As the NHL undergoes its biggest structural realignment in 15 years, there may be no team that is more affected by it than the Detroit Red Wings.
Since 1981, the Red Wings have called the Western Conference -- formerly the Campbell Conference -- home, but as the League shifts to a new four-division format, Detroit is one of three teams, along with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets, changing conferences.
The move is a mixed bag for Detroit, which waves goodbye to several strong geographic rivalries, most notably the NHL's longest-running grudge match with the Chicago Blackhawks. But the loss of quick regional trips to Chicago, St. Louis or Nashville is going to be offset by no longer having to take multiple trips out west to face the likes of Vancouver or Los Angeles. Those treks to the Pacific Division were a bigger burden on the team than it might have seemed, given that Detroit is in the Eastern time zone and would play a significant chunk of its schedule at 10 p.m. ET or later, making it difficult for fans to watch mid-week contests through to the end.
Now the Red Wings will play a majority of their schedule at more fan-friendly times while theoretically enduring less physical wear. And though Detroit is being thrown into an entirely different group of teams in the new Atlantic Division, it will still be seeing some familiar faces, as fellow Original Six foes Boston, Montreal and Toronto are also in the group.
"I think it's a great time for our fans," defenseman Niklas Kronwall told Redwings.com earlier this year. "They'll be able to watch our games in prime time a lot more than they have in the past. And of course playing Montreal, Toronto, Boston more often, I'm hoping it's going to spark that (enthusiasm from fans) even more. I know it will for us, for sure."
In addition to changes to the schedule, the Red Wings will be working through some changes to the roster as the season gets under way. After their trip through the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs ended in a second-round collapse against the Blackhawks in which Detroit let a 3-1 series lead slip away, general manager Ken Holland made two significant splashes on the opening day of free agency, bringing in center Stephen Weiss and longtime Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.
Both are impact signings, as Weiss brings a dependable anchor to Detroit's second line and Alfredsson delivers dynamic offensive skill and veteran leadership to a locker room that already has championship experience. Detroit has long been a premiere destination for top NHL free agents, but Alfredsson's move came as a surprise given his longstanding ties in Ottawa, where he had played since first entering the League in 1995. Alfredsson even admitted in his introductory press conference that a move was unlikely as recently as a week before free agency opened.
"As we got closer to free agency, thoughts started creeping in that it's been 18 years and I haven't won the Stanley Cup. That's my dream," Alfredsson said at the time. "Everyone knows Detroit's goals are always to be at the top of the game and to win championships. They've done that in the past. I'm really excited to get this opportunity at this stage of my career to go for a Stanley Cup and fulfill a longtime dream."
Don't expect Alfredsson to merely be jumping on for the ride, either. Even at 40 years old he has been a steady contributor, recording 26 points in 47 games last season in addition to four goals and six assists in 10 playoff games.
The signing of Weiss to a five-year, $24.5 million contract is something of a gamble given a particularly difficult 2012-13 season in which he tallied four points in 17 games with the Florida Panthers before he was shut down following wrist surgery. Prior to last season, Weiss, the Panthers' all-time leader in games played, was a steady point producer and playmaker, averaging 19 goals and 33 assists over the previous six seasons.
RED WINGS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
F Stephen Weiss
, F Daniel Alfredsson
F Valtteri Filppula
, D Carlo Colaiacovo
F Damien Brunner
, F Daniel Cleary
, G Daniel Larsson
, D Ian White
, F Jan Mursak
, F Francis Pare
, G Jordan Pearce
, F Brent Raedeke
F Riley Sheahan
, F Tomas Jurco
, F Martin Frk
Those additions stand to make the Red Wings better, but they do come at a cost. Gone is forward Valtteri Filppula, who took his consistent scoring and solid faceoff win percentage to Tampa Bay via free agency. Center Damien Brunner, who was fifth on the team in scoring in his first season in North America, remains a free agent and is expected to sign elsewhere after rejecting the Wings' initial offers, and right wing Daniel Cleary, a solid two-way contributor in Detroit for eight seasons, is unlikely to return despite mutual interest because of salary cap constraints.
Detroit also bought out the contract of defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who played just six games in the first season of a two-year, $5 million deal.
Despite all of those changes, however, much of the gang is still here. Center Pavel Datsyuk, who at 35 led the team in scoring last season with 49 points in 47 games, signed a three-year extension this offseason, while captain Henrik Zetterberg and his 48 points in 46 games will still be on Datsyuk's wing on the top line. Johan Franzen, who had arguably the best all-round season among Detroit's forwards after Datsyuk, should bring his steady production at both ends of the ice, and the Wings could also get a boost from the return of a healthy Darren Helm, who is expected to center the third line after missing all but one game last season due to a back injury.
On the back end, Kronwall remains the elder statesman for a crop of blueliners that has a strong mix of youth and experience. Jimmy Howard, who signed a $31.8 million extension this offseason, should again be among the League's top goaltenders.
The Wings spent much of last season lingering around the eighth spot in the West, an unfamiliar place for the franchise with the longest current run of postseason appearances in the League, which now stands at 22 seasons. Much of that could be chalked up to a weaker offense than normal -- Detroit was tied with Vancouver for 19th in the League in goals last season -- which the team expects to be fixed by its offseason additions.
Despite their anemic scoring, however, once the Red Wings solidified themselves in the top eight, they proved they still belonged with an impressive first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks and a near upset of the eventual-champion Blackhawks.
Regardless of their new conference, with the pieces the Red Wings have in place for next season, a 23rd consecutive playoff berth should be in the offing, even if it takes Detroit some time to adapt to its new lineup and division. And given the talent on the roster, there's no reason to think the team can't make a run at its fifth Stanley Cup championship in the last 18 years.
In the Motor City, it would seem the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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