Detroit Red Wings: 5 Players Who Will Need to Have Their Best Years Yet
The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs in 21 consecutive seasons, but with the questions surrounding the state of their Nicklas Lidstrom-less blue line, some pundits are predicting they will miss their first postseason in over two decades.
I understand that the point is that, with the shortened season, it's really anybody's hockey game. One or two bad weeks and a team can quickly find itself on the outside looking in.
So if this do-or-die sprint scenario is facing all 30 clubs in the league, why suddenly are pundits and fans alike betting against the most consistent, veteran-laden squad around? It dumbfounds me. Sure, the loss of Lidstrom and Brad Stuart will be tough to overcome.
But this is what Detroit does. Rolls with adversity and gets the most out of the guys on the current roster. In my book, there is just way, way too much pride in this locker room and in the front office to allow this team to slip beyond the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Aside from incumbent No. 1 blueliner Niklas Kronwall and netminder Jimmy Howard, there are a few Wings who will need to have their best years yet to assure Detroit's spot in playoffs.
The Red Wings haven't had positive news about the health of Darren Helm in what feels like ages. In reality, it's just been a rough year for the speedy center.
After a plethora of injuries over the last 12 months, it didn't take Helm long to assume his position on the day-to-day list, pulling a muscle in his back. He's unlikely to be ready to go for Detroit's opener against the St. Louis Blues, already forcing coach Mike Babcock to make adjustments to his bottom six.
When he is healthy, Helm is among the best third-line players in the NHL, causing all sorts of issues with his speed and tenacity on the puck. It's the when he's healthy part that is the hangup for No. 43. When he's on the ice, you know exactly what you're getting.
The Wings will need close to 40 games out of Helm, or they may be forced to begin making adjustments via call-ups. There are several talented players waiting in Grand Rapids who are just itching for a shot at the big time.
So this isn't a matter of Helm having his best year yet. It's just about staying healthy.
I'm going to be hard on Mikael Samuelsson all season long, so you'd better just get used to it now.
In my mind, he takes up a roster spot that would be better suited for one of Detroit's top-end offensive prospects (Gustav Nyquist, anyone?), but what do I know?
What I do know is that Samuelsson is a right-handed shot—a rarity on this Red Wings team—and will be counted on to let that thing fly on the power play from the point. He is getting up there a bit in age, but at 36 (freshly 36...), there's still gas in the tank.
He's a big body and can be strong and creative on the puck, and Detroit will need Samuelsson to stay healthy and match the 50-point pace he had in Vancouver in 2010-2011.
At the absolute least, he needs to be a factor with the extra man. Detroit ran a power play that was in the bottom third on the NHL last season—not good enough for a team that has the talent up front that Detroit does.
Jonas Gustavsson could be one of the most important players on the Detroit Red Wings this season.
Backup netminders around the league will have an added degree of pressure due to the shortened season, and "the Monster" is a huge upgrade over what Detroit had last season in Ty Conklin. We saw how important Jimmy Howard is to the Red Wings when he missed some time last year after his wife had a child.
Detroit found itself struggling to string wins together, and Ty Conklin went 5-6 while sporting an abysmal .884 save percentage.
Gustavsson didn't pan out in Toronto with the Maple Leafs; could he be yet another solid addition to what has become an island of mishit toys in Detroit? He's had some issues with his heart, which has required three minor operations, but if he can put that issue in the rear-view mirror, then he could play a huge role for the Red Wings in 2013.
The 2008-2009 playoffs must seem like a long time ago to Jonathan Ericsson.
It was then that he had his "coming out party," scoring four goals and four assists as Detroit made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row. Anyone watching those 22 games probably had high hopes for the young defenseman, but the following seasons haven't been so kind to Ericsson.
He's been prone to turnovers over the last few seasons—by prone, I mean I'd wince every time he had the puck in the defensive zone while there was pressure. Yet it's easy to forget that a few good playoff series does not a good player make, and Ericsson is just now turning 28.
Defense is the hardest position in hockey to learn, but this is a guy who has been surrounded by the best of teachers through the last few years.
Mike Babcock appears to be comfortable with him on the first pairing with Niklas Kronwall, meaning that he will be counted on to be much more steady than he has been in recent memory. However, he appeared to be improving during the home stretch last season.
The Wings will need him to continue that upward trend, or they may be forced to make a trade or two to shore up their blue line.
Gustav Nyquist, the recently named AHL All-Star, will probably be among the first players tapped in Grand Rapids should anyone in Detroit go down with an injury.
I'll hope for the best, but with the shortened season on top of the rust a lot of these older players have, it's almost a certainty that at least a handful of NHL games are in Nyquist's future. Detroit's already had two injury scares and they've been in training camp for less than a week.
The reserves could make all the difference for the Red Wings, and while they have plenty of depth at forward, the temptation to call up the now-seasoned Nyquist will eventually be too great. He has done too much damage in the AHL, including setting a rookie scoring record for the Griffins last season.
It may be trial by fire, but Nyquist could end up an important part of Detroit's forward attack by the end of the season.
Franklin Steele is a hockey analyst for the Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for entertaining hockey media from around the Web, and for random musings about the sport, or like him on Facebook. He'll make you chili and send you an Internet high-five.