NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
If the Detroit Red Wings can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they did last season despite an average of nearly 39 man-games lost from six of their most important players, what can they do this season with almost everybody back and, for the most part, healthy to start the season?
General manager Ken Holland thought about the possibilities all offseason, so much so that his optimism never waned despite repeated failed attempts at diving into the free-agent waters to come out with a gem.
The Red Wings didn't make any splashes this offseason, but Holland's optimism for a 24th consecutive trip to the playoffs stems from what his team did last season despite the injuries.
"If you look at our '13-14 season, for the most part we got a half a season out of [Darren] Helm, a half a season out of [Jonathan] Ericsson, a half a season out of [Johan] Franzen, a half a season out of [Pavel] Datsyuk, a half a season out of [Henrik] Zetterberg and less than a half a season out of [Stephen] Weiss," Holland said.
"Certainly I understand injuries are a part of the program, and we've been hit hard here the last two years, but we qualified for the playoffs both years where 19 teams have missed the playoffs at least once in the last two years. It's not like we've knocked it out of the park, but we've played our way in."
The Red Wings played their way in last season on the backs of players coach Mike Babcock still calls "kids" even though they're between 22 and 25 years old.
Gustav Nyquist, who is 25, scored 28 goals in 57 games, including 12 goals on 30 shots in a 10-game span from March 16-April 2.
"It felt like everything was going in at the time," Nyquist said.
Riley Sheahan, the youngest of the "kids" at 22, joined Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco to form a threatening second scoring line in the second half of the season. Luke Glendening showed flashes of being the fourth-line, checking, penalty-killing center the Red Wings need him to be.
Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff grew up on the blue line, helping to solidify a thin unit that was set back by Jonathan Ericsson's injuries, including a finger injury that required surgery and forced him to sit out the final 14 games of the season.
Ericsson said earlier this month his finger is not quite healed yet but he is planning to start the season on time.
|Extras: D. Cleary
|Extras: B. Lashoff
Zetterberg didn't play again in the regular season after injuring his back early in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but surgery fixed his problem and he's ready to go. Datsyuk didn't play a game in March because of a recurring knee injury, but he said rest and rehab has made him 100 percent. However, he left the Red Wings' preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night with an apparent shoulder injury and will be re-evaluated Tuesday.
Weiss didn't play after Dec. 10, missing the final 56 games of the season because of a sports hernia injury. He said he's "back to normal."
Franzen played one game from mid-December until the NHL returned from Sochi in late February. Helm's problems occurred earlier in the season as he missed 32 of the first 48 games and eight more in March.
In addition, veteran forward Daniel Alfredsson struggled with recurring back pain for most of the season, although he did have 49 points in 68 games. Alfredsson's back problem hasn't gone away, so he is not in training camp as the Red Wings have not re-signed him.
Alfredsson's issues haven't taken away from the optimism created by the success of Detroit's younger players last season.
"Our younger guys took gigantic steps last year," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "They're the ones who made it possible for us to even make the playoffs."
But as much of an accomplishment as it was for the Red Wings to get into the playoffs, they didn't make it worth their while. The Boston Bruins eliminated them in a five-game series in the Eastern Conference First Round.
"Just getting there isn't good enough," Kronwall said. "No one is going to pat you on the back and say, 'Well, at least you made the playoffs.' It doesn't work like that. Everyone is playing to win, and just getting into the playoffs is just something, you know, we need more."
Here is a breakdown for how they plan to get more out of this season than they did last season:
Datsyuk and Zetterberg still drive the bus. Zetterberg had 48 points in 45 games last season. Datsyuk had 37 points in 45 games.
RED WINGS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
However, even if Datsyuk and Zetterberg stay healthy (Datsyuk is already ailing after the initial preseason game), Nyquist, Sheahan, Tatar and in all likelihood Jurco will be relied upon more this season, particularly with Alfredsson's return at any point this season questionable at best.
