Detroit Red Wings: Past Their Prime or Primed for Success?
Go ahead and spare me your words of warning.
Yes, I realize training camp is more than a month away.
Agreed, we still don't know what is going on with Mike Modano.
Understood, we've yet to sign Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader.
I get it. We've yet to see a perfectly clear picture of the 2010-11 Detroit Red Wings roster.
But, I submit to you that we can see enough of it to start postulating on whether or not they can still challenge for a shot at ordinary greatness.
And what exactly is that? Well, that's the kind of greatness that is expected, exhibited routinely, and achieved, seemingly, with minimal effort.
That's the kind of greatness the Red Wings have enjoyed for the better part of two decades.
Sure, there's been plenty of other good teams during the same stretch of time.
Teams that won championships, and very often beat the Wings in doing so.
But no team in recent NHL history has had its name mentioned in the same sentence as "Stanley Cup" more often than the Detroit Red Wings.
For Red Wings fans, it's what we've come to expect them to exhibit and achieve year in and year out—ordinary greatness.
However, as of now, that expectation is legitimately questionable.
You might expect that such questions arise due to last year's injury-plagued season and 11th hour qualification for the playoffs.
But, at least for me, the past is just that.
I'm not looking at last year's season, any more than I'd look at 2002 as a predictor of how the Wings will fare in 2010-11.
At this point, the Red Wings roster, as well as the other 29 in the NHL, is sufficiently set to start referring to it as "the team".
Like my grandmother used to tell me as I waited impatiently for dessert to be ready, "There's still some watery parts, but you can honestly call it 'Jell-O' now."
I'm confident that Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen will (if healthy, oh dear God, don't put us through that again) exhibit their offensive prowess often enough to live up to their marquee-name status.
I'm sure that, even at 40, Nicklas Lidstrom will still be better than most defensemen on most nights and an aging Brian Rafalski will still impress with his defensive and offensive skill sets.
As for the coaching?
Please, there are few coaches, perhaps not any, more dedicated to winning and intensely focused on success than Mike Babcock.
This guy eats an apple with focus and purpose; trust me, I've seen it.
The Red Wings' established stars, including their coach, are more than capable of leading their team to continued success in 2010-11 and beyond.
But, they can't do it alone.
If the "new NHL" has revealed anything, it is that depth, more than any other factor, wins you championships.
Be it an unknown, unproven Antti Niemi backstopping the Blackhawks to this year's championship or Maxime Talbot potting the Cup-clinching, Game Seven-winning goal in 2009, a team will often go no further than the least of their parts can carry them.
Looking at the Red Wings this year, those parts come in the form of men like Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Jonathan Ericsson, and perhaps most importantly, Jimmy Howard.
As important as Detroit's superstars are to their team, their contributions are merely necessary for success, not sufficient.
For every brilliant deke Datsyuk executes, the Wings will need Jiri Hudler making a strong play to the net.
Each time the Mule barrels his way past defenders en route to a goal, Jonathan Ericsson will need to make an opposing player think twice about ever crossing the blueline again.
And, however many game-winners Henrik Zetterberg posts, Jimmy Howard will need an equal number of wins to point to as his, and his alone.
This is the year the names on the second-tier of Detroit's depth chart will need to appear more frequently than ever before.
The promise and potential we've seen from these players has been encouraging to date, but, it is no longer strong enough to carry the mail.
Jimmy Howard looks like he's ready to be a number one goalie. Jiri Hudler should break the 60-point mark this year and Valtteri Filppula can be one of the better two-way forwards in the NHL.
2010-11 is their season, and they must make the most of it.
Of course, all we have at this point is what's on paper. But, even barring the signings to come, I think Detroit has a solid chance at continuing to frustrate, sicken, and disgust every hockey fan who doesn't wear a winged-wheeled jersey on game days.
But, it's the players in the middle, the ones with something to prove, the ones with a few steps yet to take, that will make the difference between ordinary greatness and fading glory.
If you take them out of the mix, and looked solely at the Wings' veterans, I think anyone with a rational mind would have to consider the Red Wings a team that, if not yet over the hill, is perilously close to disappearing under the horizon.
However, if the younger talent among them can rise to their own potential and cement their roles as important, albeit secondary, players, I think calling the Red Wings anything but a team primed for continued success would reveal a healthy dose of sour grapes on the part of the evaluator.
Call me optimistic, hell, call me a "homer" if it blows your skirt up, but I look at the 2010-11 Detroit Red Wings roster and see more evidence of a bright future than I do monuments to faded excellence.
The old guard may indeed bring the ice to the party, but it's the younger guys who'll need to stir the drinks.
If they do, well, every citizen in Hockeytown may have something to drink to next June.
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