Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told anyone who would listen last season that even with significant injuries to veteran stars his team was going to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Babcock was right. The Red Wings went to the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.
To extend the streak to 24 seasons, and to give Babcock a jolt of confidence to add to his optimism, the Red Wings will need positive answers to the following five questions:
1. Can the Red Wings get full seasons out of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg? -- Everything changes when Datsyuk and Zetterberg are healthy. They take on the bulk of the scoring burden and every forward gets slotted into his proper position on the depth chart.
The problem last season was Datsyuk and Zetterberg combined to play 90 games, 45 each. Neither played a game in March. They still combined for 85 points, but to reach the playoffs Detroit had to elevate young players into prominent roles.
Babcock would prefer to rely on Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The good news is he said he has spoken to both players and they told him they're feeling the best they have in years. Of course, they haven't played a game since April, so they should feel good.
2. Will Gustav Nyquist progress or regress? -- With 28 goals on 153 shots, Nyquist had the highest shooting percentage (18.3 percent) of the 169 players with 150 or more shots on goal last season. Only 12 of those 169 players shot as high as 15 percent. Only four scored more goals than Nyquist.
Statistically speaking, the odds are against Nyquist producing at the same rate with the same elevated shooting percentage this season. Nyquist is expected to be a 30-goal scorer, but only 31.2 percent of the 30-goal scorers since the 2008-09 season (45 of 144) have shot as high as 15 percent; only eight have shot as high as 18 percent.
Even with a statistical regression Nyquist should be able to build on his 28 goals from 2013-14 if he plays a full season and continues to produce on the power play (he had six power-play goals last season). The difference is Nyquist will have to do it with a target on his back, because the rest of the NHL knows all about him now.
3. Will Stephen Weiss be a difference-maker? -- Babcock's plan is to put Weiss on a scoring line in training camp and let him go. The thought in Detroit is if he's healthy, which he wasn't last season, he should be the second-line center, play on the power play and produce at least 50 points.
Weiss was bothered by leg and groin pain at the start of last season. He played in 26 of the first 32 games, had four points and had to shut it down. He had sports hernia surgery Dec. 23 that effectively ended his season. He had another surgery April 21 to clean up scar tissue.
4. Is Alfredsson going to play? -- If Alfredsson, 41, plays this season it will be in Detroit, but the Red Wings might not know about his availability until shortly before training camp. Alfredsson, who led Detroit's forwards with 49 points last season, is trying to work through a back problem.
If he's prepared to return the Red Wings will sign him to a one-year contract, likely bonus-laden; he'll likely retire if his back doesn't respond properly. For now he remains an unrestricted free agent.
5. Will the blue line hold up? -- The Red Wings wanted to beef up on the blue line this offseason, preferably with a right-handed shooting, top-four defenseman. They reportedly targeted Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle but struck out on both fronts.
Instead Detroit has seven left-handed shooting defensemen, of which only one, Niklas Kronwall, is a proven top-two player. The lack of a right-handed shot is a legitimate question mark that general manager Ken Holland no doubt still is trying to address.
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