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Reshaped Wings hope they're still contenders

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

DETROIT -- Red Wings general manager Ken Holland knew his team was one of the NHL's best a year ago.

Now, Holland hopes that's still the case.

Detroit fell one victory short of repeating as NHL champions in June, losing to Pittsburgh in a Stanley Cup finals rematch. Since then, the salary cap prevented the Red Wings from keeping star Marian Hossa, other key players and their backup goaltender.

The storied franchise still has some of the best players in hockey, including forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk along with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. But it will rely on more young players this season than it has during a two-decade stretch of excellence.

"The exciting part is it's a new season, and a lot of players are getting a new opportunity," Holland said in a telephone interview from Sweden, where the Red Wings opened the season. "We still have the nucleus of our club that won a Cup, played in the last two finals and was in the final four the past three years. But we did lose a lot of goals because we had a lot of turnover.

"The difference is, last year I knew we had a shot because we kept our pieces and added Marian Hossa and this season we've got more unknowns."

Hossa's one-year gamble to win a Stanley Cup didn't work out last season, and he left to sign a lucrative deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, who also plucked Tomas Kopecky from Detroit.

Detroit's Jiri Hudler bolted to play in Russia, Mikael Samuelsson signed with Vancouver and goalie Ty Conklin left for St. Louis.

Those four skaters combined to score 88 goals and Conklin won 25 games during the regular season - only one fewer than Chris Osgood - and had a team-low 2.51 goals-against average.

The Red Wings are counting on production from players who were prospects a year ago and some veterans who have played for them in the past.

Ville Leino, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson combined to play just 50 regular season games last year - and each will easily surpass that total if healthy.

"We really believe they're good players," said Steve Yzerman, a Red Wings vice president and former star. "We have a group of young players, much like back in '93, '94 when (Darren) McCarty, (Martin) Lapointe and Ozzie, those guys played a couple years in the minors and kind of became the core of our team for about 10 years."

Detroit desperately needs another young player, Jimmy Howard, a second-round pick in 2003, to be Osgood's backup after playing just nine games in three NHL seasons.

Detroit brought back Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams as free agents and hope Patrick Eaves is this year's version of Dan Cleary. Eaves had 34 goals in his first two seasons in the league with Ottawa, then scored just 11 times the last two years.

Cleary scored 24 goals in a two-year stretch at the beginning of the decade and almost faded out of the league before reviving his career with 54 goals the last three years in Detroit.

The changes will push players such as Valtteri Filppula into a larger role offensively and will force the team to rely on Osgood and its stellar and stable group of defenseman with the 39-year-old Lidstrom and 28-year-old Niklas Kronwall.

"That's how we're going to win a lot of hockey games, being a tough team to play against defensively," veteran forward Kris Draper said.

Despite all the turnover and accompanying questions, Lidstrom still likes the Red Wings' chances.

"I think we're going to be one of the top teams in the league again," the captain said. "We've lost some players, but we added Jason Williams and I think Todd Bertuzzi's going to be a great addition.

"Looking at Kronwall, Filppula, players of that caliber are just going to make our team better so I'm real excited about this upcoming season."

Tomas Holmstrom is even more confident.

"For sure we're going back to the Stanley Cup finals," he said. "And if it would be Pittsburgh, we're going to beat them for sure."


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