, Dave over at Gorillacrouch.com has kindly invited various bloggers from the Central Division to do team previews of the clubs they cover, and Bill (Mr. Abel to Yzerman), Christy Hammond (Behind the Jersey), John and Steve (Gloveside.net), Matt Saler, (On the Wings), and Dave himself have chosen this particular Monday to bombard you with all the Wings preview-y goodness that you can take.
The Detroit Red Wings proved a lot of doubters wrong during the 06-07 season, from those “sage” (read: smarmy) media types who were predicting that this would finally be the year that old age caught up to the team, those who questioned Ken Holland’s sanity for signing Dominik “the Groininator” Hasek, people who questioned whether Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk could lead, and many Red Wings fans, who rightfully questioned whether the current Wings could really make a sustained push deep into the playoffs.
The Red Wings tied for the President’s Trophy, despite a surprisingly mediocre record against the so-called “slam dunk point” Central Division (sans the Predators, anyway), and a team that successively lost Niklas Kronwall, Mathieu Schneider, and, effectively, Todd Bertuzzi as the rounds progressed proved that they were more up to the physical challenge that Calgary posed, the balanced and supposedly unstoppable offensive force and defensive grind of the San Jose Sharks, and the Wings were a few missed opportunities from taking the Anaheim Ducks, who won their series, in my opinion, because the Red Wings’ power play couldn’t convert when it was needed most. Even when the team was down on its luck in Game 6, the boys mounted a furious comeback that nearly forced a seventh game…
Nearly doesn’t count, regrettably, so the Red Wings returned home about three weeks earlier than they’d planned, and they returned both rejuvenated from a long run, despite their bumps and bruises, and pissed off—angry because their tremendous show of desire, will, grit, guts, and determination stopped just short of a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Adding insult to injury, the Ducks not only won the Stanley Cup, but also swiped Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider from the Red Wings on July 1st by throwing more money and term than was sensible or sane for a team with Henrik Zetterberg to re-sign sometime in 2008 to throw around, especially given Bertuzzi and Schneider’s issues with injuries.
The Red Wings signed a slightly younger and more durable version of Schneider—without the cannon shot—in Brian Rafalski, but other than re-signing Dominik Hasek, whose agent screwed his client by taking the Wings for a long walk through an uncertain July—a period of uncertainty that tied Ken Holland’s hands in the free agent market—and the Wings went for the “goon who can play ten minutes a game” in the supremely gritty and slightly dirty specimen that is Dallas Drake, but the bottom line is the bottom line:
Between March and August of 2007, the Red Wings lost Jason Williams, Robert Lang, Kyle Calder, Todd Bertuzzi, Mathieu Schneider, Danny Markov, and depth players who earned a few shifts with the big club in Joey MacDonald, Brad Norton, Matt Hussey, Darryl Bootland, and Josh Langfeld.
The Red Wings’ answer to all these losses, other than Drake and Rafalski? “Let’s see what our kids can do,” which is always a risky proposition.
Clearly, if there are any men in the room who still can’t stand Mike Babcock, they’ve made their peace with the hyperactive control freak with his own form of English, Babblespeak, who I at least find fascinating. Shanahan and Schneider especially were good team guys, but they didn’t like playing for a man who, should you score two goals and star in the previous night’s game, told you at the next day’s practice that you had to earn your right to play all over again. Some people don’t like the fact that Babcock so rarely plays favourites, but, save his tendency to rely on the same damn lines no matter what, I think the man’s got a point—even Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk have to do the little things right, have to be defensively sound, and play within the Wings’ regimented system of aggressive forechecking, diligent, “keep ‘em to the outside and block shots” backchecking system, and their carry-it-or-chase-it break-out, or they sit. You don’t earn extra ice time without doing something with the time you have, and that’s an excellent thing. There is no caste system, even for the leaders and superstars, and while Babcock inserts a few human flaws here and there, all the complacency that snuck in during the Bowman years, and reared its ugly head under Dave Lewis, has been purged from the locker room, where “preparation” and “being professional” are what it’s all about.
In saying that, this Babcockian team will lean hard on its leaders to mentor what has become an effective “youth movement” along, and its success is predicated upon the concept that its kids really are ready to step up.