The Red Wings' goal is to return to the upper echelon of offensive teams. Detroit hasn't finished in the top 15 in goals in either of the past two seasons; it finished in the top 10 in 20 of the previous 21 seasons, including 16 times in the top five.
It's possible Jurco starts the season in the American Hockey League because of a roster crunch, but he would be the first call-up and likely wouldn't be with the Grand Rapids Griffins for long, if he goes there at all.
Nyquist did the same thing last season before he was called up in November. He caught fire after the Olympics and wound up with 28 goals on 153 shots (18.3 percent). Nobody in Detroit is expecting him to score at the same pace this season, but they are expecting him to score.
"We're hoping he can produce 60 points. How many of that is goals, I don't know," Holland said. "I think it's unrealistic to expect 40 goals. How many players in the League score 40 goals? He's a good player, but everything was going in for him [last season]."
The Red Wings are deepest at center, where Holland figures they have eight players vying for four spots. The other four will move to the wing because they're versatile.
Forward Anthony Mantha might have a chance later in the season of making the roster, but he is out with a fractured right tibia, an injury he sustained during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament.
Mantha, Detroit's first-round draft pick in 2013 (No. 20), had 120 points in 57 games for Val-D'Or Foreurs of the QMJHL last season. The 20-year-old had 11 points in seven games playing for Canada in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Kronwall and Ericsson are the mainstays, the unquestioned leaders of Detroit's defense. Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl add to the experience quotient.
ADDITIONS: C Kevin Porter (free agent, Sabres); C Andy Miele (free agent, Coyotes)
SUBTRACTIONS: C David Legwand (free agent, Senators); RW Patrick Eaves (free agent, Stars), RW Todd Bertuzzi (free agent), RW Mikael Samuelsson (free agent, Sweden), C Cory Emmerton (free agent, KHL), RW Jordin Tootoo (buyout, Devils)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: RW Anthony Mantha, D Xavier Ouellet, D Ryan Sproul, D Alexey Marchenko, D Mattias Backman, G Petr Mrazek
However, if the Red Wings have a thin spot it's on defense. Smith, DeKeyser and Lashoff haven't played the equivalent of two full NHL seasons yet.
Detroit was hoping to add a veteran defenseman through free agency or a trade, but hasn't made it happen as of yet. Kronwall is still optimistic about the defense because of the growth Smith, DeKeyser and Lashoff have shown.
"Our younger guys have taken another step in their development," he said. "I expect us to be better than we were last year. We were competitive, keeping it fairly simple, making sure our forwards get the puck as soon as possible. It might sound like a cliché, but that's our job."
It's also the job of the prospects to push the veterans. Holland and Babcock are hoping Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Mattias Backman and Alexey Marchenko vie for playing time and potentially roster spots.
Babcock and Holland said Jimmy Howard needs to have a bounce-back season. They were not impressed by his play last season.
Howard was 19th in the NHL with 51 appearances, but 22nd in wins with 21. He was 26th in goals-against average (2.66) and 29th in save percentage (.910) among goalies with 30 or more appearances.
In his previous two seasons Howard had a 2.13 GAA and save percentages of .920 and .923.
"I think he played fine last year, but certainly he played at a higher level the two previous years," Holland said.
Jonas Gustavsson, who returns as the Red Wings backup goalie, had some better luck in the win department than Howard did last season. He had 16 wins in 27 appearances despite having a comparable GAA (2.63) and save percentage (.907) to Howard.
Holland said Gustavsson played a vital role in helping Detroit get to the playoffs even though he started only five of the final 24 games and had an .893 save percentage in those games.
In fairness, Gustavsson allowed one goal on 38 shots in a 6-1 win against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 27 and two goals on 28 shots in a 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 30. His 21-save performance in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 9 helped Detroit earn the point it needed to clinch its 23rd consecutive trip to the playoffs.
Holland also said Petr Mrazek is ready for more work at the NHL level. Mrazek has been in Grand Rapids for the past two seasons, and had 22 wins in 32 appearances last season with a 2.10 GAA and .924 save percentage.