On the heels of capturing their ninth Central Division crown in the last 10 seasons, the Red Wings swept the Coyotes in the opening round of the playoffs before falling in an epic seven-game series with the Sharks. Facing elimination after the first three games of the series, Detroit rallied to force the decisive Game 7, but were unable to join the ranks of the few NHL clubs to win a series after facing a 3-0 deficit as San Jose triumphed to advance to the Conference Finals.
Offensively, the Wings continue to produce as one of the league's top clubs and they ranked second only to the Canucks last season in goals per game (3.13) and fifth in the league in power-play conversions (22.3%). Defensively, many of the mental lapses that plagued the blue-line corps the previous season were erased by more consistent play from the likes of Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl. In goal, Jimmy Howard has proven to be a workhorse over the last two seasons and while the organization would still like to see him avoid stretches of sloppy play, the front office showed confidence in him by working out a two-year extension last February.
A pair of familiar faces opted for retirement during the summer as the Wings lost puck-moving blueliner Brian Rafalski, and former Grind Line member Kris Draper. The latter no longer held a significant role, but the former's departure has created a vacancy for a back-end contributor to the power play. That role could be awarded through an open competition in training camp that figures to include free-agent addition Ian White and prospect Brendan Smith, among others.
In terms of expectations, Mike Babcock's squad should once again challenge for the division crown and make another deep playoff run provided that the goaltending holds up. A significant injury to Howard could prove to be a devastating blow as bids to secure a top-tier backup in free agency were futile, and the Wings would be left with a combination of Ty Conklin and Joey MacDonald manning the net. With the team's nucleus of offensive stars remaining intact, the Wings should once again boast a roster capable of providing plenty for fantasy owners to get excited about.
THE BIG GUNS
Pavel Datsyuk (C): A wrist injury limited Datsyuk to 56 games last season and even prevented him from taking faceoffs after his return down the stretch and during the postseason. Working around the injury, Datsyuk delivered more than a point per game for the fifth time in six seasons. At press time, there were whispers that he still was not 100 percent recovered from the injury, but if his postseason numbers are any indication (4 G, 11 A in 11 games), he can still be an offensive force without his contributions in the faceoff circle. Wings head coach Mike Babcock once again paired Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the same line in the playoffs, but that situation figures to be fluid at even strength. Regardless of his linemates, Datsyuk is capable of another 80-point campaign provided that his wrist injury is ultimately behind him.
Henrik Zetterberg (LW/C): After playing a career-high 80 games in the regular season, Zetterberg returned to point-per-game status for the first time since 2007-08 while chipping in 30 of his 80 points with the man advantage (10 G, 20 A). He'll turn 31 early next season, but Zetterberg remains one of the league's better forwards and his fantasy value is even higher in formats where he still carries eligibility as a left wing. As always, he'll see time one of the league's top power-play units with Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, and Zetterberg should be one of the first forwards off the board in most formats.
Nicklas Lidstrom (D): Lidstrom is making us believe that Ponce de Leon may have actually been Swedish. After losing Brian Rafalski to retirement, the Wings' blue line received a significant boost when Lidstrom decided to return for his 20th season, as he continues to play at an extremely high level. Lidstrom finished second among NHL defensemen in 2010-11 with 62 points, while playing a full 82-game schedule for the second straight year. Even with some regression at age 41, we can't bet against the possibility of another Norris-caliber campaign.
ON THE RISE
Dan Cleary (RW): Cleary has evolved from scrapheap checking-line contributor to potential top-six forward and wing man to Pavel Datsyuk during his time in Detroit. Head coach Mike Babcock loves the physical presence Cleary can bring to his scoring lines, which includes a willingness to dig pucks out of the boards and crash the net. As Tomas Holmstrom's role continues to erode, the opportunity for Cleary to build off of last season's career-high 46 points will only grow. Keep an eye on the Wings' power-play plans for him during training camp, as added time with the man advantage would give him a nice boost in value.
Ian White (D): Including the Sharks, White played on four different teams after entering the NHL in 2005-06 with the Maple Leafs (the Flames and Hurricanes were the others). Things seemed to click for him in San Jose, as White had 10 points (2 G, 8 A) in 23 regular season games, followed by his first career postseason in which he tacked on a plus-3 rating with eight assists and a goal. After signing with Detroit as a free agent in July, White will be counted on to help recoup the lost blue-line production following the retirement of Brian Rafalski. If he cracks one of the top two blue-line pairings, there will be plenty of sleeper potential here.
TWO TO AVOID
Jiri Hudler (LW): Hudler returned from his one-year hiatus in the KHL and flopped miserably following preseason expectations of a breakout from head coach Mike Babcock. He spent stretches of the regular season in the press box as a healthy scratch, and never seemed to get off the ground on a third-line centered by veteran Mike Modano. He's still just 27, but Hudler's time in Detroit may be running out as he's entering the final year of his contract and his plus/minus rating has tumbled in each of his last three seasons in Detroit. Keep an eye on him during training camp, the 57-point player we saw before his season in Russia could emerge and provide an upgrade over Todd Bertuzzi and Tomas Holmstrom, but he'll need to play a consistent and responsible two-way game in order to return to Babcock's good graces.
Todd Bertuzzi (RW): Bertuzzi reached the 40-point mark for the fourth consecutive season, but he's an aging veteran clearly in the midst of a decline. Although he's missed just one regular season game in the last two seasons, Bertuzzi has compiled a minus-14 rating during that time and his lack of power-play opportunities limits his fantasy value because he fails to carry owners in any one category. Fortunately for Big Bert, he looks to be in position for one more spin as a top-six forward, and it should be riding shotgun to Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, which keeps the floor reasonably high even if the ceiling is low for him at age 36.
Brendan Smith (D): Smith projects as an eventual top-four blueliner with power-play quarterback upside, but the Wings' addition of Ian White and Mike Commodore could give the team enough short-term depth to enable Smith to begin the year at Grand Rapids (AHL) again. Smith racked up 32 points (12 G, 20 A) with the Griffins in 63 games last season and may not be far away from a prominent role with the big club. Particularly in keeper formats, Smith is an excellent late-round target as he's ready to contribute at the NHL-level should the opportunity arise.
Tomas Tatar (LW): Tatar lit the lamp in his NHL debut for the Wings on New Year's Eve last season, but failed to register another point while holding a depth role for the big club during a nine-game stint. Still just 20 years old, the Slovakian winger has the speed and hands to develop into a top-line sniper in the not-so-distant future. Tatar spent most of his season with Grand Rapids (AHL), racking up 57 points (24 G, 33 A) over 70 games and improving his plus/minus to a plus-14 mark last season. Depth in Detroit will likely keep him in the AHL for one more season, but he could become a part of the regular plans in 2012-13 with many of the aging veterans coming off the books.