Detroit coach Mike Babcock believes the veteran Red Wings will be stronger in 2010-11 in part because they played a shortened schedule by their standards last season.
It's not that Babcock was happy that the Wings went out quickly in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, losing in five games to the San Jose Sharks, but being an eternal optimist he sees the silver lining.
The Red Wings are the NHL's oldest team, and an extra month of rest after going the distance for two straight seasons will benefit them greatly -- especially in the important latter stages of the regular season going into the playoffs.
Detroit had stayed relatively quiet all summer until last week when they announced the signing of 40-year-old Mike Modano, who adds yet another scoring presence to a lineup that's already loaded with them, including Jiri Hudler
. He is returning after spending a year in the KHL.
Barring changes that wouldn't shock Babcock, the coach thinks he already has his lines ironed out -- or at least the ones that he'll start training camp with, because we all know forward lines and defensive pairings are fluid.
The Wings finished '09-10 with 102 points, fifth in the West, salvaging a difficult season that began with back-to-back losses to St. Louis in Sweden and gave way to various injuries to Johan Franzen
, Tomas Holmstrom
, Niklas Kronwall
, Valtteri Filppula
, Dan Cleary and Henrik Zetterberg
Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk
each had only 70 points, down seasons by their standards. And, strangest of all, six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom
wasn't even nominated for the top defenseman award. That sent a collective gasp through the hockey world.
All told it was a different 2009-10 season in Hockeytown, but one that a lot of teams would still love to have. It also gave us a glimpse into the talents of goalie Jimmy Howard
, who needs one more good year as the Wings backstop to earn a big contract and secure his future in Detroit.
Babcock believes everything will be better in the coming season, and that the Wings will again be a legit Stanley Cup contender.
"Chicago's going to be thinner as we all know and I think we're going to be better," the coach told NHL.com last month. "I like what has happened for the Red Wings as far as the dispersal of talent goes in the Western Conference. I like our team. I even told my wife that."
There's not too much to report in this department, and that's always good news for a team that had 102 points the season before.
The Wings lost defenseman Brett Lebda, who signed with Toronto, and forwards Jason Williams and Brad May won't be back.
Veteran wing Kirk Maltby remains unsigned, but he will likely be coming to training camp if he doesn't sign a deal elsewhere and GM Ken Holland would like to get him on a two-way contract so he has flexibility. Maltby, 37, has been with the Wings since 1996, but he played in only 52 games last season and none in the playoffs due to a shoulder injury.
Andreas Lilja also remains unsigned as he continues to test the free agency waters, but the Wings reportedly have offered him $1 million for one year, and that might be good enough to get him back. Lilja missed 12 months with concussion problems, returning for the final 20 games of last season as well as the playoffs.
Babcock was so sure that the Wings were going to sign Modano this summer that on July 16 he told NHL.com, "He'll fit and he'll be excited to play. I look forward to him signing. I think that's inevitable." He also said it would take Modano until August to sign.
He was dead on.
The Wings locked up Modano to a one-year contract and Babcock envisions the all-time leading American-born scorer to be his third-line center behind Datsyuk and Filppula. He thinks Modano will play at least two years in Detroit.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk will start the season on the same line with Holmstrom. Filppula should be between Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi
, leaving Modano to center a line that includes Hudler and Cleary. That leaves up to six forwards -- Kris Draper, Darren Helm
, Justin Abdelkader
, Patrick Eaves
, Drew Miller
and potentially Mattias Ritola -- to vie for playing time on the fourth line.
But don't be shocked if the Wings make another move to secure another scoring forward at a bargain price.
Modano was debating between retiring after 20 seasons with the Stars' organization, dating back to its days as the North Stars in Minnesota, or playing on with another team. Since he's a Michigan native, it only made sense for him to come home.
The other big arrival is Hudler, who is coming back after spending last season playing in the KHL. Hudler scored a career-high 57 points in 2008-09, and Babcock is such a fan that he called him "magic" and added, "I missed him way more than I thought I was going to miss him."
Babcock hopes he can pencil Hudler in for 70 points as he'll also be a mainstay on the Wings' power play. Modano, by the way, will be the point man opposite Kronwall on the second power-play unit.
The Red Wings know that eventually age will catch up to them, but that only holds true for a few players, such as Lidstrom, Modano, Brian Rafalski, Bertuzzi, Draper and Holmstrom. The rest are in the prime of their careers, entering their prime years or just starting to blossom.
On paper, Detroit looks good -- really good, in fact. The Wings are deep, talented, experienced and highly potent offensively. But the question marks surrounding this team are obvious:
Will Howard hold up and be the goalie he was last season, when he won 37 games with a 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage? Can 40-year-old future Hall of Famers Lidstrom and Modano do it again? Will Datsyuk and Zetterberg rebound from sub-par seasons? How well will Hudler do in his comeback to the NHL after one year in the KHL?
If Howard takes a step backward it could be detrimental to the Wings, who retained the services of Chris Osgood as his backup. However, if Babcock has his way, Howard won't face the same kind of pounding he did last season, because if healthy the Wings should again be one of the league's best puck-possession team.