The Detroit Red Wings approach the 2011-2012 NHL season with more turnover than they are used to. While there is typically a depth position or two up for grabs, this offseason has seen the Wings lose some of the grey from their beards, opening up some spots for depth chart jumping.
Gone are Kris Draper, Chris Osgood, Ruslan Salei, Brian Rafalski and Mike Modano. Modano really didn't take up a whole roster spot due to the whole traumatic skate injury, so replacing him is more or less a moot point. But otherwise, the opportunity is there for the kids littering Detroit's farm system to make the jump to the Big Leagues.
Detroit had a mildly busy offseason, but not in the way a lot of pundits figured.
The talent pool was more shallow during the summer of 2011 to be sure, but there were plenty of quality blueliners available to shore up the defense after Rafalski unexpectedly retired. But July proved to be a market friendly to the players, and salaries inflated to laughable levels.
Kenny Holland made a few savvy moves, bringing in Mike Commodore for defensive depth and Ian White to round out Detroit's top four while bringing the number of times he's been called savvy to a solid 250,000.
With training camp on the horizon (in my hockey dreams) the name of the game seems to be competition, especially for those last remaining spots on the roster. There seems to be a veteran option and a youthful option for every spot.
Holland even saw fit to bring in notorious Stars bust Fabian Brunnstrom to compete for a spot on the opening night roster.
All this seems pointless however, as yours truly has already pieced together what should be the line combinations for the opening game come October. So Mr. Holland, I'll assume that the check is in the (E)mail, along with complimentary season tickets. And to the players who didn't make it, thanks a lot for coming out. Don't call us—we'll call you... up in the event of an untimely injury.
This is an old standby for the Red Wings, but it may be becoming just that—old.
I think this line could start the season intact, but if Holmstrom begins to slow down too much then he could find himself falling down the depth charts in favor of cannonball players like Justin Abdelkader or Darren Helm.
But I have plans for those skaters elsewhere.
This is a line that has consistent chemistry, and Homer isn't out there for his wheels. He never has been. While he is getting up there in years, he still is one of the strongest net presences in the game today. So far that has proven to be an invaluable asset.
Zetterberg will put up another 80-point season, and hopefully can finally piece together an injury-free year. And I know I am not alone in thinking that Datsyuk is primed for a stellar campaign. He was phenomenal in the playoffs, and appears to have taken his game to a whole other level.
You can't control the guy. You can only hope to contain him.
Obviously Mike Babcock has never been afraid to shuffle his lines, and breaking up the Euro twins makes this team a lot harder to defend. I wouldn't be surprised to see either Pav or Z bumped down to line 1-A if things get clunky, and someone needs an offensive jolt.
In fact I'd prefer them play on separate lines at least half the time.
But my money is on this line skating together, at least to start the upcoming season.
I like the size and hands on this line a lot.
There isn't an overwhelming amount of precedent here, but Bertuzzi can still play top-line minutes and put up a decent number of points. He really came on and seemed to find his game through the second half of the season, and that continued through the playoffs.
He played bigger than he has in a long time, isn't afraid to get to the front of the net, and still has enough finish to be a factor.
Franzen is another big body that doesn't mind playing within a few feet of the cage. That's really where Mule seems to thrive. Despite a season that saw him lead the team in goals he'll be looking to find more consistency in his game.
Filpulla impressed me with his puck possession and speed in the playoffs, and I wasn't cursing at him on a nightly basis for the first time since he first became a Wing. The tools are there, as the saying goes. It just seems to be a confidence issue.
Popping him on a line with Franzen, who also has the tendency to turn into a 220-pound freezer during his cold streaks, may not be the best of ideas. But that is where the versatility comes into play with this top-six setup.
There is enough talent and skill here that someone is bound to be playing good hockey, and putting one of the shakier skaters on a line with that guy could bode well for the squad. We could easily see Danny Cleary on this line instead of Bertuzzi, and he has a bit more history there.
And I wouldn't be surprised to see this be the case.
Still, the size, hands and finish of these three players could play out quite well for the Red Wings if chemistry developed.
This group of three gives me goosebumps.
Imagining Helm and Mursak using their scary wheels to chase down loose pucks and harass opposing forward lines is an exciting prospect to me. Toss in Abdelkader, who can be a bit of an agitator in his own right, and this is a line that could create fireworks on a nightly basis.
The skill is there to net the timely goal and wear down the opposition with some high octane offensive pressure and nasty back/forchecking.
The downside to this line is obviously keeping Helmer in a bottom-six role despite his skill set. He's played well alongside the likes of Datsyuk from time to time, and some fans are calling for the lightning quick player to be utilized in a more offensive role.
And to be honest, I am one of those people.
I wouldn't mind one bit if Helm ended up skating on one of the top two lines in Detroit. I think he has the mojo to be a top-six guy. But this particular combination of players may be a "sum of the parts is greater" scenario.
I love this trio on paper, and there's nothing preventing Babcock from using Helm on the second power play unit—something I am also a proponent of. But having this quick line hop over the boards after the bigger second line I have set up could cause some matchup issues for an opposing team.
This may be an idea that only works in theory, but I think this line could be formidable against pretty much whoever they ended up skating against.
Having a player of Cleary's caliber sink down to the fourth line may not be all that likely, and I can see him taking turns on all four of Detroit's forward sets. He has that kind of versatility as a player, but I don't think he'd balk at playing on another high-energy line alongside Tomas Tatar and Patrick Eaves.
