The Wings are facing a significant transition this season, moving forward after the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom this spring. After two decades of outstanding play on the Detroit blue line, the 42-year-old captain elected to call it a career. When Lidstrom took over the C from Steve Yzerman after the 2005-06 season, the Wings boasted a much younger nucleus primed for annually making deep runs into the postseason. This time around, there are many questions about the personnel left behind attempting to push the franchise into the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.
In addition to losing Lidstrom, Brad Stuart opted to return to the west coast and re-sign with the Sharks in free agency. While Stuart's presence at the offensive end is entirely replaceable, he was regularly the Wings' best defensive blueliner after being acquired from Los Angeles in the spring of 2008. Efforts from general manager Ken Holland to replace Lidstrom and Stuart through free agency proved futile, as Ryan Suter landed a 13-year deal with Minnesota and an otherwise thin crop of talent available during the summer was dispersed elsewhere.
Offensively, the Wings still proved to be one of the stronger teams in the league, ranking seventh in goals per game (2.92) despite finishing 22nd in power-play success rate (16.1%). Although there were reports of interest in free agent Zach Parise to bolster the stable of top-six forwards, the former Devil landed in Minnesota with Suter as part of the Wild's summer spending spree.
While the big names in free agency ended up signing elsewhere, the Wings quietly made moves that could provide balance and much-needed grit by inking Jordan Tootoo to provide a nasty presence on the checking line. Damien Brunner has the tools to become a top-six contributor, but he will need to earn that role in camp and perhaps once the regular season begins after signing a two-way deal in July. It's believed that the addition of Brunner, paired with the return of Mikael Samuelsson and development of prospects Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar will offset the loss of Jiri Hudler.
Even with an offseason that many will view as a disappointment, the Wings are still positioned to compete for a postseason berth with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the charge. Jimmy Howard will once again serve as the team's workhorse between the pipes, and the addition of Jonas Gustavsson could provide much needed depth, particularly if Gustavsson takes a step toward delivering on the potential that he ultimately failed to fulfill in Toronto. For Holland and head coach Mike Babcock, this season should prove to be a good test of the team's recent drafts and player development as younger talent may be required to handle prominent roles if significant improvements prove to be unattainable via trade.
THE BIG GUNS
Pavel Datsyuk (C): Around minor knee surgery and a wrist injury, Datsyuk turned in another strong campaign and was a finalist for the Selke Award thanks to his excellent two-way play. Even when you consider that he missed 12 games during the regular season, Datsyuk's 19 goals were a disappointment and the lowest total he's delivered since 2002-03. If his shooting trends hold up (2.3 shots/game last season), it's dificult to envision a scenario where he will push his way back to previous 30-goal levels. The Wings were targeting a sniper in free agency to ride shotgun on Datsyuk's line, but the efforts came up short and he may have a difficult time exceeding a point-per-game pace as a result.
Henrik Zetterberg (C): Even though he played in all 82 games for the first time in his NHL career last season, Zetterberg recorded his lowest points total (69) in the past five seasons. Back issues made him a durability concern a couple years ago, but now that he's missed just two contests in the last two seasons combined, those worries should subside. Much like teammate Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg's offensive regression could be attributed to an aging supporting case. Without a big change in personnel in the team's top six this summer, Zetterberg appears poised for another season in the 70-point range. There is also some question as to whether the Wings' power play can rebound from a disappointing season (22nd in conversion rate at 16.1%) while entering year one post-Lidstrom.
Jimmy Howard (G): Howard rebounded from a disappointing 2010-11 to deliver his best goals-against average (2.12) over his three seasons as the Wings' starting netminder while parlaying the league's 10th-best save percentage (.920 ) into a career-high six shutouts. The workload last season would have been larger, but Howard missed time in February with a broken index finger. Questions about his ability as a true number one goaltender have subsided, but the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom and perhaps to a greater extent, Brad Stuart, could have an understandably large impact on Howard's numbers this season. Even with an improved backup behind him (Jonas Gustavsson), Howard should see 65 starts this time around, but he may be pressed to reach the 35-win plateau for the fourth consecutive season.
