Detroit made its 22nd consecutive appearance in the postseason in 2012-13, and while that streak was in doubt much of last season there seems little reason to worry about No. 23. With a deep group of forwards that is among the league's best, a mix of veterans and maturing youth on defense, one of the top goalies in the NHL and a minor league pipeline flush with talent, the Red Wings are poised not just to return to the playoffs, but to make a deep run once they're there.
After all, the Red Wings pulled off a first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks courtesy of a nervy performance by goalie Jimmy Howard, who won three of four overtime games in the series, and then nearly eliminated the eventual Stanley Cup champions two weeks later. For a team steeped in championship-level talent this run was no fluke, and Detroit should only be improved in 2013-14.
The Wings added scoring and experience with the signing of Daniel Alfredsson and inked Stephen Weiss to a five-year contract to solidify their second line. In addition, Detroit gave itself years of stability in net by extending Howard after a superb season, and young defenseman Danny DeKeyser should have a significant impact in his first full campaign.
Yes, there will be issues for Detroit to face. The Red Wings are of the oldest teams in the league, something not exactly helped by the addition of the 40-year-old Alfredsson, and they will have to learn a whole new slate of opponents with their move to the Eastern Conference. Developing chemistry with the new faces and adapting to life against the likes of the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators could provide bumps early on, but even those changes should eventually be more helpful than harmful.
The decreased stress of traveling in the East should leave the Red Wings more rested and healthy, while adding a player of Alfredsson's ilk and a solid center like Weiss should be a boon for an offense that experienced a decline in scoring for the second consecutive season. The new additions should also bolster a power play that scored at a middling rate of just 18.4 percent last season.
"One of the things you've got with Alfie is an experienced NHL player with a right-hand shot that can navigate the whole end zone and give you more options off of that. That's important," assistant coach Tom Renney told redwings.com this month. "Stephen's really an interesting player, he's a convertible type player because he can play up and play the point on the power play. How we choose to integrate him into that scheme remains to be seen. I think the power play should be more dynamic."
Despite, or perhaps because of the changes, the Wings figure to challenge for the division title and be among the top teams in the East with the potential of their first appearance in a conference final in five years.
At times last season it seemed Howard would have to win games by himself. Detroit's scoring output dropped to 2.54 goals per game in 2012-13, a rate in the bottom half of the League and the Red Wings' lowest in 36 years.
Revamping their offense was one of the Wings' priorities this offseason as indicated by their signing Alfredsson and Weiss, but the responsibility does not fall on their shoulders alone. Detroit's big three of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen each had seasons in line with their typical outstanding production in 2012-13, but then there was a significant drop.
Detroit's two highest-scoring forwards after Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Franzen were Damien Brunner (26 points) and Valtteri Filppula (17). Not only are those numbers hardly spectacular, but with Brunner on a tryout in New Jersey and Filppula in Tampa Bay, they're now irrelevant.
Alfredsson and Weiss should be a significant help, but it still leaves the Red Wings' forwards top heavy offensively. In training camp Weiss has been centering a second line with Franzen and Alfredsson, while Datsyuk has been on a top line with Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader. Much of Abdelkader's career has been spent as a fourth-liner, but after spending part of last season playing alongside Datsyuk it seems Abdelkader may be there to stay when the season opens.
"For me, I just try to keep it simple, and obviously it's always the best when (Datsyuk) or (Zetterberg) have the puck on their stick. I know that," Abdelkader told redwings.com earlier this month. "They're so good whether it's in the open ice or in the corners defensively. I just try to do my part and pull the rope.”
Those combinations give Detroit a formidable top two lines, but it also leaves much of the scoring concentrated. That should be enough to carry the Red Wings to the playoffs and potentially a division title, but to make a Cup run Detroit will have to get production from its bottom six.
