Armed with a veteran roster, the Red Wings entered last season having to offset the loss of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson and Tomas Kopecky in free agency. If the offense didn't already have to rely enough on gray-haired players, top winger Johan Franzen was sidelined by a torn ACL for a significant chunk of the regular season, ultimately pushing the Wings to the playoff fringe in the Western Conference standings before heating up down the stretch and going 16-2-2 after the start of March.
It seemed as though the toll of back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finals paired with the longer NHL regular season thanks to the Winter Olympics emptied the Wings' gas tank in April, as a much younger San Jose squad quickly disposed of them in five games. Getting stretched to a full seven-game series in the opening round by Phoenix certainly didn't help, but the Wings are approaching the 2010-11 campaign with their longest summer to rest in several seasons.
The big change on the roster took place over the course of last season, when rookie netminder Jimmy Howard overtook Chris Osgood as the team's starting goaltender. Howard was a huge part of the team's success down the stretch and his consistently strong play and ability to handle a large workload have earned the trust of head coach Mike Babcock. General manager Ken Holland was largely dormant over the summer, adding veteran blueliner Ruslan Salei as a third-pairing option, welcoming back Hudler from his one-year return in the KHL, and bringing in Mike Modano to center the team's checking line in the twilight of his career.
Even with little offseason turnover, the pieces remain in place for another deep playoff run, as the Wings' combination of veteran stalwarts and young role players should push division rival Chicago in the Blackhawks' quest to defend their Stanley Cup title.
THE BIG GUNS
Pavel Datsyuk (C):
Much like teammate Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk's numbers suffered with the lack of secondary scoring options on the Wings' roster this season which was only exacerbated by Johan Franzen's torn ACL. It wasn't all bad, however, as Datsyuk still carried a respectable plus-17 rating while reaching the 70-point mark in 80 games. With improved depth at a center, head coach Mike Babcock is planning on starting the season with Zetterberg and Datsyuk on the same line. Both players should see a rebound in their production if the tandem stays together for the better part of the 82-game slate and Datsyuk should still be considered a threat for 90-plus points.
Henrik Zetterberg (LW/C):
The Wings' offense last season lacked secondary scoring options and Zetterberg's numbers remained on the relative low (70) as a result. Entering this season, the plan is for him to skate on Pavel Datsyuk's line again, which in tandem could certainly help put him closer to to the 92-point campaign he had when Detroit hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2007-08. Perhaps the most disappointing loss in Zetterberg's production was on the power play, where he scored just three goals with the man advantage last season after rolling up 28 markers in the previous season. A big part of the drought for Zetterberg may also be attributed to the absence of Johan Franzen for the bulk of the year. At age 30, he looks like a bounceback candidate and his playoff production (7 G, 8 A in 11 games) certainly supports his chances.
Nicklas Lidstrom (D):
An ageless wonder on the Wings' blue line, Lidstrom fell just short of his 15th career 50-point campaign last season, but he rolled over the 1,000-point mark on his career odometer. He started off very quietly, chipping in just 17 points (1 G, 16 A) in the team's first 40 games before heating up with 35 points (8 G, 27 A) over the final 42 contests. If the second half of the season is any indication, there's still plenty left in the tank for the Swede to remain an elite blueliner even at age 40. For fantasy owners, he's still one of the five-best defensemen in the game, thanks in large part to a consistently good plus/minus rating and big minutes on a potent power-play unit. At this point, it's beginning to look like Lidstrom will be one of those players who can walk away from the game before it passes him by.
ON THE RISE
In many ways, you could argue that Franzen was the Red Wings' Most Valuable Player last season. He missed 55 games with a torn ACL, but he tallied 21 points (10 G, 11 A) in 27 regular season games while the Wings posted an 18-5-4 record while he was in the lineup and a 26-19-10 record when he was out. Further, Detroit scored 3.26 goals per game when Mule was on the ice compared to just 2.56 goals per game without him. As a top-six forward with an opportunity to potentially skate with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk at even strength, Franzen should make a push back into the 30-goal range with a double-digit tallies on the power play. Be sure to pounce if the owners in your league discount him on draft day because of the missed time last season. This time next year, he'll almost certainly be listed in the Big Guns section of this preview.
