Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock spent last summer doing what he always does -- jotting down line combinations and defense pairings on napkins while enjoying time with his family at their lake house in Saskatchewan. As always, Babcock's stomach churns with nervous energy and excitement when he thinks about the upcoming NHL season.
"I'm scared to death," he told NHL.com. "I'm always scared to death in the summer."
He had more reason to be scared this past summer than any other since he took over in Detroit. For the first time in seven years, Babcock couldn't write down the name Nicklas Lidstrom on his array of napkins.
Lidstrom announced his retirement early in the offseason, ending a decorated playing career that includes winning the Stanley Cup four times and the Norris Trophy seven times. Lidstrom, who is now a scout for the Red Wings, leaves a considerable hole on Babcock's lineup card, one the coach knows is impossible to fill.
"Nick Lidstrom is like a security blanket -- he just makes you feel good," Babcock said. "When he leaves, like when Stevie [Yzerman] left, it makes you uneasy. But what's the matter with change? Embrace it. Get the old adrenaline pumping and let's go."
As scared as he is, Babcock's adrenaline is pumping and his excitement for this season's edition of the Red Wings is high because he wants to see which players will step up and emerge as leaders and go-to guys in the absence of arguably the greatest defenseman in a generation or more.
"We can't replace him. We're not trying to replace him -- his quiet confidence and his ability to coach the coach, to run the team with no ego," Babcock said. "But Henrik Zetterberg, [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Niklas] Kronwall, they're not slouches. They were watching Stevie, and now they got a chance to watch Nick. It's important when you get your turn you embrace it."
Babcock's finger will immediately point at Kronwall as the guy on the defensive side who has to take over and be the new No. 1 in front of All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard. Jonas Gustavsson will be Howard's new backup.
Kronwall was a No. 3 until Brian Rafalski retired after the 2010-11 season. He moved up to No. 2 last season, but with Lidstrom now in the front office, the 31-year-old known for his pulverizing body checks will be counted on to be the steadiest of Detroit's defensemen.
To help replace Brad Stuart, who is now with the San Jose Sharks, the Red Wings signed Carlo Colaiacovo to join the defense corps of Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, Kyle Quincey, Jakub Kindl and rookie Brendan Smith.
"It's their chance now," Wings vice president and assistant general manager Jim Nill told NHL.com.
Lidstrom's departure obviously has no bearing on the Red Wings' high-end talent up front. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula return to lead a talented group of forwards, but Babcock knows for the Red Wings to be at their best, their depth forwards have to take another step forward this season.
Tomas Holmstrom, a leader for years in Detroit, is retiring and won't be back -- much to the relief of goaltenders around the League who tried to keep him out of their crease. Babcock will look to Darren Helm, Justin Abedelkader and Danny Cleary. He sees them as being just as important to the Red Wings' overall success as Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
Detroit won six of the 14 regular-season games Helm missed last season because of injury. The Red Wings won 42 of the 68 games he played in -- and Helm produced only 26 points. Helm got hurt in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals and couldn't return in the series. The Nashville Predators defeated Detroit in five games.
"Datsyuk and Zetterberg drive the team, but Helm is one of the drivers and that's what makes him an X-factor," Babcock said.
Abdelkader, who will probably start the season as a fourth-line center, could wind up being a third-line wing because Babcock wants to get him as much ice time as possible. He had 22 points in 81 games last season.
Cleary, who is 33, spent this past summer rehabbing a bad knee, and Babcock said Cleary has told him he will be healthy. Cleary had 12 goals and 33 points last season after putting up 26 goals and 46 points in 2010-11.
"The reason he had a poor year is he was hurt all year," Babcock said. "He tried to fight through it, but he needs to skate, and for the first time in his career he played light. When you're playing on one leg you're easy to knock down."
The Red Wings will try to introduce a third tier of forwards this season -- the prospects.
Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and 26-year-old Swiss transplant Damien Brunner will have a chance to make the club at training camp. It's unlikely all three do considering the depth at forward, which includes new additions Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo.
"These jobs are up for grabs, and you gotta grab a job," Babcock said. "I don't decide. I watch the games and if you're good you play, and if you're not you don't play. I want to win. That's it."
For the first time in 20 seasons, the Red Wings will try to win without Lidstrom. They have the pieces in place to remain a Stanley Cup contender, to make the playoffs for the 22nd straight season, but it would appear that Babcock's fears finally have some substance.
The Red Wings might finally be vulnerable.
"You gotta get in the tournament at the end, and I'm excited about our group," Babcock said. "But it's like anything, when things change it makes you uneasy."
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