Detroit Red Wings 2011-2012 Season: 7 Things To Expect in the Coming Year
The dust has settled after a whirlwind of activity over the last few weeks.
The NHL draft happened, full schedules were released and free-agent frenzy struck, leaving a lot of teams looking much different than they did when they finished out their seasons.
Thankfully, the Detroit Red Wings are not one of those teams.
While the Wings have undergone more changes this offseason than usual, the more important parts of the team remain intact. They didn't go out and trade away two-thirds of their captaincy, nor did they make a huge splash at the draft or on the free-agent market.
Instead, the Wings made subtle moves that should pay dividends as next season progresses—hereby referred to as the season.
So what should we expect from the Winged Wheel during the 2011-2012 season? Here are seven predictions I have moving forward towards October.
Mike Commodore Will Return to Form
Yes, that is Mike Commodore in his Carolina Hurricanes sweater. I know that he has since played for Columbus, but I'd like to forget about that period of time. As I'm sure Blue Jackets fans would be happy to tell you, Commodore was a rock for their team after he joined via free agency.
And by rock, I mean he pretty much just took up (cap) space and did nothing.
He never lived up to the contract (five years, and almost $19 million) that the Jackets dolled out to him, and he cleared waivers in January, finishing out his time as a Jacket in Springfield with the minor league club.
When he hit free agency on July 1st, his name wasn't the hotly sought after commodity that it once had been.
And in true Red Wings fashion, Holland and Co. swooped in and nabbed up a useful, but unmotivated, player for pennies. Or at least the NHL's version of pennies—a million-dollar contract.
To Detroit fans this should sound all too familiar.
This is the same fashion in which they acquired several mainstays on the roster, including Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary. And they can hope that the same happens for Commodore.
I'm not sure who the Blue Jackets thought they were signing for that kind of money, or what the expected return was. But if they had offensive fireworks in mind, they were looking at the wrong guy. While his season high in points is pushing 30, he is much more suited to be a physical, disruptive presence on the ice.
In Commodore, the Red Wings get an element they really needed.
And that's a little more pain in the a**. He isn't easy to play against when he is engaged and cares. Putting the Red and White on has inspired many to turn their careers around.
My call is that Commodore endears himself to Mike Babcock early (something that will need to happen, given the mild history there) and proceeds to becomes a fan favorite as he sticks up to guys like Joe Thornton and Shane Doan in the playoffs when they decided to have their way with Detroit's smaller forwards.
Career resurrection has been a specialty of the Red Wings—Commodore's name should be added to that list by December.
Pavel Datsyuk Will Be Nominated for the Hart Trophy
Pavel Datsyuk has so many Lady Byng trophies that he could melt them down and make his own life-size replica of the Stanley Cup.
The three Selke trophies are a great testament to Datsyuk's two-way play and acumen.
But with Sidney Crosby's return clouded with mystery, Alexander Ovechkin bogged down a bit by a new defensive system in Washington and Steven Stamkos' tendency to fade down the stretch of the regular season, Datsyuk could end up with some series Hart trophy consideration when the awards are handed out next year.
Especially if his dominating play during the playoffs was an indication of what we can expect from him moving forward.
He's always been an outstanding hockey player, generally considered among the top three or four skaters in the League at any given time. All things considered though—faceoffs, neutral zone play, play-making ability, knack for goal scoring and his tendency to morph into an outright game breaker—he may be the best overall hockey player in the world.
The Hart trophy is awarded to the player who is deemed most valuable to the success of his team. And that definition may be what keeps Red Wings players away from that trophy most years. Their team is usually solid through and through, and their players don't tend to go on the type of hot streaks associated with Hart winners.
Corey Perry and his second-half tear last season are a perfect example.
But this season, with Detroit in a bit of limbo regarding their defense, the stage is set for Datsyuk to truly shine on both sides of the puck. He's already been nominated once. I'm not necessarily calling for him to win it, but by seasons end Datsyuk's name will be in the mix of Hart Trophy candidates.
Brendan Smith Will Not Be a Full-Time Wing...Until the Playoffs
It's well documented that Brendan Smith is my prospect crush in Detroit's system. I was really hoping that, given the three vacancies the Wings were set to have on the blue line, Smith would have the opportunity to sake a role on the bottom pairing. And maybe even book some time with No. 5 to see how he does things.
But Kenny Holland had other ideas.
He signed Jonathan Ericsson to another deal, then brought on Mike Commodore and Ian White (who I think was a great under-the-radar pickup). Toss in Jakub Kindl on a one-way contract, and things aren't looking good for Smith.
That's seven NHL blue-liners all on one-way contracts.
Smith figures to get a few games here and there as injury relief, but I don't see him logging more than 15 or 20 games with the Red Wings during the regular season. He'll get another healthy dose of being a top-pairing guy and continue to develop as he piles on those extra minutes that he wouldn't get in the bigs—especially on the power play.
I wouldn't be surprised though, to see a guy like Commodore sat every so often in the playoffs just to add some more offensive juice on the back end. By that point, Kindl will have established himself as a solid player, or will be on a short leash.
Smith will be ready for a bigger role come playoff time, which is when Detroit seems to like to test their top prospects. Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and even Jonathan Ericsson were brought along in this fashion.
As a side note, it'll be very strange to see someone else wearing the No. 2 sweater for the Red Wings when Brendan Smith finally makes the big squad. That number formally belonged to Jiri Fischer, who went into cardiac arrest during a game in 2005.
