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30 in 30: Age, health among questions for Red Wings

by David Kalan

Of the moves made by the Detroit Red Wings this offseason, the signing of Daniel Alfredsson was almost certainly the splashiest, or at least the most unexpected. Alfredsson had been a mainstay with the Ottawa Senators for nearly two decades, the type of player expected to spend his entire career in one uniform. After jumping south of the border, however, Alfredsson may still be wearing red, but the crest on his jersey is going to be different.

Alfredsson's one-year contract makes the objective very plain. Despite numbers that should one day put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Alfredsson is missing the one thing athletes play for, and his deal with Detroit is an obvious bid for the Stanley Cup championship that has eluded him.

This isn't the first time someone has come to the Motor City on a one-year deal, as Red Wings fans will remember well, but no one knows for sure what kind of impact Alfredsson will have when he first pulls on the Winged Wheel.

That is one of six questions Detroit will have to answer this season:

1. Is Daniel Alfredsson the missing piece or a repeat of the Marian Hossa experiment? -- "When I compared the two teams, I felt like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit."

This could easily read as something Alfredsson said after signing his one-year deal with Detroit in July, but they are actually the words of Marian Hossa after he spurned a multi-year offer to stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins for a one-year title shot with the Red Wings in the summer of 2008. Hossa was superb in 2008-09, scoring 40 goals and adding 31 assists in 74 games, but he and Detroit came up short of the ultimate goal, losing to Hossa's ex-mates in Pittsburgh in seven games in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.

While neither the Red Wings nor Alfredsson's Senators reached the Final in 2013, his move to the Wings, on the surface, appears quite similar. However, Hossa was in his prime and sat poised to cash in on his impressive offensive resume as a free agent. Alfredsson is very clearly at the tail end of his career and likely to have a different role in the locker room from Hossa, who was 29 when he signed with Detroit.

The two were also very similar players at the time in which they arrived. Hossa was one of the League's most dynamic goal scorers, consistently scoring at least 30 and twice more than 40 goals per season. Alfredsson has been a consistent scorer as well, reaching the 40-goal plateau twice in his career, but his assist totals are often significantly higher, particularly in recent years.

Both Alfredsson's passing ability on the wing and his likely role as a veteran leader put him in a different category from Hossa, making it difficult to predict whether or not Alfredsson will be enough to push the Red Wings back over the top next spring, but both on and off the ice he should make a significant impact. The type of impact that is will go a long way in determining if the shotgun marriage is a happy one.

2. Can Stephen Weiss stay healthy? -- The Red Wings' other major acquisition brings much-needed offense and stability to their second line, but he also brings questions. Weiss had as difficult a season as anyone can when they're about to reach unrestricted free agency. He had four points in 17 games for the Florida Panthers while being hampered by a wrist injury that eventually ended his season. Detroit is betting Weiss will return to his previous form and betting big, to the tune of just under $5 million a year for the next five seasons.

If the pain in Weiss' wrist lingers, it could prove a major obstacle. currently projects Weiss to center the Red Wings' second line with Alfredsson and Gustav Nyquist, and having a hole there could result in some major lineup shuffling for coach Mike Babcock.

None of this seemed to bother general manager Ken Holland, who reportedly had Weiss as his top target when free agency opened, and concerns about his health may be overblown. Prior to 2012-13, Weiss played at least 74 games in six straight seasons. For much of his career in Florida, where Weiss is the all-time leader in games played and assists, he was an example of consistency, putting up 50-point seasons like clockwork with some very subpar teams. If Detroit ends up getting that Weiss rather than the one who struggled through injuries last season, this will be one bet that pays off big.

3. Will Detroit miss Damien Brunner? --

Damien Brunner
G: 12 | A: 14 | P: 26
SOG: 123 | +/-: -6
In his first full season in North America, Brunner's numbers (12 goals, 14 assists in 44 games) were solid if unspectacular, but the Swiss center came on in the postseason with five goals and four assists in 14 games and showed off some dynamic shootout moves in the process. Those numbers weren't quite as impressive as the ones Brunner put up in Switzerland, but he certainly showed the potential to be an exciting offensive player at the NHL level.

