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Red Wings transitioning on the fly

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- If you've ever wondered how the Detroit Red Wings are going to keep competing for Stanley Cups without going through a major rebuilding season, you're not alone.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has the same questions. The only difference is that he isn't all that concerned about it. He's not exactly waiting for the fall that some think is the inevitable for Detroit's hockey dynasty. One look at Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill is all the reassurance Babcock needs.

"I don't know how we're going to do it … I just know we're going to do it," Babcock told before Sunday's preseason game at Joe Louis Arena against the Chicago Blackhawks. "I didn't know how we were going to do it when I got here (in 2005). I just knew with Kenny Holland's leadership and Jim Nill, we were going to do it. I go into every year and I don't know how we're going to do it. I just know we are."

That kind of confidence might initially seem like blind faith, but how "blind" can it be when the Wings and Holland have disproven the naysayers so many times?

"After the (work stoppage in 2004), everybody said the reason we won is because we spent more money than everyone else," Babcock told "Well, that's not the case anymore. So, we're a team in transition and we have been."

In essence, what Holland and Nill are trying to do with the Red Wings' roster is a sort of "change on the fly" approach. They still have their eye on the Stanley Cup like always, but they've already begun working in some younger faces into the lineup the past couple of seasons.


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Combined with a core group of stars led by 41-year old captain Nicklas Lidstrom -- the reigning Norris Trophy winner -- and forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings feel positioned for success now and into at least the near future.

Babcock even gave energetic checking-line forwards Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader increased ice time and responsibility last season -- including big roles in both playoff series. Those two plus center Valtteri Filppula, forward Jiri Hudler and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson -- all 27-years old -- make up the core of younger-aged regulars expected to carry the Wings flag forward, starting this season.

The "transition" won't stop there, though.

Holland opted not to re-sign well-liked, tenured veterans Kris Draper and goalie Chris Osgood so that guys like speedy 23-year old forward Jan Mursak, grinding 23-year old center Cory Emmerton and 24-year old two-way defenseman Jakub Kindl be part of the mix.

Babcock even lumps 31-year old Johan Franzen into the "younger" segment that he says will largely determine how this season goes for the Wings.

"It's a big year for everybody," Babcock told "But the players that are going to let us keep going are Franzen, Filppula, Hudler and Ericsson. Those are the guys that have to get to another level. Then you've got the growth of Abdelkader and Helm, Kindl and these other guys. If they don't develop, we don't win."

If they do, then Detroit ought to be in good shape going forward. Rather than going on a spending spree to replace retired defenseman Brian Rafalski, the Wings brought in veteran defensemen Ian White and Mike Commodore for reasonable prices.

Holland banked much of the freed-up salary-cap space and can either use it for an in-season trade or save it up for next summer's free agent market – which could include some younger impact players. And that's not even mentioning the Wings' own top prospects, such as offensive defenseman Brendan Smith and center Gustav Nyquist – who's caught Babcock's attention in this camp. Franzen said Nyquist is "a little" like Zetterberg and Datsyuk in his ability to hold onto the puck and make plays.

"It's not easy, but (Holland's) got a good touch with it," Franzen said of the difficult balance between roster turnover and competing for championships. "He never rushes (prospects) and just lets them take their time developing. It's been great so far. We always have kind of a steady team here, so that always helps the young kids. They can come in and learn – just watch and relax."

That could be the routine for guys like Mursak, Emmerton and even Kindl -- who did his share of watching and relaxing last season, too. Abdelkader knows the routine well, because he went through the same process to get into the regular playing group.

Now that he's part of it, the 24-year old power forward is looking forward to fronting the Wings' "youth movement" along with Helm and others.

"It's not about what you did for me yesterday," Abdelkader told "It's about what you're going to do for me today. It's that kind of business. You've got to go out and prove yourself each day. Hopefully we can be that youth movement for this team. It's tough losing Draper and Osgood and Rafalski and their leadership, but hopefully some younger guys can bring in some energy those guys had through their whole career."

The Wings are banking on it. Detroit went through similar transitions after former stars Steve Yzerman retired in 2006 and Brendan Shanahan retired in 2009. Both left huge voids, but each time the Wings found the answer.

Babcock again has faith they'll do it again after losing Draper, Osgood and Rafalski.

"When Shanny and Stevie and those guys left, (Datsyuk) and (Zetterberg) took over and we found a bunch of new players," he told "We have to do the same thing right now. That's the battle. No one wants the team to not be as good on their watch."
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