DETROIT - So much for that predicted demise of the Detroit Red Wings.
After the NHL implemented a salary cap two years ago, league observers expected the Red Wings to slip because they had to slash their payroll almost in half.
It didn't happen.
Detroit has been among the best the past two regular seasons and is coming off a Western Conference finals appearance.
Nicklas Lidstrom helped the Red Wings win Stanley Cups in 1997, '98 and 2002, and is thrilled with the solid position the franchise is in despite the drastic changes it was forced to make.
"It feels great that we're able to come up with a competitive team every year," the star defenceman said. "Last season, people on the outside looking in didn't think we were going to be that good. But we were a confident group, and we had a good regular season and went deep into the playoffs. This year, we feel the same way."
The Red Wings lost defenceman Mathieu Schneider along with forwards Robert Lang and Todd Bertuzzi in free agency.
They hope to replace them with the signings of defenceman Brian Rafalski and forward Dallas Drake while giving younger players a chance to play larger roles.
Detroit's opportunity to compete for a championship improved when Dominik Hasek decided to return, even though he could've made more money elsewhere.
Hasek, who was voted the NHL's best goaltender six times and its top player twice, will play for about US$2 million in base salary with an opportunity to earn another $2 million in bonuses.
"I like the city, and I like our chances. It wasn't about the money," Hasek said. "I think this team is good enough to be the winning team, and that's why I came back."
Hasek will turn 43 this season and isn't even close to being the oldest player on the team.
By mid-season, Chris Chelios will be a 46-year-old defenceman.
"For me, the longer you can keep veteran players around, they're like coaches," general manager Ken Holland said. "When practice is over he goes to the gym. If you're a young defenceman and you see a 45-year-old guy who's going to go to the Hall of Fame going to the gym, in most cases I think you follow him."
The Red Wings seemed to follow Mike Babcock's lead from behind the bench more last year than they did in his first season as their coach. Babcock pushes his players to play hard every second and punish opponents with hard hits.
After a string of early exits in the playoffs, Detroit scored gritty goals for a change and fell two victories short of earning a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
"We know his style of play more now," Henrik Zetterberg said. "He wants you to play hard all the time. If you play good, you play. If you don't, you will not play that much - and it doesn't matter who you are. That's a good thing, especially for a veteran team. He gets on me when I do something wrong. It keeps you sharp. Sometimes you get mad, but it's fair."
Babcock has decided to split up his best forwards - Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk - and will have them centre the top two lines.
As much as the Red Wings need that move to work, they are counting on younger forwards such as Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler and Tomas Kopecky to take advantage of increased roles.
"In our salary-cap world, you really need players that come up through your system to step forward and contribute quicker than you did before," Holland said.
On defence, Detroit might have the top pair - Lidstrom and Rafalski - in hockey.
Lidstrom earned the Norris Trophy for the fifth time in six seasons, becoming the first five-time winner since Ray Bourque. Rafalski is a three-time All-Star, who helped New Jersey hoist the Stanley Cup in 2003 and 2002 and Team USA win silver at the 2002 Olympics.
Like Hasek, Rafalski could've taken his services to another team for a contract more lucrative than the five-year, $30-million deal he signed with the Red Wings. But none of those other suitors gave the Dearborn native the opportunity to play back at home.
"There's obviously a great tradition here, but winning is of the most importance. It's the same thing where I came from in New Jersey," Rafalski said. "It's a pretty easy transition that way. The goal's the same, the Stanley Cup, and anything less is not a successful season."