The concerns remain the same—power-play and penalty-killing efficiency, the stars’ tendency to try and make the artistically or aesthetically pleasing play when sustained possession and control of the puck in the offensive zone trumps one-man plays every time, those artistes’ attention spans, and depth, depth, depth—but the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by both the team’s veterans and its newly depended-upon youngsters, who seem extremely determined to not only prove their regular-season doubters wrong once again, to add even more speed to both the chip-and-chase forecheck, grit and grind to the defensive side of things, and savvy to their puck-possession game, and to get back into the playoffs to earn some redemption by finishing the job all speak well for a team that should have no significant difficulties reaching 50 wins and 110+ points again.
Offensively speaking, the lines are as follows, and it looks like McLellan and Babcock will stick to these for a while:
It’s early yet, but, in the pre-season, the Datsyuk and Zetterberg lines have been dominant.
Tomas Holmstrom’s ability to retrieve the puck near the crease and along the boards is what enables Datsyuk to dipsy-doodle and dangle, because he knows Homer will get the puck back for him—I’d argue that the Red Wings’ biggest long-term need is to groom someone like Matt Ellis to succeed Holmstrom in the puck-retrieval role, if only for redundancy’s sake—and Franzen’s surprising ability to push defenders back with his speed and strength allow him to play the high man’s role efficiently, darting in and out of traffic to lurk for rebounds and make room for Holmstrom and Datsyuk to go about their puck-possession game. Datsyuk, obviously, is supremely talented, but it’s his grit along the wall and sterling defensive game that surprise his detractors—as it turns out, that Russian can really, really backcheck.
Samuelsson and Hudler have had and will have their ups and downs as both are streaky players whose defence can be questionable, but putting a meat-and-potatoes centre like Zetterberg in the middle allows the two wingers to switch off as forecheckers, crease-encroaching, shot-tipping pests, or lurking, stealthy snipers with surprisingly good one-timers while Zetterberg powers his way up and down the ice, and is the “go” in the “give and go” style this line employs. There’s no guarantee that Hudler or Samuelsson will post 30-goal seasons, nor is it guaranteed that either will effectively address their sometimes-suspect defensive games, but Zetterberg’s work ethic will fill in the gaps, and he’ll push his line-mates to become better all-round players.
I really like the concept of making Draper a winger for Filppula, because Fil still has a tendency to out-skate his wingers, and, sometimes, even himself, so Draper finally gives Fil someone who can keep up and provide a high-speed outlet. The entire line is extremely responsible defensively, they have a speedy transition game that the top two lines can’t keep up with, and Cleary and Draper can both muck and grind with the best of them, allowing the other player to play in a more offensive role. Cleary is what makes this line work, however, because he provides that net-front presence and sneaky snap shot that accentuates Filppula and Draper’s solid all-round game with some blue-collar offensive jam.
As for the fourth line, bringing in Dallas Drake may have been the best thing to happen to Kirk Maltby in a long time, because Malts has looked lost since the lockout, and Drake provides a model as to how one can effectively play physical hockey without the tugs and pulls that made Maltby a pre-eminent pre-lockout pest, and Maltby is smart enough to also pick up on the “how not-to” example set by Drake’s sometimes penalty-prone “over-enthusiasm.” Drake is supremely dirty, and his style of play leads to as many concerns about durability as are attached to Hasek and his troublesome groin, but he keeps the opposition honest, while Maltby is the forechecker supreme…And while Kopecky may not be a face-off king, I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people with a high level of proficiency as a defensive, gritty pivot. The fact that his line-mates are so seasoned that they’ll bail out his mistakes helps, but the big-shouldered Slovak already plays like a power forward sans some “finishing” skills, and he’s going to push people around while lumbering up and down the ice.
The defensive pairs are slightly more likely to be switched up depending on Paul MacLean’s whims:
I’m genuinely unsure as to how Lidstrom and Rafalski will pan out. Rafalski, theoretically, will be the “fall back” guy who will allow Lidstrom to take offensive chances while providing a right-handed outlet for the man whose ability to control the game when the puck’s on his stick cannot be denied, but much of Rafalski’s Lidstrom-like steadiness is predicated upon his ability to anticipate plays instead of reacting to them, and Rafalski has yet to acclimate to the Western Conference and its forwards’ tendencies. I fully expect him to struggle somewhat in the first few months of the season, before becoming a rock-solid and offensively savvy compliment to whoever he’s partnered with, a complimentary outlet pass if he sticks with Nick, and proof positive that Murphy-esque wrist shots are just as effective at generating offence as Lidstrom’s rifleman’s slappers.
