The Detroit Red Wings used to rely solely on their veteran stars to guide them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and to sometimes take them on a deep run. They also used to play in the Western Conference. Those are memories now.
Change came to Hockeytown last season, when the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season on the backs of young players coach Mike Babcock still calls "kids."
They struggled in the playoffs and Detroit was knocked out quickly, losing in five games to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round, but for the development of the team, how the Red Wings got there was as important as getting there.
Gustav Nyquist scored 28 goals, including 12 in March. Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco formed an effective scoring line when put together. Luke Glendening showcased his skills as a checking center. Danny DeKeyser proved he could be at least a second-pair defenseman.
"The year before they won the Calder Cup, and then last year they got us into the playoffs," Babcock told NHL.com. "In the playoffs we didn't perform … but they're all good hockey players and they're all getting better this summer."
Although the Red Wings still feature an assortment of veteran players, including stars Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall, the fate of their playoff streak is again as much in the hands of "the kids" as it is the players who for years led the way in keeping it alive.
"Two years ago, [Joakim] Andersson helped us get into the playoffs and gave us a good run in the playoffs as a third-line center, but last year he wasn't playing as much at the end," Babcock said. "We can't have that happen to the rest of these kids or we will miss the playoffs."
Babcock's point here is not to put all the pressure on the shoulders of Nyquist, Sheahan, Tatar, Jurco and company, because the Red Wings will still rely heavily on the veteran players.
Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall will still wear the letters, still lead this team.
Johan Franzen, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader will still be relied upon for production, possession and more. Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey will again have to join Kronwall as leaders on the blue line.
The Red Wings are hoping Stephen Weiss is healthy and can score at least 50 points like he used to with the Florida Panthers. They'd like to re-sign Daniel Alfredsson if he's healthy. They need elite goaltending from Jimmy Howard, who was beset by injuries and inconsistent play last season.
RED WINGS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 39-28-15, 93 points, 4th in Atlantic Division, 8th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost 4-1 to the Boston Bruins in Eastern Conference First Round
Additions: C Andy Miele (two-way contract), C Kevin Porter (two-way contract)
Subtractions: C David Legwand, F Patrick Eaves, F Mikael Samuelsson, C Cory Emmerton, F Jordin Tootoo (buyout)
Promotion candidates: F Anthony Mantha, D Xavier Ouellet, D Ryan Sproul, D Alexey Marchenko, D Mattias Backman, G Petr Mrazek
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: C Dylan Larkin (No. 15), C Dominic Turgeon (No. 63)
"You can have a wish list in the summer and a wish list in training camp, but really as a coach, whatever they give you, you get," Babcock said. "If you start hoping and wishing for any more than that, that's just not realistic."
The good news is Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who each missed approximately half of last season with injuries, are feeling as good as they have in a number of years, Babcock said.
Weiss said he is healthy and ramping up his skating regimen to be prepared for training camp next month. He didn't play after Dec. 10 last season because of sports hernia surgery and a subsequent setback in his rehab that led to a second surgery.
Detroit mostly struck out with free agents this summer, but it won't matter if Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Weiss can stay healthy and in the lineup.
"If you do the work, if you prepare to dance, usually everything works out," Babcock said.
The Red Wings will be better if Alfredsson can get his back right so he can play. He finished last season tied with Kronwall for the team lead with 49 points, but the 41-year-old forward had back problems that ruined the end of his season.
Alfredsson is in the process of trying to test his back. If Alfredsson thinks he can play, and Babcock and general manager Ken Holland can be assured by the team doctors that his back is good to go, he will be re-signed.
In addition, Babcock is optimistic for bounce-back seasons from Howard, Ericsson and Helm. He also thinks Abdelkader is still improving at 27 years old.
"Those are all young guys going in the right direction," Babcock said.
But the Red Wings need the "the kids" to catch up quickly if they want to be a playoff team again. Babcock knows if he's still calling them kids at the end of the season Detroit will be in trouble.
"We used to say in training camp, and I'd say it every year, 'The tie goes to the veteran,'" Babcock said. "Maybe the tie still goes to the veteran, but we've shown, and we did it last year, you're allowed to take guys' jobs and the best players are going to play."
If some of the Red Wings best players are in their early-to-mid 20s, they'll have a good chance of going back to the playoffs for a 24th consecutive season.
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