Jiri Hudler (LW): As if losing Marian Hossa weren't enough, Hudler's decision to spurn the Wings last season to play for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL last season resulted in a lack of secondary offense behind the team's big guns on the top line. Prior to leaving his NHL club, Hudler showed steady growth in his three seasons with Detroit and was poised for a full season on one of the team's scoring lines prior to leaving for Russia. At press time, he's poised to begin the year on a line with Mike Modano and Dan Cleary, but head coach Mike Babcock is more of a "Dixon Ticonderoga" type than a "Bic" guy when it comes to his line assignments, and it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Hudler in the mix for power-play time and top-six minutes as the season unfolds.
TWO TO AVOID
Todd Bertuzzi (RW): Bertuzzi's second stint in Detroit went much better than his first as he managed to stay healthy for all 82 regular season games, a feat he had not accomplished since 2005-06. Even with chances to skate on line centered by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, he only racked up 44 points (18 G, 26 A) while carrying a minus-7 rating. The Wings were pleased with Bertuzzi's conditioning and durability, rewarding the 35-year-old with a two-year deal to ensure that they'd have a third big body to keep in front of opposing netminders when Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom aren't pestering them. For those in deeper leagues, there's moderate value here, but Big Bert isn't going to ride on the top power-play unit and his value will take a big hit if he's bumped out of the top-six ranks with the return of Jiri Hudler from a one-year stint Russia.
Chris Osgood (G): After playing a vital role in the Wings' run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008-09, Osgood faded badly last season and quickly lost his starting job to Jimmy Howard. He'll turn 38 in November and that he's only scheduled to bank $1.1 million from the Wings this season makes keeping him around as the backup to Howard more than reasonable. The concern here is that Osgood's 21 starts last season clearly showed decline (3.02 GAA, .888 save percentage), so his value even when he gets an opportunity every fourth game or isn't as high as you might think. This season will probably be his last, but Osgood's place in Red Wings history is unquestioned and he's shown a tendency throughout his career to surprise when you least expect it.
Jakub Kindl (D): Kindl is a toolsy blueliner with top-four potential, but he suffers from inconsistent play at times and he still hasn't fulfilled his offensive potential. In the short term, he's going to battle Jonathan Ericsson for minutes in the team's third blue-line pairing with veteran Ruslan Salei, but it remains to be seen if he'll ever emerge as the sure-handed back-end option that the Wings can rely on for heavy minutes. If he's committing costly turnovers, he'll be spending time in the press box as the seventh defenseman, but Kindl could be a 15-20 point player if he's able to earn the trust of head coach Mike Babcock and appear in 65-70 games.
Brendan Smith (D): A finalist for the Hobey Baker award in his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, Smith led the nation in blue-line scoring with 52 points (15 G, 37 A) last season. He'll likely spend his first professional season in Grand Rapids (AHL), but Smith has the polish to make it up to Detroit quickly and there's top-four potential here depending on how his game develops at the defensive end. The Red Wings believe that Smith will need very little time in the minors before he's ready to contribute at the NHL level – there are some concerns about his maturity after some off-ice incidents in Madison – but don't be surprised if he debuts this season when injuries necessitate a call up or two. If you're searching for internal options to eventually take over as the role of power-play quarterback whenever Nicklas Lidstrom decides to hang up his skates, look no further.
Tomas Tatar (LW): Most scouting reports of Tatar are nothing short of glowing. His future appears to be that of a scoring-line sniper, as he's got a combination of top-end speed and excellent hands along with a knack for always being in position to make things happen with the puck. At 19, he's going to return to Grand Rapids (AHL) to continue refining his game – particularly, in the defensive end – but in long-term keeper leagues, there's definite star potential here. Coming up through the Red Wings' system, he may have to be worked in slowly like most of the team's young players (see: Abdelkader, Justin), but Tatar was very productive as the youngest player in the AHL last season (32 points in 58 games) and a 2011-2012 debut with the Wings isn't out of the question.