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Wings don't plan to let defections slow 'em down

by Dan Rosen /
A lot has been made of what the Detroit Red Wings lost this summer, with Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky leaving for Chicago, Mikael Samuelson jumping to Vancouver and Jiri Hudler signing in Russia.

That's 88 goals and 99 assists from last season gone. But if there is any team that can absorb that kind of loss it's the Wings, who always seem to adapt and succeed in the changing times.

Management believes it replaced the departed by bringing back some old, recognizable faces while telling the youngsters who started to earn some NHL status last season that they're going to be held to a higher standard.

Veterans Jason Williams and Todd Bertuzzi are back in Motown on one-year contracts, each with a lot to prove. Ville Leino, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm all appear safe in their winged-wheel sweaters, but they'll have to shoulder more of the load. 

It's unlikely any of the five will turn into a 40-goal scorer like Hossa, but Williams could be the answer for Samuelsson's 19 goals and power-play minutes, while Leino could be the answer for Hudler's 23 goals. Bertuzzi and Helm could pick up some of Hossa's slack, while Abdelkader may be able to give the Wings more than they got out of Kopecky.

The rest of the roster, of course, remains all-star laden, headlined by Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall. Dan Cleary told this summer that he never has been as confident entering a new season as he is right now, while goalie Chris Osgood is coming off a brilliant postseason that surely renewed his confidence.

Chicago will challenge Detroit's bid for its ninth straight Central Division title, but the Wings have no intention of playing second fiddle to the up-and-coming Blackhawks just yet.

With all the changes up front, it's up to coach Mike Babcock to find a formula that works. He has 14 NHL-caliber forwards to work with, including free agent Patrick Eaves, who was brought in on a one-year contract.

Babcock can choose to do things one of two ways: He can separate Datsyuk and Zetterberg and allow each to play their natural position -- center. Or he can play the gifted Russian and the super Swede together, as he did in the Stanley Cup Final last spring.

Figuring out the lines either way is speculating, but here goes:

Should Babcock separate the two, Datsyuk could play between Tomas Holmstrom and Cleary to make up one scoring line, while Zetterberg could be flanked by Franzen and Bertuzzi to make up another.

It would be hard to characterize one as the top line and the other as the second because you're talking about two units with equal firepower.

Valtteri Filppula seems like a natural fit as the third-line center, and he could be flanked by Williams and Leino. Helm then could center the fourth line, between Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, but leaving open the possibility that Abdelkader gets plenty of time there. Eaves appears to be the Wings' 14th forward.

Should Babcock play Zetterberg and Datsyuk together, Cleary could join them to form what would be a true No. 1 line. That would leave Franzen and Bertuzzi to play the wings on a second line centered by Filppula, who would need to produce more offense.

Holmstrom could drop down to the third line and play with Helm and Leino, which moves Williams down a notch as well, to wing on a line with Draper and either Maltby or Abdelkader.

No matter how you look at it, Babcock has options because the Wings still have depth. The only difference now is there are question marks, whereas at this time last season Babcock probably could tell you exactly what he was going to get from Hossa, Hudler, Samuelsson and Kopecky.

Even with the laundry list of recognizable names on the back end, defense was an area of concern last season -- and one Detroit intends to fix this season.

The Wings shockingly were 20th in the NHL in defense last season with 2.93 goals-against per game. Their penalty kill ranked 25th at a pedestrian 78.3 percent.

Of course, Osgood was off-kilter until late in the season, which didn't help matters much. Still, the Wings may have been guilty of relying too heavily on their offensive firepower, which could have caused their defense to sag.

Osgood erased some of his regular-season irregularity with a smart showing in the playoffs as the Wings allowed only 2.09 goals per game. However, the penalty kill remained an issue, ranking 14th of the 16 playoff teams at 73.2 percent.

If things stay status quo, expect to see Lidstrom and Rafalski together again, with Kronwall and Brad Stuart playing their physical brand of defense next to each other. Jonathan Ericsson and Brett Lebda would be the third pair right now, as Andreas Lilja remains out with post-concussion symptoms, but the Wings could use his 6-foot-3, shot-blocking body back.

Derek Meech, who played a career-high 41 games last season, is an extra defenseman who has shown an ability to play up front should some of the Wings' depth up there thin out. He also could be trade bait once Lilja returns.

The Wings signed veterans Doug Janik and Andy Delmore to two-way contracts, but they're likely to be insurance policies should any of the top seven (eight if you count Lilja) go down. Jakub Kindl is close to being NHL-ready, but he'll likely play 20 minutes a night in the AHL for another season.

It's obvious now there's nothing Osgood can do to quiet the critics who believe the Wings' weak link lies in net. The 36-year-old veteran with 389 career victories (10th all-time) and three Stanley Cup rings followed a sub-par regular season with a superb postseason, but still enters 2009-10 as one of the Wings' question marks.

Fair or not, that's life in Osgood's fishbowl and he's used to it. The only difference this season is for the first time since 2000, when Manny Legace was his backup, Osgood is starting the season without a proven veteran behind him now that Ty Conklin has left for St. Louis.

Jimmy Howard has been waiting for his chance since being the Wings' second-round draft choice in 2003. Since that draft weekend, Howard has played 83 games at the University of Maine, 186 with Grand Rapids of the AHL and just nine with the Wings.

But Conklin's departure means Howard is slated to enter the season as the No. 2 in Detroit behind Osgood. Veteran Dan Cloutier also is in camp, but it's Howard's job to lose.

Osgood is the one with the pressure really on him. He has to prove his 2008-09 regular season was a fluke and his postseason performance was not.

If all goes to plan, Howard likely will play 25-30 games. Osgood is expected to play in all the important ones and backstop the Wings to another Stanley Cup. As harsh as it may sound, anything short of that and the Wings' season, for all intents and purposes, will be a failure.

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