As for Lidstrom, Lidstrom merits his own paragraph, at least. The man’s not quite as fast as he used to be, but the Red Wings’ Captain—with a capital “C”—is one of the best defencemen to ever play the game. Lidstrom will likely pace the Wings’ defence in points, utilizing that cannon shot and commanding break-out pass to anchor the Wings’ puck-possession game, and his sweep-checking stick will break up endless plays and block dozens of shots in the Wings’ end as he and Kris Draper once again form the backbone of the Wings’ penalty-killing unit. When the puck is on Lidstrom’s stick, he is the fulcrum upon which the game turns, and I hope that Chris Chelios pushes Lidstrom, and pushes him hard, to play at least until the durable defender is 40.
The second pair is a smart one, plain old smart. Andreas Lilja had the fear of Gord kicked into him when he was rendered redundant during the regular season, only to step up and play some really rejuvenated hockey in the playoffs—the kind of hockey that he played during his first year with the Wings—and he’s going to need every bit of that positional prowess and bail-em’-out grit to be paired up with a defenceman who has yet to establish his game in Kronwall. There’s no doubt that Niklas Kronwall is supremely talented—he sees the ice extremely well, he can spring players with his aggressive passing skills, he’s got a rocket from the point, and he actually skates nearly as fast as Filppula and Draper do—but he’s not sure whether he’s a positionally sound defenceman who can lay players out with vicious body-checks, or whether he’s a roving puck-rusher who can beat his net-crashing teammates to the lip of the crease. Kronwall needs to stay healthy to not only establish an on-ice comfort level and some confidence, but also his on-ice identity, and if he is to switch between the body-checker and the Coffey-style rover, he needs to learn when switching roles is safe, and when it’s silly. That’s why pairing him with Lilja makes so much sense.
I think that the third pair has the most potential—assuming that Brett Lebda steps up. Chris Chelios got a sniff of a long playoff run, and it’s put another half-a-step into his 45-year-old legs. Cheli can play rock-steady defence like few others, ticking off his opponents all the way, but he’s got his eye on some power play time after effectively filling in for Schneider during the playoffs, and I think Babcock, McLellan, and MacLean will definitely give him a look or two on the PP from time to time. His specialty is still penalty-killing, but he’s going to reinvent himself by adding a bit more offence to his game…and that’s where Lebda comes in. If Lebda is willing to embrace his ability to be a linebacker on skates, using that fireplug’s body of his to scamper up ice with the puck on his stick, find breaking forwards with saucer passes, and snap sneaky wristers on the net—a la Rafalski, another player who can score goals despite not having a shot that can break a pane of glass—Lebda can become a player with solid offence to compliment his solid, if streaky, defensive skills, but if he’s not ready to step up, I honestly think that it’s entirely possible that one of the Wings’ bubble boys on defence will supplant Lebda, or he’ll be traded to a team that’s looking at his positives and is willing to embrace his inconsistent effort on a night-to-night and period-by-period basis. The Red Wings have players who can take better care of their own end while only subtracting some of Lebda’s offensive skills, and if Lebda doesn’t emulate his partner’s rock-steady status in his own end while pursuing some consistent offensive contributions, he may not have a job.
I’m one of about three people that is simply not concerned with Dominik Hasek’s health issues. Much of the trouble with Dom and his wonky groin stemmed from the fact that the guy with a “Slinky for a spine” believed that it was perfectly healthy to show up ten minutes before warm-ups, and to leave without properly tending to his in-game aches and pains. The guy is “he’s going to be fifteen minutes late for his own funeral” lateness personified, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with Hasek’s batty, flighty personality. The man’s both genius, flake, and nut-job, but the Red Wings have called him on his “nut who can stop a puck” routine by requiring him to come in 40-60 minutes before practices to do a rigorous routine of stretching and massage therapy to keep that troublesome groin in check, more like 60-70 minutes before pre-game warm-ups, and he has to repeat the routine after games to keep him limber. He won’t play on back-to-back nights until late in the season, he won’t sub for Osgood until the end of a period, and if the Wings feel that either of their goaltenders are overworked, Howard or Berkhoel will be summed from Grand Rapids.