Just who will make up the bottom six is still something of a mystery. Recently re-signed Daniel Cleary will be in the mix, as will Drew Miller, Cory Emmerton or Joakim Andersson among others, but they've generally been defensive-minded forwards. If the Red Wings are to truly get goals from their third and fourth lines it could mean opening the door for younger forwards like Gustav Nyquist, or perhaps a prospect such as Tomas Jurco or Calle Jarnkrok.
Detroit's biggest question mark might be its defensemen, but they aren't exactly an unknown quantity. The departures of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart before last season left some sizeable holes on the blue line, forcing young prospects Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff to accelerate their maturation process. They along with Jakub Kindl got significant minutes while veterans Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson did their best to keep what at times looked like a rickety ship together.
The young defense was certainly an issue at the start of the season, jeopardizing the Wings' playoff prospects in the process, but by April, Detroit had more or less stabilized on the back end, thanks largely in part to the signing of the highly sought after DeKeyser out of Western Michigan. Optimism is high that the young defensemen have jumped ahead of the learning curve, but the threat of regression looms.
"Kindl, Smith, DeKeyser and Lashoff are huge for us because they are kids," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told redwings.com earlier this month. "Can they do it again? If they don't do it again we're not as good, so I don't know the answer to that.”
DeKeyser, in particular, was a revelation in his limited time with the Wings, impressing with his ability to play the puck out of his own end and maintain the high level of play he exhibited in college, but he has still played just 11 regular-season NHL games. Many expect DeKeyser to compete for a top-four defense spot, but the top pair is likely to be the veterans Kronwall and Ericsson. The second defense pairing could be DeKeyser and Kindl, which is one of the combinations Babcock has used in camp. Rounding out the top six will likely be some combination of Kyle Quincey with either Smith or Lashoff, with one of those two staying on the roster as the seventh defenseman.
Should any of the Wings' young blueliners falter or get bit by the injury bug there will be reinforcements waiting in Grand Rapids. Defense prospects Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul are probably not NHL ready, but they have gotten ice time in the preseason and will likely be first in line for a call-up.
Some teams have questions in net or will be splitting time evenly between two goalies this season. In Detroit there will be no such thing. The Red Wings made that clear when they signed Howard to a six-year, $31.5 million contract extension this offseason.
Howard had just completed his fourth season as the No. 1, and while his starting role wasn't in doubt, his contract puts to bed any concerns about his future. Barring injury Howard will get the vast majority of starts, and considering his career-low 2.13 goals-against average and .923 save percentage last season, why wouldn't he? He managed not only superlative numbers during the regular season, but was arguably Detroit's best player in the playoffs, particularly in the Red Wings' seven-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
If there is any issue for Howard it might be his workload. After playing between 57 and 63 of Detroit's games in each of his first three seasons as the No. 1, Howard started 42 of 48 games in 2012-13. Over a full season that would translate to roughly 72 starts in 82 games, a total not unheard of, but still high. To keep him fresh the Red Wings may not want to use him as liberally as they did a season ago, but Howard is not concerned.
"I think it's one of those balancing acts that you have to do," Howard told NHL.com. "Once in a while it's good to hit that mental refresh button and just watch, but for me I just love being out there and I just love competing, so I want to be out on the ice as much as possible."
Howard's backup will likely be Jonas Gustavsson, who appeared in seven games last season and posted numbers that were considerably less gaudy than Howard's, a 2.92 GAA and .879 save percentage. A repeat may not be enough for Gustavsson to keep the backup job with Petr Mrazek waiting in the wings. One of the top goalie prospects in the game, Mrazek is considered a future NHL starter, though with Howard's extension it likely won't be in Detroit. In two starts last season, Mrazek went 1-1-0 while allowing just four goals on 51 shots.
Gustavsson should be with the organization through the season, after which he will be an unrestricted free agent, but Mrazek appears to be the player with more long-term value. If Howard misses any extended time, there is a strong argument it will be Mrazek rather than Gustavsson taking over in net.