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Wings motivated by critics in last year at the Joe

Coach Jeff Blashill believes every game is critical with so little separating most teams

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

DETROIT - The regular season officially gets underway for the Red Wings tomorrow night in Tampa.

Coach Jeff Blashill knows that parity in the National Hockey League means there are no nights off.

"Somebody said to me playoffs start tomorrow and they're right," Blashill said. "I think every single game is critically important and tomorrow's not going to be any different."

The Wings have made the playoffs 25 straight years and one of their goals is to make it 26 straight.

"We have to get off to a good start," general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association this week. "We don't want to get out of the gate with three wins and seven losses and start getting behind and play catch-up hockey. I always talk about the U.S. Thanksgiving and where you stand. I'm anticipating everything to be bunched up. You don't want to be six or eight points behind the bunch."

The experts have been making their predictions for the season and most are predicting that this is the year that the Wings finally miss the postseason.

"That's what is going to motivate us as a group," alternate captain Justin Abdelkader said. "We know what we have in here and what we're capable of. Obviously there are teams that are always going to be the favorites that have done well the previous year. We've got confidence in this group. We brought on some really good players and I think our young players are going to take another step. We have a good mix in here."

Last season Dylan Larkin made the team as a 19-year-old after an impressive training camp and preseason.

As a rookie, Larkin generally played on the wing. Now the Wings are asking him to move back to his natural position at center.

"It's going to be good," Larkin said. "Just being back in the middle, obviously challenges are face-offs and defensive zone but things I'm looking forward to and excited to start."

Blashill cautioned that because not a lot was expected from Larkin last season, his 23 goals and 22 assists were a pleasant surprise.

Now people will expect even more.

"He has a very bright future and it's great for our organization," Abdelkader said. "He's a player that puts teams on their heels, with his speed creates a lot of mismatches. Just continue to grow. He's young, 20 years old. It's really young. You got to commit yourself in the offseason training-wise, and I think he's done a great job of that. He looks like he's ready to go."

People are also expecting more from Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist after their offense went down some from the previous season.

In 2014-15, Tatar had 29 goals and 27 assists while Nyquist had 27 goals and 27 assists.

In 2015-16, Tatar had 21 goals and 24 assists while Nyquist had 17 goals and 26 assists.

"With Tats and Nyquist, I don't think they had down years, I don't think I played them as much," Blashill said. "When you look at points and goals per minute, it wasn't much different. I think we're in a spot where they're both going to get lots of opportunity, now they have to go out and do a real good job."

Tatar had an average ice time of 16:13 in 2014-15 and 14:21 last season.

Nyquist had an average ice time of 16:39 in 2014-15 and 15:10 last season.

The Wings are expecting their newcomers, Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, to be able to contribute.

Nielsen and Vanek joined the team a little late because of the World Cup.

Nielsen, 32, is one of the players being counted on to help replace some of the things Pavel Datsyuk did, both offensively and defensively.

Several of the Wings have already marveled at Vanek's effortless ability to score after watching him in practice and in the final preseason game.

"I think they're getting more and more comfortable," Blashill said. "Nielsen is getting more and more comfortable. Vanek looks like somebody who is what we thought he was. He's got real elite offensive ability. He was the fifth overall pick, you don't become the fifth overall pick if you don't have elite, offensive ability and a real skill set. We don't have lots of guys who were picked that high because we haven't drafted that high."

For Nielsen, it will be his first regular season game with the Wings after spending the first part of his career with the New York Islanders.

"You definitely feel that it's getting closer and you know it's always the first game of the year it's going to be a few nerves, especially with a new team, but hopefully you get a couple shifts in and it's going to feel like any other game," Nielsen said. "But I'm excited to get going again. It's been some time since the World Cup now and had some good skates here and getting familiar with the system and the guys. It's going to be fun to finally start."

Many of the Wings have played against Ott and are hoping he can continue to be difficult to play against.