In the net, Hasek tempers his heart-stopping puck-handling and “I’m going to rush the puck-rusher” lunges with a more nuanced style of goaltending than he previously employed. He’s still a flopper and a flopper at heart, but his pad-stacks and stand-up saves have eliminated the, “Skate left, to right, let Hasek drop, and pump the puck over his weak blocker” goal, and he’s more square to shooters for rebounds because he moves less and lets his positioning do more. He’s still nuts, but the fact that he can so deftly move the puck back to his defenders reduces the need for in-zone faceoffs, and when his high-risk style does bite him in the butt, he gets angry, and when he gets angry, he shuts opponents down completely. At 42, he is still an intimidating goaltender whose mere presence in the net makes shooters double-clutch.
Chris Osgood’s positional improvements under Wings coach Jim Bedard have gone largely unnoticed during Hasek’s resurgence. As Osgood gets more starts this season—perhaps as many as 25-30 games—the fact that he’s much less likely to let weak rebound goals squeak through will become apparent. While he’s not necessarily as quick as he used to be, Osgood was once a “pure athlete” goalie who more or less fought the puck out of the net with the determination of a bulldog, and he expended a tremendous amount of effort in doing so. Now he’s more patient, he squares up to shooters, and while he still flops and flails with his blocker turned backward on occasion, he’s much more likely to use a disciplined butterfly style with controlled, conservative movements that accentuate his ability to all but absorb pucks into his body…and when that fails, he’s still got that great glove hand.
Howard will get a few looks as he’s being groomed as the “next one”—and the first in-house goaltender successfully developed since Osgood—and, if his pre-season work is any indication, he’s a different goalie than he used to be. When Howard first broke into the league as an injury replacement in 2005-2006, when Niklas Kronwall broke his ankle in LA, Howard was, like Osgood, a “pure athlete,” and that meant that he bit on every deke, flopping and flailing like the octopus on his helmet, regardless of whether a forward toe-dragged the puck or simply dropped a shoulder. The “newer” and “lighter” Howard no longer wears his leg pads like a teenage boy wears his pants—baggy and loose—and he’s replaced much of his diving lunges with a style that conserves momentum and wastes nary a skate shuffle. His confidence is still lacking at times, but he’s learning the measured patience which outlasts and athleticism, and he’s extremely driven to prove to the Wings’ management that he’ll be ready to make the jump to the NHL in the 08-09 season.
If Howard’s not coming up, Adam Berkhoel is a capable reliever, if you will, but he’s still learning the patience that Howard seems to have mastered.
The Bubble Boys…
The Red Wings lost some competent NHL substitutes in Matt Hussey, Josh Langfeld, and Derek Bootland, so while the fast-and-furious competition for the 13th forward’s spot is drawing press like nobody’s business right now, I believe that the biggest question this season (other than the ever-present “we need a true power forward and a centre”) is whether the Wings have the depth up front to carry them through the worst-case, “We need a line and a half” injury scenario. I don’t just mean (alphabetically) Cullen, Ellis, Grigorenko, or Hartigan, but also Corazzini, Engelhardt, McGrath, and Oulahen, who may be counted upon to help the big club out in a pinch. Ericsson, Meech, and Quincey would have NHL jobs on other clubs, Ference is serviceable in a pinch, and Kindl is at least chomping at the bit to play a few games in the NHL, so I think the Wings are fine defensively, and, should the unthinkable happen, Howard and Berkhoel would be OK as a tandem for a game or five, but it’s that up front element that worries me the most.
As to who I think will win the battle up front, who will become the Wings’ seventh defenceman, whether Grigorenko will go home, and who will win the try-out battle? I’ll only answer the last question; the rest will be answered in my player-by-player summaries.
