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Wings still have talent to remain among NHL's best

by Dan Rosen
They are the oldest team in the NHL and as a result there are some that believe the Detroit Red Wings' reign as the NHL's model franchise is running on borrowed time. In reality, the signs don't appear to be pointing in that direction at all.

Detroit will enter yet another season as one of the NHL's elite teams, and within the organization, the expectations are to win it all in June. Anything short would be, as usual, deemed a disappointment.

The thing is, this season the Red Wings will have extra motivation due to all the naysayers calling for an end to their run, and with people harking back on the "disappointment" of last season when they "only" earned 102 points and make it into the second round of the playoffs.

Detroit experienced a rash of injuries last season that led to it finishing with "only" the seventh-most points in the League.

Sarcasm aside, if the Red Wings can stay healthy they still have a roster that can do some serious damage in the playoffs. They were bandaged up for most of last season and eventually ran out of gas and into a better team when they faced San Jose in the Western Conference Semifinals.

"We're trying to get back to being the Red Wings, not like last year when we were taped together all year, had no depth and we rode people too hard so when we got to the playoffs we were exhausted," Babcock said. "We think Nick (Lidstrom) has some left in him, but not if we're defending all the time. We need to get the puck and go. Our goal is to be loaded up."

Detroit only gained in this area with the return of Jiri Hudler from his one-year hiatus to play in Russia and the signing of 40-year-old Mike Modano. Both should start the season on the third line with returning veteran Dan Cleary.

Babcock, who always has been a big Hudler fan, said the Czech forward provides instant offense and makes the power play "unreal." Hudler had a career-best 57 points two seasons ago before bolting North America for the KHL.

"Hudler is a better player than people think," Babcock told "I missed him way more last season than I thought I was going to miss him. To me the kid is magic. We're thrilled to have him back."

The coach believes Modano, even at 40, can provide upwards of 50 points due in large part to Hudler and the power play. Modano is expected to be a point man with Niklas Kronwall on the second unit.

"Because of his ability to shoot the puck, if he gets the puck to Hudler and he gets open, he can score," Babcock said.

Cleary, who suffered through an injury-plagued 2009-10 season, also stands to benefit if he sticks on the line with Modano and Hudler. But the Red Wings need their top guns to be better if they're going to, as Babcock said, "load up."

Pavel Datsyuk is coming off a down year by his lofty standards. Datsyuk tied with Henrik Zetterberg for the team-lead in points last season, but his 70 were 27 fewer than he had in 2008-09, when he was a Hart Trophy finalist. Zetterberg also will have to pick up his production.

Datsyuk and Zetterberg are valuable for more than just their production, but they do need to score more. They will get a chance to help each other in that department as Babcock plans on loading them up on the same line with Tomas Holmstrom.

With Datsyuk and Zetterberg slated for the top line, Valtteri Filppula will have to pick up his production as a second-line center. Filppula had 35 points in 55 games last season, but you have to figure that with Johan Franzen on one wing and Todd Bertuzzi on the other, his points will go up. At least, that's what Babcock is figuring.

Franzen is an obvious key with his ability to find the back of the net. He played only 27 games last season due to an early knee injury, but he scored 10 goals, which is a 30-goal pace. If he stays healthy and scores in the 30s this season, the Wings will be thrilled.

The only jobs up for grabs are on the fourth line, which should be a typical grind line.

Darren Helm may have a secure spot in the middle because of his speed and prowess on the penalty kill (he led all Wings forwards in shorthanded ice time per game last season). Justin Abdelkader, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves all should be in the fourth-line rotation.

The top six appears to be set, and as always, it looks solid. Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson all return, and the Wings added veteran Ruslan Salei through free agency.

Detroit had some issues last season, but none revolved around the defense. It was seventh in the NHL in goals-against last season and ninth in shots-against. Its penalty kill was the 10th in the League.

Lidstrom may be 40, but he's still among the game's elite. Rafalski will be 37 when the season starts, but he's also got plenty left in the tank. Stuart and Kronwall, 30 and 29, respectively, are well into the prime of their careers.

Ericsson is 26, the baby of this group, but the Wings are looking for big-time growth out of the towering Swede. Salei, who signed for one year, is 35 and coming off an injury-plagued season in Colorado, but he's otherwise known as a durable, stay-at-home guy.

Derek Meech figures to be the seventh defenseman again, but he's itching for playing time after serving as an apprentice for the last three seasons. Meech also could play forward if the Red Wings need him, but mostly he's going to push Salei for playing time.

Unless Jakub Kindl is so fantastic in the preseason that he blows Babcock's hair back, he appears destined to start his fourth straight season in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

While some teams prefer to fast-track their prospects to the NHL, the Red Wings let theirs mature in the minors. So don't read anything into the fact that GM Ken Holland felt the need to sign Salei because the organization has soured on the 23-year-old Kindl. He remains in the Wings' plans for the future, but he might have to wait another season.

Similarly, Brendan Smith is another top prospect in the Wings' system, but he's just turning pro this season after three seasons at the University of Wisconsin. The 2007 first-round pick will get an opportunity in the preseason, but he'll likely wind up in Grand Rapids, as well.

Will he be remembered as a one-hit wonder? Or is Jimmy Howard the real deal? We'll find out this season.

After four seasons of riding the busses in the AHL, Howard, 26, got his opportunity last season and ran with it. He had a splendid rookie season as he won 37 games, including three by way of a shutout, and posted a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.

He ranked eighth in wins, fifth in GAA and tied for fourth in save percentage. Howard, a finalist for the Calder Trophy, was a rock for the battered Red Wings and a major reason why they won 44 games, and beat the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the playoffs.

Can he do it again? We'll see, but he can't afford a sophomore slump, not with his contract due to expire at the end of the season. Howard reportedly will make $800,000 in 2010-11. He'd be in line for an extension and a big raise if he has another strong season.

If not, the Wings better hope that Chris Osgood is, at 37, able to assume full-time duties again in what could be his final NHL season.

Osgood, who also is entering the final year of his contract, was the No. 1 to start last season, but he got hurt and Howard got hot. Osgood played only 23 games and won just seven. For the second-straight season his GAA was above 3.00 and his save percentage was below .900.

Thomas McCollum is the goalie-in-waiting, but he has a lot to prove at the AHL level before he can be considered for NHL work. McCollum was 10-16-2 with a 3.48 GAA and .881 save percentage as a rookie in Grand Rapids last season.

Another prospect, Daniel Larsson, signed two-year deal to play with HV-71 in the Swedish Elite League, though the Red Wings retain his NHL rights for three more seasons. Larsson was slated to play in Grand Rapids for a third straight season.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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