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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Red Wings

Development of Danny DeKeyser, Dylan Larkin, Petr Mrazek key for Detroit

by Paul Harris / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Detroit Red Wings.

The Detroit Red Wings are an example of the glass being half full or half empty. 

Yes, they make the Stanley Cup Playoffs every year but lately have been eliminated in the first round. They have a fast-skating team that moves the puck and plays an exciting style, but they struggled to score (209 goals last season, 23rd in the NHL).

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Detroit has veteran leadership from Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall but will be without Pavel Datsyuk after he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes and signed to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.

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The Red Wings have three outstanding young players: forward Dylan Larkin, defenseman Danny DeKeyser and goaltender Petr Mrazek. But Larkin turned 20 in July; DeKeyser is their best defenseman, but at 26 has yet to develop into the kind of No. 1 a team needs to be a true Stanley Cup contender; Mrazek, 24, has been spectacular for long stretches but has struggled for a number of games in a row, including the last two months of last season.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Dylan Larkin's switch to center

Larkin is a natural center but played wing as a 19-year-old rookie when he led Detroit with 23 goals, had 45 points and was plus-11. Larkin will have more defensive responsibilities and will have to improve on winning 41 percent on his faceoffs, but playing center will give him the opportunity to affect the game in more ways with his blazing speed.

2. Jeff Blashill's second season as coach

Blashill's first season as an NHL coach didn't always seem to be a smooth transition from predecessor Mike Babcock. Though there are small differences between Blashill's system and the one run by Babcock, Detroit seemed to struggle with those nuances, particularly when the defensemen had to make the decision whether to jump up on offense or play it safe and remain back. The players should be more comfortable this season.

The Red Wings revamped Blashill's staff, with Doug Houda and John Torchetti replacing assistants Tony Granato and Pat Ferschweiler.

Granato left to coach at Wisconsin, and Ferschweiler was reassigned after his first season as an NHL assistant. Goaltending coach Jeff Salajko replaces Jim Bedard.

Houda will be in charge of the defensemen and penalty killing, and Torchetti will be responsible for the forwards and the power play, which struggled for most of last season before a late surge allowed it to finish 13th (18.8 percent). But Detroit was 1-for-25 on the power play in a five-game Eastern Conference First Round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

3. Thomas Vanek has something to prove

Vanek was an elite goal-scorer in his prime. He had 43 in 2006-07 and 40 in 2008-09 with the Buffalo Sabres.

No one expects the 32-year-old to approach those numbers again, but there is a good chance he could improve on his totals of 21 in 2014-15 and 18 last season, which led to the Minnesota Wild buying out his contract.

The Red Wings signed Vanek to a one-year contract worth $2.6 million on July 1, with the idea he will be motivated to improve on his recent totals after being bought out. Vanek (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) also adds size to a team that really needs it up front.

4. Justin Abdelkader's continued development

Abdelkader, 29, has developed into one of Detroit's most important players in nine NHL seasons. He scores goals (42 over the past two seasons), plays a physical game at 6-2, 218, is defensively responsible, plays on the power play and kills penalties. 

With Datsyuk gone, some think Abdelkader will replace him as an alternate captain, along with Kronwall, under captain Zetterberg. 

Abdelkader has improved as he has been given more responsibility, and there is no reason that should change.

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Here are three key questions facing the Red Wings: 

1. How will Pavel Datsyuk's departure affect the team?

Even at 38, and less productive and more injury-prone than in his prime, it is impossible to replace a player the caliber of Datsyuk.

The Red Wings did sign free agent center Frans Nielsen to a six-year contract reportedly worth $31.5 million on July 1.

But it's not just Datsyuk's spectacular ability, creativity and production at both ends of the ice. He has been with the Red Wings since 2001-02, and he and Zetterberg have been Detroit's identity and undisputed leaders since Nicklas Lidstrom retired after the 2011-12 season.

Also, what will be the impact on Zetterberg, who is not only losing a valuable teammate but his best friend?

2. Will Petr Mrazek find consistency for an entire season?

Mrazek goes into the season as Detroit's No. 1 goaltender, but he will have to avoid the stretch he went through from mid-February to the end of last regular season.

Mrazek was pulled five times in 14 starts in that time period and lost the starting job to former No. 1 Jimmy Howard, whose play allowed the Red Wings to make the playoffs via the regulation/overtime wins tiebreaker against the Boston Bruins.

That slump came after Mrazek was 7-1-1 with a 1.32 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in January. He returned for Game 3 of the first round against the Lightning and played the last three games of the five-game loss.

Mrazek was 27-16-6 with a 2.33 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and four shutouts during the regular season. He has an NHL record of 46-30-8 with a 2.29 GAA, .920 save percentage and nine shutouts. He is 4-6 in the playoffs, with a 1.88 GAA and .931 save percentage.

3. Will Danny DeKeyser continue to develop?

DeKeyser is Detroit's best defenseman, and it acknowledged that by signing him to a six-year contract worth $30 million as a restricted free agent.

But will DeKeyser, going into his fifth NHL season, continue to be the smooth-skating defensive stopper who makes an outstanding first pass out of the zone, or will he develop more offense, which would make him the impact player who could make the Red Wings a Stanley Cup contender?

DeKeyser had eight goals and 20 points and was plus-2 in an average of 21:48 in 78 games last season, but didn't play much on the power play.

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