As far as Sopel and Downey are concerned, there’s no denying that Sopel is an NHL defenceman with good offensive capabilities, particularly a heavy shot and superb passing skills—that, and for a 6’1,” 200-lb. guy, he’s extremely gangly, and has the “wingspan” and intimidation factors of a much larger man—but he’s just not taking care of his own end in a manner which the Red Wings would prefer. Sopel will always be a guy from whom the puck can be stripped with relative ease, and a guy who tends to get lost in his own end, and I just don’t think that he can unseat either Lebda or Lilja at this point. There are still five more exhibition games, however, so it’s far too premature to write him off.
The same could be said for my assessment of Downey. There’s no denying that he’s a formidable fighter, keeps opponents honest, and he’s certainly capable of playing eight to ten minutes on the fourth line—unlike Brad Norton, no offence intended—but I don’t see his presence unseating the intrigue the Wings’ brass have with the other forwards who are vying for spots with the big club.
The Wings’ inability to score on the PP was the reason the Ducks got away with their physical liberties in the playoffs, and the Red Wings desperately need to train two forwards not named Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg how to stand in front of the net and retrieve pucks like Tomas Holmstrom does, because the Wings’ power play is a point-driven one, and a point-driven power play works when your forwards get to rebounds to set up a cycle down low. Otherwise, it’s shot-and-clear, shot-and-clear, and Wings fans have seen that happen far too often for their liking over the past two seasons.
Despite the fact that the Red Wings have some of the best penalty-killers in the game in Draper, Maltby, Franzen, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Lilja, Chelios, and now Rafalski, there’s still a tendency for the diamond to bunch up around the crease and allow a late man to sneak in behind them, take a pass from the side of the net, and rifle a shot into the top shelf. McLellan and MacLean need to encourage one man to stay high in the diamond, even when it collapses around the goaltender, to prevent those ugly goals where four Red Wings are standing, collectively, ten feet away from their goaltender, but the puck seems to find the back of the net anyway.
Player by player
11 Dan Cleary—Cleary will continue to grow as an offensive player, and he’ll produce more consistently. He should at least match his 20-20-40 point totals. He’ll probably miss 10-15 games with injuries due to his hard-hitting style of play.
13 Pavel Datsyuk—Datsyuk will dominate. 80+ points, 35 goals, and enough highlight reel material to keep YouTube going single-handedly. He’ll also get significant time on the PK, and will do a good job as a penalty-killer. Expect him and Chelios to share the “A” when any of the Captain or the two assistant/alternate captains are out.
17 Dallas Drake—Drake will only play in 50-60 games, he’ll get suspended once, he’ll grind the hell out of the opposition, provide the forechecking example for Kopecky and Maltby to follow, and he’ll be the main participant in the two fights that will warm the hearts of the fans who swear that the Wings should bring Bob Probert out of retirement.
33 “A” Kris Draper—Draper will get at least 15 goals and will provide Valtteri Filppula the “turn and burn” partner he needs while anchoring the Wings’ PK and reprising his role as the Red Wings’ “player/assistant coach” and strategic general on ice.
51 Valtteri Filppula—This isn’t Flip’s year to score 20 goals and put up 60-70 points. This will be an “intermediate” year where he’ll put up about 40 points and will learn to become a competent two-way forward who will get some time on the Wings’ special teams as he grows into a bigger role. He’ll wear a letter a few years down the line.
93 Johan Franzen—The Mule might put up a 20-goal, 50-point season, or he may head back down to the third or fourth line, but he’ll work his butt off on every shift and will barrel his way through guys, leaving nothing but heart, determination, and a little blood here and there on the ice.
96 Tomas Holmstrom—Homer will drive goalies to distraction, retrieve, deflect, and jam home pucks with ease, and he’ll score at least 20 goals while being on the ice and/or one of the main contributors, assists or no assists, for at least 50 goals, at both even strength and on the power play. He’d be wise to not be a stupid-head and continue wearing a visor during games, because Pronger’s ability to knock Homer out by literally knocking him out will embolden defencemen to see whether swatting at his chest will spook him.
26 Jiri Hudler—Hudler will learn to play with consistent effort, he’ll forecheck and slide through defencemen in “stealth” mode at times, while barreling through and standing fearlessly up to defencemen who’re a foot taller than he is in scrums and scraps. He’ll at least match his rookie point totals.