ON THE RISE
Valtteri Filppula (LW): The breakout many were expecting in previous campaigns finally came from Filppula last season, as he really clicked after joining Henrik Zetterberg's line while posting career-high totals (23 G, 43 A, plus-18) across the board. One knock continues to be that Filppula does not shoot the puck as much as he should, and last season was no exception as he fired just 144 shots despite an impressive 16.0% success rate. Although he struggled in the opening-round playoff loss to Nashville, Filppula finished the season on a high note in March with 14 points (4 G, 10 A) in 14 games while putting more than two shots on goal per game. He'll open the season skating on the Zetterberg line again, making another 65-70 point season a good bet.
Niklas Kronwall (D): Kronwall will enter the 2012-13 season as the Wings' top blueliner following the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom this summer. It's unclear who will skate in Kronwall's pairing, but he should have a larger role on the power play and see the heaviest share of minutes that he's been given in his entire career. Kronwall potted a career-high 15 goals while piling up 36 points over 82 games for the Wings last season, and might be in position to reach the 50-point threshold for the second time as an NHL player with the perfect storm of opportunity and health.
TWO TO WATCH
Brendan Smith (D): Even if Smith is initially outside of the top-four blueliners, he could emerge as an option for one of the top pairings and quickly earn a significant power-play role after delivering seven points in 14 games (1 G, 6 A) and a plus-3 rating in his first taste of Detroit last season. Asking him to immediately fill the offensive void created by the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom may be a bit much, but Smith could ascend to the front of the line quickly if the more senior players ahead of him on the depth chart prove unwilling -- or unable -- to quarterback the Wings' power play effectively. In multi-year formats, Smith should be upgraded as he's a virtual lock to secure the aforementioned roles at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Damien Brunner (RW): Brunner led the Swiss-A league in scoring last season with 24 goals and 60 points in 45 games, and Wings head coach Mike Babcock has suggested that he might immediately be a top-six forward in Detroit with his combination of top-end speed and plus offensive skills. There's plenty of wiggle room in that, however, as Brunner signed a two-way contract and could spend time at Grand Rapids if he doesn't adjust quickly to the North American game in training camp. With Jiri Hudler's departure in free agency and nothing in the way of proven top-six options inked during the summer, the door is open for Brunner to make an immediate impact.
Todd Bertuzzi (RW): Ice time continues to slip away for Bertuzzi and at age 37, his offensive production may be in danger of sliding below the 35-point threshold as well. As a checking-line player, Bertuzzi could remain an asset for the Wings even as a 15-minute player, but the dwindling power-play time will continue to chip away at the remnants of his fantasy value. Since the Wings failed to bring in another top-six forward in free agency, there's a chance that Bertuzzi will see occasional work with Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, but it's more likely that he'll slide back into the aforementioned veteran checking role as Dan Cleary or Mikael Samuelsson should offer more offensive upside at this stage of their respective careers.
Jonathan Ericsson (D): As offensive blueliners go, Ericsson doesn't appear to have much forthcoming in terms of growth. Perhaps he'll earn the nod alongside Niklas Kronwall as the second member of the Wings' top defensive pairing, but the 28-year-old has never exceeded 15 points in a season and anything beyond 20-25 seems like a long shot even with a larger role. Further, he'll have a stable of offensive-minded competition for time with the man advantage, which also limits his offensive ceiling. Rolling the dice on a Detroit blueliner could pay dividends, but Ericsson is hardly the best option for that gamble.
Gustav Nyquist (C): With a couple of opportunities to impress head coach Mike Babcock as a rookie during stints with the big club last season, Nyquist made his mark and ultimately saw time during the playoff series against Nashville. He may not immediately get a top-six forward spot, but Nyquist has a very bright future and would be a candidate to reach 35-40 points even if he ends up skating on the third line with Darren Helm next season. It is expected that Nyquist will develop into a point-per-game player in the long run, and he may be able to play his way onto a scoring line sooner rather than later if he's able to bulk up and make an impression during camp after the Wings' free-agent exploits failed to bring in an elite sniper.
Tomas Tatar (LW): Tatar delivered another 24-goal season at Grand Rapids (AHL) and there's reason to believe that he may be closing in on an opportunity in Detroit. Now 21, it's unclear if he'll develop enough of an all-around game to make that leap permanently out of training camp, but Tatar is one of the more experienced prospects in the Wings' system and the team's need for secondary scoring may pave his way to a top-six role before season's end.