Ott is also an outgoing person who can also make a difference off the ice, especially as he gets to know everyone better.

"Steve has the approach, just his mentality, he likes having fun, everywhere, in the locker room," Blashill said. "I think it's something we're going to continue to push as a coaching staff that we do lots of things together as a team so our team camaraderie is great so when they walk out on the ice they follow what's above them and that's, 'Fight for your teammates,' - that's not literally, but sometimes figuratively that you want to feel so close to each that you want to make sure you stick up for each other just like you would for your own brother."

Captain Henrik Zetterberg played in all 82 games last year and led the team in scoring with 50 points (13 goals) but he was not satisfied.

"I thought I had a good start last year but I tailed off in the end," Zetterberg said. "I need to be more consistent."

Zetterberg turned 36 on Oct. 9 so Blashill plans to work with him to make sure he gets some maintenance days where he does not have to practice.

Datsyuk and Zetterberg were first and second in average time on ice among forwards, so it would be likely be beneficial for Zetterberg to not have to play as many hard minutes.

A similar thing will have to take place on defense as Niklas Kronwall, who will start the season on injured reserve, led all players in average time on ice at 22:01.

Kronwall, 35, has a lot of wear and tear on his knees and it's something he will have to deal with for as long as he plays.

Brendan Smith, 27, is looking to take on a larger role this season and said he believes in the team's defense.

"I think our D are underrated," Smith said. "A lot of people give us a lot of grief about our D not being good. That frustrates me because I think we're a good club and defense isn't just our D corps, it's the whole defense and I think we'll show a lot for sure."

Holland, a former goaltender, said he understands how important a good defense is.

"We don't have Nick Lidstrom and we don't have a superstar back there, probably 20 teams in the league don't have a superstar back there," Holland said. "Star defensemen are hard to get. You have to draft them. You have to develop them. For the most part they have to be homegrown."

Although the Wings haven't drafted high enough to select a Victor Hedman-type No. 1 defenseman, they think a couple of their young defensemen are ready to take another step.

"Dan DeKeyser, he's 26," Holland said. "We signed him to a six-year deal. We really feel he's a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman. We signed (Alexey Marchenko) to a two-year deal. We thought he played really good in the World Cup."

Then there's Mike Green, who signed with the Wings before last season.

Green can be a difference-maker as an offensive defenseman.

"He's been an elite player in this league and he wants to continue to get better," Blashill said. "The one measurable that we think is going to drive his performance better than anything else is his shots per game. We've really, really pushed him to be a shooter first and have a big-time shooting mentality. That's when he scored the most points in the league in his career."

Green, who turned 31 today, had seven goals and 28 assists in 74 games last season. He took just 124 shots.

In 75 games with the Washington Capitals in 2009-10, Green had 19 goals and 57 assists. He took 205 shots that season. The season before that, Green had 31 goals and 42 assists while taking a career-high 243 shots.

Finally, there's goaltending. 

Petr Mrazek, 24, was one of the best goalies in the league before the All-Star break at 18-9-4 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

But after the break, Mrazek went 9-7-2 with a 2.86 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.

With the condensed schedule due to the World Cup, the Wings will need both Mrazek and Jimmy Howard to play well.

"The bottom line with goaltending is that in this league, you need two goaltenders at different points in the year," Blashill said. "Nobody on our team or most teams in the NHL play 70 games as a starting goalie. So we're going to have somebody that's going to play 50-60 games and somebody that's going to play 20-30 games. Both guys are going to have a big impact on our season. Their play will impact how good we are without question. We don't need good goaltending. We need elite."

The other factor for the Wings this season is that this is the last season at Joe Louis Arena as next year they will move into the new Little Caesars Arena.

"It's been a incredible time here at Joe Louis Arena for our fans and our players," Holland said. "We've got a new state-of-the-art facility that we're looking forward to going into but we'd certainly like to finish out our time here at Joe Louis Arena and go out with a real bang."

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