82 Tomas Kopecky—Kopecky will encounter some ups and downs as he becomes the Wings’ fourth line centre, and he may in fact be swapped off to the wing, but his ability to use his big body and dominate along the wall will more than compensate for his learning curve in terms of both faceoffs and the prodigious amounts of skating and positioning involved in playing up the middle.
18 Kirk Maltby—Maltby will be spurned by Drake’s intensity to establish himself as a post-lockout pest. Maltby appreciates his status as a Red Wing and a fan favourite, and he’ll make sure to re-earn their adulation this year.
37 Mikael Samuelsson—Sammy will break the 20-goal barrier again, and he’ll prove himself to be a competent top-six forward while instigating the occasional skirmish with his surprisingly nasty streak.
40 “A” Henrik Zetterberg—As long as he can stay healthy and take care of his back, Zetterberg will provide a blue-collar work ethic that will belie his tremendous skill level while earning every millisecond of his ice time on the power play, penalty kill, and even strength, joining Datsyuk in the 20+ minute club and leading the Red Wings with more confidence in his status as a man with a letter on his sweater, all while battling Datsyuk for the team points lead.
Perimeter Player Forwards:
29 Matt Cullen—Call-up. Cullen does nothing spectacular, but everything reasonably well. He’ll get a few looks.
8 Matt Ellis—It’s too early in the pre-season to say for certain—especially as I’m the guy who thought that Blake Sloan outplayed Dan Cleary in 2005-2006—whether he’ll earn a spot, but Ellis’ willingness to embrace his role as a fourth-line forward doing “dirty work,” in addition to his ability to cycle the puck and generate some Holmstrom-esque offence, give him my nod as the forward most likely to stick, at least initially.
44 Mark Hartigan—Hartigan has an offensive element to his game that Ellis lacks, and he’s bigger, stronger, and a better skater than anyone gives him credit for, so it’s entirely possible that he may win the last spot, be claimed on waivers, and/or earn a spot later in the season, but I place him one skate’s length behind Ellis for the final spot as of September 24th.
21 Igor Grigorenko—I must protest the comment from Ted Kulfan that the Sovsport article I posted on MLive was “made up”—Sovsport is relatively reliable in comparison to Sport-Express—but a combination of language issues, learning to deal with both the pace of the game, the geometry of an 85"x200” rink, where all the spaces for a 100"x200” lurker are gone, and the strength to deal with the pushing and shoving that Grigorenko clearly does not yet have suggest that he’ll at least start the season in Grand Rapids. He still has more than enough skill to fulfill the promise he holds, as well as, and perhaps moreover, to make up for his skating, but the best thing for Grigorenko—should he have the patience to do so—is to ask the Wings to hire him a full-time interpreter, go to Grand Rapids for a month, and get adjusted to North American hockey, both on and off the ice. Patience, not panic, nor “I told you so” BS, will save both Grigorenko and Wings fans a lot of grief, because what he’s going through right now is perfectly normal, given his situation.
20 Aaron Downey—Downey is a good fighter and a solid 4th-line player, but I don’t see him unseating Ellis or Hartigan at this point. It is only Monday, however, and things have a funny way of changing when there are five exhibition games left.
24 Chris Chelios—Chelios will continue to drive opponents nuts while playing dirty, gritty, rock-solid hockey as a defensive defenceman and on-ice leader—a la Kris Draper, Chelios is as much a playing coach as he is a player—and the long run in the playoffs will put a spring back in his step and an edge to his offensive game that will keep his “give me some power play time” grumbles in Babcock’s ear constantly. Babcock may actually have to relent.
55 Niklas Kronwall—Assuming that he stays relatively healthy, this will be the year where Kronwall really establishes himself as an NHL defenceman. He’ll make stupid mistakes and will be ridiculously out-of-position at times, and may drive Wings fans nuts with high-risk plays that result in giveaways and odd-man rushes going the other way, but he’s also going to wow you with vicious bodychecks, savvy passes, and a few big goals. He’s going to go through on-ice growing pains, but that’s exactly what he needs to do right now.
22 Brett Lebda—Lebda, as much as Lilja, has his job on the line. Lebda can be a tremendous puck-rusher whose defensive game is solid, slightly physical, and positionally smart, but he has a tendency to put up an inconsistent effort on a night-to-night basis, and his desire to create offence can compromise his defensive game via ill-advised pinches or complicated, fancy passes, so he’s got to solidify himself at both ends of the ice if he is to become anything more than a third-pair guy with some offensive up-side.