Just what that is worth is a separate topic, and on that one Brunner and the Red Wings appear to disagree.

Detroit reportedly offered Brunner both a two-year and a three-year contract, with each being turned down, and it now seems clear the two parties have parted ways. Brunner remains unsigned and on the market, but the Red Wings likely feel they more than filled his void with Alfredsson and Weiss. But Brunner's offensive performance last season and track record in Europe hinted at production down the road, and given that he is younger than both of Detroit's big offseason signings he could have proven a valuable piece over the next few seasons.

4. How will the Red Wings be impacted by the move to the Eastern Conference? -- Detroit's schedule will look pretty unfamiliar this season after the team's move to the Eastern Conference, but while it will be odd to see the Red Wings playing divisional games in places like Florida and Buffalo, the change should be beneficial.

The Wings were one of two teams in the Eastern time zone to play in the Western Conference last season along with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who also shift to the East. Taking multiple road trips across four time zones can not only be grueling for the players, but it is also difficult for the fans, as a significant chunk of the Red Wings' road games started at 9 p.m. ET or later in Detroit.

"Some people think after you watch the game and turn off the TV (that) you're done," Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith said earlier this year. "Maybe we have an eight-hour trip home. There is a lot of wear and tear on the body."

That doesn't mean it won't come without some adjustment. Even if traveling westward was a grind, the Red Wings and their coaching staff were familiar with their opponents. Learning how to play against their new Atlantic Division rivals could take some time. No team is better prepared to handle that transition, though. Holland has made a living of keeping the Wings among the NHL's elite despite obstacles like aging players or the implementation of the salary cap. Realignment is just the latest change, and if it means more rest and less exhausting travel it might only make the Red Wings better.

5. Is Detroit's window finally closing? -- Since the Red Wings reached the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, their first in 29 years, they have not gone more than six years without winning a championship. With their last title coming in 2008, they would appear due in 2014, but given Detroit's struggles for most of last season, perhaps it's just the opposite.

The Red Wings were outside the top eight in the Western Conference for significant stretches last season and speculation ran rampant that their League-best run of playoff appearances was about to end. Eventually, Detroit recovered and wrapped up the seventh seed before nearly advancing to the conference finals, but there is no denying the team is getting older. Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelsson, Henrik Zetterberg, Todd Bertuzzi and Niklas Kronwall are all huge parts of the Red Wings' core, and all of them are over 30 years old. Add Weiss, 30, and Alfredsson, 40, to the mix of elder statesmen, and Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Ericsson and Drew Miller will all join them in the 30-plus club during the season.

Being 30 years old isn't a death sentence for your career, of course -- many of these players are still in their primes -- but it does mean Detroit is aging and even if it doesn't come this season, the team will need to start the youth movement soon if it doesn't want a prolonged rebuild in its future. As the season wears on, the grind could have an impact on Detroit's aging roster, and that could reveal whether the Red Wings have one more Cup run in them, or if it's time to turn the page on the current era.

6. Can the Red Wings put last season's postseason defeat in the rearview mirror? -- With the Red Wings' move to the Eastern Conference, their longtime rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks hasn't exactly come to an end, but it has certainly been muted to some extent. The teams will not play nearly as often, nor can they meet in the postseason unless each team reaches the Stanley Cup Final. That mean's last season's second-round playoff meeting might be the denouement of one of the great rivalries in North American sports -- and that might leave a sour taste in Detroit's mouth.

Most will remember Chicago's shocking rally in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final as its signature championship moment, but were it not for a stunning comeback against Detroit in the Western Conference Semifinals, that would never have come to pass and the Wings would have been back in the NHL's final four. But after taking a 3-1 lead in the series, Detroit watched the Blackhawks reel off three straight wins, including an overtime victory in Game 7.

Such a debilitating loss can linger into the next season. Teams that take a 3-1 lead in a postseason series lose less than 10 percent of the time, and of the 25 teams to suffer that fate, just three (the 1942 Red Wings, the 1989 Edmonton Oilers and the 2010 Boston Bruins) rebounded to win the Stanley Cup a year later. If these Red Wings want to become the fourth, they'll need a short memory.

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