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Lidstrom's return keeps Wings a Cup contender

Sunday, 09.25.2011 / 12:01 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 15

By Brian Hedger - NHL.com Correspondent

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Lidstrom's return keeps Wings a Cup contender
The Red Wings lost a few key veterans, but the return of others, including Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, should keep Detroit a Stanley Cup contender.
What a difference a Norris Trophy makes.

After the 2009-10 season, a growing contingent of people in Detroit thought legendary Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom should retire. They changed their tune in a hurry last season, as the 41-year old rebounded by winning his seventh Norris Trophy.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Forwards
D. Cleary P. Datsyuk T. Bertuzzi
V. Filppula H. Zetterberg J. Franzen
T. Holmstrom D. Helm J. Abdelkader
D. Miller J. Hudler P. Eaves
J. Mursak
DEFENSE
N. Lidstrom B. Stuart
J. Ericsson N. Kronwall
I. White J. Kindl
M. Commodore
GOALIES
J. Howard
T. Conklin
ones to watch
F Tomas Tatar
D Brendan Smith
C Cory Emmerton
F Chris Conner


In fact, after the Red Wings were defeated in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals by the San Jose Sharks, some of those same doubters were the first to say Detroit would be sunk if Lidstrom retired. They probably were right about that, especially with the unexpected retirement of puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski.

Good thing for the Red Wings that Lidstrom opted to come back for his 20th NHL season. That decision was quite a relief for Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland, who's undertaking a tricky venture with the roster.

Holland is taking a "change on the fly" approach by saying goodbye to stalwarts Chris Osgood and Kris Draper and trying to ease in some prospects -- all while trying to remain a top team in the Western Conference.

Detroit didn't make a lot of waves in free agency, either -- which some thought the team might do with the salary-cap money freed up by Rafalski's departure. Instead, Holland re-signed young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson to a three-year deal and inked a pair of veteran defensemen in Ian White and Mike Commodore to help fill the void.

Holland also hired two new assistants for coach Mike Babcock in Bill Peters and Jeff Blashill, who ran their own teams in their previous jobs -- Peters was the coach of the American Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs, while Blashill was the coach at Western Michigan University.

"We were looking for guys who'd won, guys who were energetic and guys who had a teaching base," Babcock said. "They're both real good coaches. Their work ethic alone is going to (help), but they're going to make us different and I'm hoping substantially better."

That doesn't sound like the coach of a team in rebuilding mode, so the ultimate goal remains the same in the Motor City -- hoist the Stanley Cup next June for the 12th time in the organization's history.

SUMMER MOVES

IN: Mike Commodore, D (Blue Jackets); Ty Conklin, G (Blues); Chris Conner, RW (free agent, Penguins); Garnet Exelby, D (free agent, Blackhawks); Ian White, D (Hurricanes)

OUT: Kris Draper, C (retired); Derek Meech, D (free agent, Jets); Mike Modano, C (retired); Chris Osgood, G (retired); Brian Rafalski, D (retired); Ruslan Salei, D (free agent, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, KHL)



Except for Draper and Mike Modano, all the familiar names are back.

Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Cleary again will front Detroit's attack in the offensive zone, while 27-year old center Valtteri Filppula also could find himself in a key role on the second line.

It's a big year for Filppula and forward Jiri Hudler, each of whom underperformed last season -- especially Hudler, who returned from the KHL with great fanfare but added just 10 goals and 37 points in 73 games.

Checking-line regulars Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader saw their minutes increase during the playoffs, so they could be also in line for increased roles, while Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves re-signed this summer to provide quality depth.

Detroit likely will carry 14 forwards, which means prospects such as Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton might make the cut. Also vying to make the team are veterans Chris Conner, Ryan Johnson and Fabian Brunnstrom. Prospects Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar also piqued Babcock's interest in the early days of training camp.



There is no overstating the importance of Lidstrom's return. It not only provides the Red Wings with the defending Norris Trophy winner, but also buys time for the Wings to develop promising young Brendan Smith, the team's top prospect, who likely will start the season AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.

After Lidstrom it's an interesting jigsaw puzzle along the blue line. White could be paired with Lidstrom as the top duo, with Niklas Kronwall partnering with Brad Stuart or Ericsson on the second pair.

That would bump Ericsson or Stuart to the third pairing, with Commodore or 24-year old prospect Jakub Kindl, who played 48 games last season.

Commodore was with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, but spent most of it playing in the minors. He's trying to re-ignite his NHL career in Detroit, while Kindl is looking for his first full-time role with the Wings.

"He's got to take a step," Babcock said. "He wants to be an everyday player and the way you do that is by winning the job and earning the right to do that. He's done a very good job in the offseason. He's trained very hard. He's got to continue to get better."




Did Jimmy Howard suffer the dreaded "sophomore slump" last season?

By looking at the stats, the answer probably is yes. His goals-against average jumped from 2.26 in his rookie season to 2.79, and his save percentage decreased from .924 to .908 in the same timeframe.

Still, when looking at the entire season -- including 11 playoff games -- it's hard to say he slumped much. Howard put up the same number of wins in 2011 (37) that he did in 2010, and his playoff numbers improved in almost every category.

Those strong playoff performances backed up the Wings' faith in Howard after they signed him to a contract extension during the season. He now is entrenched as Detroit's starting goalie and the Wings are looking for another big season from him.

Behind Howard is veteran Ty Conklin, in his second stint with Detroit, and he'll fill the void left by Osgood -- at least on the ice. Conklin played last season 25 games with the St. Louis Blues, going 8-8-4 with a 3.22 GAA. The Wings also have last season's predominant backup, Joey MacDonald, under contract in Grand Rapids.

Where Osgood might be missed most is in the locker room -- where the well-liked veteran, along with Draper, provided the Wings with a lot of intensity and confidence.
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