Now that the long lockout has finally ended, the NHL season will finally start this weekend. The Detroit Red Wings are a team full of question marks. The first being: What players will step into leadership roles?
This is a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs last season and has regressed since their last trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2009. They have the top-level talent to make a long playoff run, but do they have the depth and defense to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?
A season like this could come down to leadership. There are different ways for players to be leaders. What players will step up to drive, lead and motivate the team this season?
Obviously, Henrik Zetterberg tops the list since he was recently named the new captain of the team. Zetterberg is in the mold of Nicklas Lidstrom, and Steve Yzerman before him.
He is a lead-by-example type who is not one to cause a scene or call a teammate out in the media. This method has worked well for the past two decades for the team, so it makes sense to keep going with it.
Zetterberg will have a tougher time than both Lidstrom and Yzerman did when they took over. When Yzerman became captain, there really were no expectations for the team. They had spent many years as one of the worst teams in the league.
Lidstrom took over a team that was still near the top of the league and loaded with talent. They had won the Stanley Cup in 2002 and were among the favorites to compete for it again.
Zetterberg takes over a team in transition. Lidstrom’s retirement will greatly affect the defense. That was made worse when Brad Stuart decided to head back west. Also, management did not land any big-name free agents to help a team that has been in decline.
While the team still has talent, it is not as deep as the team Lidstrom took over. The expectations are high, though, as Detroit has made the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. Zetterberg does not want that streak to end under his watch.
A great team doesn’t put it all on one player, though. Who else will step up to help Zetterberg lead the Red Wings?
Generally, the best player is automatically placed in some type of leadership role. Pavel Datsyuk is the team’s best player. While he may not seem like a take-charge guy, he can take over a game. His play on the ice can greatly lead this team.
A strong season from Datsyuk can take pressure off of the rest of the team. While he tends to be a pass-first player, with the defensive questions on this team, he needs to be more focused on scoring. A more aggressive Datsyuk will help his teammates since opposing teams will focus more on him.
He has worn the “A” on his jersey for several seasons now and is already considered a leader in the locker room. He will need to be that leader even more so now.
While most teams do not have goalies as captains, there is no denying their leadership value to the team.
As the Red Wings try to break in a defense with more question marks than they are used to, having strong play from Howard will greatly help. Howard is also one of the first players that the media comes to. Having a veteran player that is willing and able to deal with the tough questions will also help.
The team is likely to have several young players on defense this season. Brendan Smith is expected to log heavy minutes this season, and there is a chance that the team will call on other younger players from the Grand Rapids Griffins to fill in.
Young players are bound to mess up, but if Howard can help those mistakes from being worse, it will help these players get better quicker.
Great goalie play can cover up some defensive weaknesses. Howard needs to be that great goalie this season.
With Lidstrom gone, the defensive unit is now Niklas Kronwall’s. He has slowly been building into this role for a few seasons. He has shared the alternate captain label and has taken on a great responsibility.
All eyes will be on the defense this season, especially at the start. It will be up to Kronwall to be the first one to correct his fellow defensemen for errors as well as to lift them up. If as many younger players get a chance as expected, he will have many teachable moments over the course of this season.
The loss of Lidstrom and Stuart is huge; however, it is not as though there is no talent left on the blue line. Kronwall will need to keep reminding teammates of that as he motivates them throughout the season.
Valtteri Filppula is coming off of a breakout season. He hopes to continue that this year. As Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Johan Franzen get older, their production will continue to decline. At 28, Filppula still has great hockey ahead of him.
Also, of the under-30 Red Wings, he is most likely to be next in line to be captain. That is not something that is just given to any player on the Red Wings; they need to work up to it for several seasons.
This is the season where Filppula can start to make his mark in the leadership department. Another great season on the ice will help, but he needs to follow it up with leadership in the locker room as well.
There are many leadership options on this team. When a team is successful and winning, leading usually is not that difficult. But when a losing streak happens or a team starts falling in the standings, that is when you find out how good a leader really is.
As this short season is about to get started, the Red Wings—and Zetterberg—will need every player to step up if this is going to be a successful season.
PJ Sapienza is a Featured Columnist covering the Detroit Red Wings, as well as many other sports. He is also taking part in a Polar Plunge for Special Olympics and would greatly appreciate your support.
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