Detroit Will Reassert Themselves as a Good Defensive Team
When Detroit was making back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, they were among the League's elite defensive squads.
They used that strength on the blue line to anchor the team, leading to the puck possession game that the Wings seem to have gotten away from in recent years. With the additions Holland made this offseason, that figures to change.
Adding a tough-as-nails guy like Commodore and a solid puck mover like Ian White (all for the price of one high-priced free-agent defenseman, mind you) to a group that already includes the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart shores up the defense quite a bit.
Some people were of the mind that Detroit needed to get a little tougher on the back end—they did just that by adding Commodore. I'm curious to see if he ends up playing alongside fellow thunder-checker Kronwall. That could lead to some pretty tenacious D, and give the Red Wings something they haven't seen since those Cup runs.
And that's a pairing that is tough to play against.
Ian White should be able to come in and play some big minutes for the Wings as well. White wasn't a depth signing—this will be a guy that Babcock will look to as a top-four guy and someone who will get a chance to get some power-play time.
I'm not sure what the pairings will look like come October, but this will be one of the more solid blue-line groups that Detroit has iced within the last few seasons.
Jonathan Ericsson Will Live Up to His Contract
For Jonathan Ericsson, the hype is gone and it's time to settle down and play some hockey.
Kenny Holland raised more than a few eyebrows when he inked the underachieving defenseman to a three-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3.25 million.
Holland has defended the deal, making the following comments to Matt Shepard on WDFN-AM 1130 Detroit:
"Well, I think if you'd looked at the market, and Jonathan Ericsson had [signed elsewhere], I think he would've gotten a much bigger raise than we gave him. He's 27 years of age. He's 6-foot-5. If you look at defensemen, and there's guys around the league that, really—29, 30, 31 ... defense is such a hard position—there's those guys that hit the league at 23, 24. They're probably going to be the superstars."
Clearly, Holland likes Ericsson's size and upside, and he's probably right in stating that he would have been given a bigger raise elsewhere. The market was more shallow than originally thought after guys like James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff were snapped up early, so Holland decided to stick with his own player.
Ericsson is now in the position where he'll have to earn his paycheck. He isn't making a cool one or two million any more. He's being paid like a top-four blue-liner, and he's going to have to bring it like one. This is something that I think he is more than capable of doing.
He's been aggravating to watch because of how he broke out in the first place. Making a name for yourself during the playoffs can be just as negative as it is positive. Since his coming-out party three years ago, Ericsson has not continued on the curve many projected him to be on.
That doesn't mean that he can't be a good player.
Fifteen points across 74 games isn't quite going to cut it for a million-dollar raise, but he's shown improvement in his own end. He wasn't a minus-player, but still needs to put up more points. He possesses a very underrated shot and will need to utilize it more often to be more effective.
Ericsson has the tools needed to be a success story for the Red Wings. He's 6'5'', and is only 27. As Holland said, he's taking time to develop and is still a "work in progress." Once the pieces start to come together for the guy, his deal won't seem too bad at all.
This season I think he'll be a plus-player again and push towards 25 points from the blue line.
Johan Franzen Will Score 40 Goals
This is one of the riskier predictions I'm going to make, but my gut tells me that Johan Franzen is poised for a breakout regular season.
He's a guy that generally earns his paycheck during the playoffs, but I think that could all change in 2011-2012.
Franzen should finally be back to full health—something that hasn't been true for him for the last two years or so. A full offseason worth of time to fully recover from the wear and tear he's had will do wonders for the Mule.
The impression is that he had an off season last year, and that may be true. But he still managed to put up 55 points in 76 games for the Red Wings. Still, the feeling is that he never really got into any kind of groove, which prevented him from putting up bigger numbers.
Look for Franzen to settle into a second-line role with one of the Euro-twins to start the season off strong—and to get him rolling early. He's a streaky kind of player, but if he can find his tempo within the first 10 games or so, this is a guy that could make a lot of regular-season noise.
He's a player who feeds off of his own confidence. The coaching staff will do everything they can to surround the Mule with guys who can help him make plays. They'll also benefit from his ability to hold on to the puck and make plays at the net.
And with Tomas Holmstrom getting up there in age, it may be time for Franzen to make more of a central role in front of the net during Detroit's power plays.
The Detroit Red Wings Will Extend Niklas Kronwall for at Least 7 Years
Niklas Kronwall really came into his own during the playoffs last season—that's the Niklas Kronwall I've been waiting and wanting to see.
After gaining notoriety as a huge open-ice hitter, Kronwall has become more steady in his own end, is making very crisp outlet passes and has been more and more effective in getting the puck towards the net.
Lidstrom is a generational talent. He's irreplaceable. But Detroit will use some of the several million they still have available in cap space moving forward to lock up a player who could be the future anchor of this blue line.
Detroit's defensive core is going to continue to evolve through the next few seasons—four of their blue-liners are set to hit the free-agent pool after this season concludes—but don't expect to see one of the players in exile be Kronwall.
He wore the "A" for the Wings when they were thinned out by injury and is really growing into a steady, two-way defender in Detroit. It's a no-brainier to lock the guy up for the next seven to 10 years, with a price tag to match his output.
Kronwall will make $3 million this season, but a hefty raise could follow if he continues to up his game through the regular season.
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