5 Nicklas Lidstrom—10+ goals, 60+ points, he’ll be a consummate Captain and leader, he’ll anchor the PP and PK, and he’ll at least be in the running for Norris #6. He’s Nick Lidstrom.
3 Andreas Lilja—Lilja played very well in the playoffs, exhibiting more of a physical edge, defensive simplicity, and offensive aplomb—the kind of skill, grit, and heart that earned him a 2-year contract—but he’s got to repeat his performance over the better part of 80 games to keep his job. This is the year where he can step into Danny Markov’s shoes, but it’s up to him to prove he deserves 20+ minutes a night—while bailing out Niklas Kronwall when the kid makes mistakes.
28 Brian Rafalski—Rafalski will have ups and downs in the first half of the season, as he acclimates to the Western Conference’s teams and the heavy travel involved with being a Western Conference team based in the Eastern Time Zone, but once he adapts, I fully expect him to show the Wings and us fans why he’s worth $6 million a season as a steady-Freddie defenceman who has the offensive skills of a power-play QB.
Perimeter Player Defencemen:
32 Brad Ference—He’ll get a look or two, but he’s not consistent enough to stick at this point.
52 Jonathan Ericsson—The big man will dazzle—and will make some silly mistakes—while showing flashes of his top-four skill and physical bite.
28 Derek Meech—Meech is the most NHL-ready of the Wings’ defencemen, and if the fact that he has to clear waivers to be sent down doesn’t win him the spot outright, the fact that he’s shown up to camp at an NHL fitness level, and can play as a rock-solid, no-frills defenceman with the ability to bump and grind when necessary should earn him the seventh defenceman’s spot.
4 Kyle Quincey—Quincey certainly has all the tools to play in the NHL, but, given the choice between spot duty and putting him down in Grand Rapids, where Quincey could anchor the Griffins’ defence, dominate physically, and re-develop the offensive savvy he showed in the OHL while playing 25-30 minutes a night, the Wings’ brass will send him down to lead the Griffins. He’ll get a few call-up opportunities.
75 Brent Sopel—Sopel is a top-six defenceman, and, as such, he needs to prove that he’s better than either Brett Lebda or Andreas Lilja in the next five exhibition games to win a spot with the Wings. He’s got proven offensive skills as both a puck-mover and right-handed shooter on the power play, he can head-man offensive rushes via his break-out passes, he sees the ice well, and he plays much larger than his 6’1” size because of his long arms and legs, but he has to prove to the Wings’ coaching staff that he can overcome his tendency to “get lost” in his own end and make high-risk plays when simple ones will do. If he can’t do that, he’ll certainly find an NHL job somewhere else, but he won’t stick with Detroit.
39 Dominik Hasek—Hasek should play his usual 50-some games, get nearly 30 wins, and drive Red Wings fans crazy with every diving poke check, wander out of the net to handle the puck, and extra second spent down on the ice after play. He’ll continue to bend the laws of space, time, and groins by playing at an elite level. Knock on wood.
30 Chris Osgood—Osgood’s fighting for his job to some extent, because Howard will give him a good push, but he’s likely to remain a Red Wing for the rest of his career. Osgood will provide a capable and competent back-up while continuing to refine his skills as a technically better and better goalie with each and every practice.
35 Jimmy Howard—Howard will take the bull by the horns, and the man nicknamed “Moose” for his once-pudgy size will ride a higher fitness level and a much-refined netminding toolbox to a successful season in the AHL, and a few promising games as a call-up or practice caddy when the Wings face the most intense parts of their schedule, with lots of travel and back-to-back games.
Prediction: I’m technically in the business of making predictions, but as to the Wings’ fate, and the real and honest outcomes for their players, well…Ask me next June. Subjectively, I believe that the Red Wings should finish in the top half of the West, despite what will constitute “surprising” competition from the Blues and Predators to most people, and I believe that, especially if Kenny Holland can strengthen the team in the middle of the season with a power forward and/or centre (NO Horseface Forsberg, please), the Wings can make a couple-round dent in the playoffs, but that’s as specific as I’ll get.
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