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ESPN’s Custance offers five questions/issues whose answers will tell the Red Wings’ 2013 season tale

Updated with two more Wings previews at 12:26 PM: This slightly dippy blogger (early mornings =/= my favorite) stuck NHL.com's Red Wings preview in the overnight report, and this morning's chatter from Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson regarding their injuries, as well as one Pavel Datsyuk's future plans were jammed into the morning skate post, so let's try to change things up with ESPN's Craig Custance's Red Wings preview.

Custance believes that can and probably will remain a playoff team, but he suggests that the Wings face five critical question-mark issues whose answers will determine their 2013 season's fate.

Amongst those questions and/or suppositions:

1. Brendan Smith Needs To Be Ready: When it was clear Lidstrom wasn't coming back, at least there was a strong contingency plan. The Red Wings could make a run at college defensive prospect Justin Schultz and sell him on seizing Lidstrom's lost minutes. Then they would sign free agent Ryan Suter and bring up Smith. Lidstrom is irreplaceable, but that trio would have come pretty close. Instead, Schultz signed with Edmonton and Suter joined the Wild. That leaves Smith. More than ever, they need the longtime prospect not only to play but to contribute significantly. "What they've told me is they want me to be an impact player," Smith told ESPN The Magazine. "They don't want me to fly under the radar and just be another defenseman there. They want me to play minutes and produce. That's what I want."

2. Damien Brunner Is Wild Card: Lighting up the Swiss league isn't a guarantee for success, but Brunner spent time during the lockout building chemistry with Henrik Zetterberg, his teammate with EV Zug. Brunner produced again in a big way this year in Switzerland (25 goals in 33 games) but will have to make the adjustment to the smaller rink and NHL grind. He's got a great shot and will get ice time with some gifted passers.

3. Helm's Health A Must: On a team with stars like Zetterberg and Datsyuk, the contributions of third-line center Darren Helm are often overlooked. But his absence during the playoffs last spring really exposed how crucial he is to the Red Wings' success. Without him, the bottom six is thrown into chaos, and lately the Red Wings have had to find ways to play without him. He is currently recovering from a back injury and has dealt with a wide assortment of injuries in his young career, from lacerated tendons in his arm to a sprained MCL. The Red Wings need his bad injury luck to end.

Continued with discussions about the team's prospects-in-waiting and the significant number of Wings players who remained in Detroit during the lockout, and may or may not be "up to speed" as of yet.

Update: The NHL's posted a teaser for a Wings preview of a different kind, in which coach Mike Babcock and goaltender Jimmy Howard will speak to NHL Live's E.J. Hradek and Bill Pidto. The segment will air on the NHL Network at 5 PM EST, and will be available online sometime afteward:

 

 

 

Update #2: What the hell, why not? The Sports Network (the U.S. version) posted a Central Division preview, and Dan DiScullo has the following to say about the Red Wings:

DETROIT RED WINGS

2011-12 - (3rd, 102 pts); Projected Finish - 4th

REVIEW: The Red Wings were playoff participants for the 21st consecutive season last spring, but the club was bounced out in the first round for the first time since the 2005-06 campaign. Combine that disappointing postseason with Lidstrom's retirement and it turned out to be a humbling offseason for a team that's won four Stanley Cup titles since the mid-1990s.

KEY ADDITION: The Red Wings have seen great deal of Jordin Tootoo since he broke into the league with Nashville in 2003-04 and they obviously liked what they saw, luring the pesky forward from the Predators during free agency. With Tomas Holmstrom joining his countryman Lidstrom in retirement somebody will have to provide a bad attitude up front and Tootoo could fit that bill. One thing Tootoo hasn't shown he can do is put the puck in the net like Holmstrom could. Perhaps, Mikael Samuelsson, a former Red Wing who returned to the team via free agency, can help replace the 10-to-20 goals Holmstrom was good for year in and year out.

X-FACTOR: The year before Lidstrom called it a career, another standout Detroit defenseman -- Brian Rafalski -- also announced his retirement. Adding insult to injury, blueliner Brad Stuart also departed in the offseason for free agency, meaning the once-vaunted Detroit defense is in a serious state of flux. That means Niklas Kronwall needs to show he can be a No. 1 defenseman for Detroit even if reaching the lofty precedent set by Lidstrom is an impossibility. Still, Kronwall had 15 goals and 36 points over 82 games last season and the Red Wings could do a lot worse at the top of their defensive rotation

PROGNOSIS: For the first time in a long while the Red Wings are in danger of missing the playoffs -- something that hasn't happened to the club since the 1989-90 campaign. The good news is the team has one of the league's top coaches in Mike Babcock and a couple of superstar forwards in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who will take over as captain for Lidstrom. If nothing else, Detroit will be interesting to watch this year to see how it handles life without one of the greatest players of his generation.

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.