If there was any team that was due for a letdown in 2013, it was the Detroit Red Wings.
After nearly two decades of NHL dominance, the Red Wings were about to begin a downward spiral. They had been knocked out of the 2012 playoffs in the first round by the Nashville Predators and soon-to-be Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom had decided to retire.
The Winged Wheel was apparently going flat. That scenario was coming true in the lockout-shortened regular season, as the Red Wings found themselves in a non-playoff position with one week to go. The Red Wings had basically become a .500 hockey team.
|First 10 games||Second 10 games||Third 10 games||Fourth 10 games||Final 8 games||Final record|
Then it happened. The Red Wings won the final four games of the regular season and made the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the playoffs, winning the seventh game on the road.
The magic continued for much of the second round, as they built a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Blackhawks came back to win the series, Chicago needed an overtime goal by Brent Seabrook in the seventh game to secure the series.
No team pushed the Blackhawks harder in the 2013 postseason than the Red Wings.
In the offseason, Detroit added Ottawa Senators legend Daniel Alfredsson and Florida Panthers mainstay Stephen Weiss. With the two new stars and last season's momentum, this whole downward spiral thing has come to a quick end and the Red Wings are on the way up, right?
Not necessarily. If the Red Wings were staying in the Western Conference, they might very well be on their way back.
But they got their long-awaited wish and are moving to the Eastern Conference. They will be in the newly named Atlantic Division with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. In addition to those Original Six rivals, the Red Wings are going to have to contend with the Senators, Panthers, Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning.
But it's not just the new competition that will make life tough for the Red Wings. The mathematics of the situation are also difficult.
In the newly reconfigured NHL, there are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the West. Both conferences will still get eight playoff teams, so that means one or two good Eastern Conference teams may not make the playoffs.
The changes will make things tough for Detroit and there will be an adjustment period. However, the real Red Wings appear to be the ones that rolled in the final week of the regular season, won a playoff round and nearly defeated the Blackhawks.
Start off with the man behind the bench. Mike Babcock is generally considered one of the best coaches in the NHL. In addition to winning the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008, he coached Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 and he will once again coach that Olympic team in 2014.
Add in a more relaxed Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who will find that the presence of Alfredsson and Weiss means that they won't have to carry as much of the scoring and leadership burden than they did at the start of last season.
Alfredsson's decision to sign with the Red Wings was based on his evaluation that they are much closer to winning the Stanley Cup than the Senators.
The Red Wings are not without some offseason losses that could cause issues. Valtteri Filppula, a solid defensive center and all-around player, signed a free-agent contract with Tampa Bay. The Red Wings are unlikely to bring back Damien Brunner and Dan Cleary, who both remain free agents.
|Player||Old Team||New Team||Notable Numbers|
|Daniel Alfredsson||Ottawa||Detroit||426 Career Goals|
|Stephen Weiss||Florida||Detroit||57 Points in 2011-12|
|Valtteri Filppula||Detroit||Tampa Bay||Career-High 66 points, plus-18 in 2011-12|
|Dan Cleary||Detroit||Unsigned||Three 20-goal seasons|
|Damien Brunner||Detroit||Unsigned||Five goals, four assists in 14 playoff games|
But the Red Wings are counting on a defensive crew that includes Niklas Kronwall as the unit's leader, having taken over that position from Lidstrom. While he doesn't have Lidstrom's skating ability or offensive talent, he is the master of the hip check, can carry the puck and he has a vicious shot.
Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey and Danny DeKeyser will help round out a defensive crew that will have a chance to become one of the better all-around units in the Eastern Conference as the Red Wings gain more experience.
The backbone of the unit is goalie Jimmy Howard. He nearly stole a victory over the Blackhawks with his quickness and his positioning. Howard had a 2.44 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage during the postseason.
In the end, it will most likely come down to Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Alfredsson and Johan Franzen (31 points in 41 games, plus-13), who had perhaps the best all-around season of his career.
Where will the Red Wings finish in the Eastern Conference?
Datsyuk (15 goals, 34 assists) is one of the most dangerous players in the game because of his slick moves, defensive prowess and consistency in the faceoff circle. Zetterberg (11 goals, 37 assists) did not have a great regular season because he struggled to score goals, but he led the Red Wings in postseason points with 12.
The offensive talent, defensive depth, goaltending and the superiority of Babcock behind the bench means the rebuilding phase the Red Wings were supposed to go though is not likely to last.
Tough new surroundings will challenge them and there will be an adjustment period. But the Red Wings are not likely to be interlopers for long. They just may dominate their new conference the way they did their old one in a relatively short amount of time.