Putting this group on the ice together gives Detroit two checking lines that can still put the puck in the net on a consistent enough basis to make this a dangerous four line team. Almost any of the forwards could move up a line or down a line and still be effective, and that's why I think Detroit will continue to be a good offensive team next year.
A speedy skill line, a bigger skill line, a speedy checking line and a high energy line gives opponents a bit of a different element to deal with on every shift, and I think the differences between the groups of players is big enough that it could cause some issues.
I'm excited to see the cerebral Tatar play in a nightly role—something he should be able to earn out of training camp. This is his time to make the team, and he knows it. A setback at this point could cost him his future as a Wing.
And after re-signing with the Winged Wheel this summer, Eaves knows exactly how to fit in with Detroit's system. He knows his role, and plays it well. He's a great bottom-six guy, and would fit in well with this line.
Noticeably missing from these forward line combinations are two noteworthy skaters: Drew Miller and Jiri Hudler.
I think that Miller will end up playing 40 or 50 games despite not projecting him to make the top 12 out of training camp. The odds of every Red Wings forward being healthy all the time are slim. So Miller will see plenty of time despite not being slotted in for the opening day roster.
My exclusion of Hudler could be wishful thinking. He makes a pretty hefty paycheck to spend more than half of the season in the press box. But I think that after failing to get anything positive going throughout the entire season, and then disappearing during the playoffs, Hudler is on the way out of Detroit.
The idea is that Hudler could be packaged with a prospect and/or pick to land a solid return at the deadline, and the less he plays the less valuable he becomes. I can see that.
And maybe having an energy guy like Tatar making the team over Hudler is an odd call.
But it's what I think would be best for Detroit moving forward. Having a guy that clearly loves to play the game, that loves to get into the corners, that has a contagious energy is more important to me than giving Hudler another crack at irritating coaches and fans alike.
The exception here is Hudler blowing everyone away at camp. But I'm not holding my breath here. Face it: the kid left his game in Russia and needs a change of scenery.
Lidstrom is a lock here. There isn't any dispute there.
The big question for Lidstrom heading into the season will revolve around who his partner on the blue line will be. This will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on during training camp, as Detroit needs to improve defensively and that fact hasn't been lost on the coaching staff.
At least I hope it hasn't been.
Ian White is the guy that I think will end up taking shifts next to No. 5 for a majority of the season.
Niklas Kronwall could fit in quite nicely beside his fellow Swede, but I think that would be too many eggs in the same basket. White is a quality defensemen and would keep up well enough with Lidstrom. He has a solid shot from the line, and makes crisp passes out of the zone.
He isn't Brian Rafalski, but that is a tough player to replace on the fly. The argument could be made to have a younger player like Brendan Smith or Jakub Kindl play next to Lidstrom for the top-notch experience, but that may prove a bit taxing for the aging Lidstrom.
I think this is the best direction to go in for the opening day roster. Tweaks can be made if White doesn't turn out to be a top-pairing guy, but I really don't think he'll have an issue in this spot.
Kronwall has been paired almost exclusively with Brad Stuart for the last few seasons. But with the departure of Rafalski and the incoming youth I think that may be about to change. He has steadily improved his play over the last two seasons, morphing from a nuclear bomb open-ice hitter to a guy who can pick his spots and play excellent positional hockey as well.
Which is why I think Ericsson will end up on this line instead of Stuart.
Kronwall could be counted on to bail out Ericsson as he tries to live up to his contract—and this is something that I honestly think he can do.
The guy showed flashes of what he is capable of during the playoffs in 2009, and I think fans forgot how young and raw the guy is. He's been susceptible to turnovers and making bad choices with the puck. But that kind of reminds me of Kronwall in his younger years.
Putting Ericcson down on the third line with another shaky defender doesn't sit well with me, so I think he has to end up on the second pairing with Kronwall. At least to begin the season.
The time is to earn a permanent role with the Wings is now for Jakub Kindl, the 2005 first-round pick for Detroit. He played in 48 games last season, and generally held his own across an average of 13 minutes and some change in those contests. He hasn't taken any huge strides with his game, but still continues to improve at a steady rate.
He moves the puck with ease at times, and then at others is susceptible to bad turnovers in the neutral zone. Hockey Gods know that the Wings don't need any more of that kind of thing.
And that is where Stuart comes into play.
This could be viewed as a mentor-mentored relationship, and it is something that could benefit both players in different ways. Kindl will be assured that a veteran is on the ice with him at all times, teaching him, helping him, watching his back and so on.
And Stuart, in a contract year, can prove that he has a place and purpose on the team as he ages and loses a step or so. Looks like a win-win to me.
Just like on offense, two noteworthy names have been left out of the defensive pairings.
Newcomer Mike Commodore will likely play in games where the Wings could use more of a physical edge, or if one of the six mainstays get sick, gets injured or their game goes to hell. There are much worse insurance policies than Commodore, and I'm very comfortable with him as the No. 7 blueliner for the Wings.
I just can't see them sending Kindl down to the minors, exposing him to the waiver wire. And I don't think they signed Ericsson to his extension with the intent of scratching him for 40 or 50 games.
And then there is Brendan Smith, who is developing at just the rate that those in the Red Wings' organization were hoping. He's quick, moves the puck well, and plays with the physical edge that make him such an asset to the organization.
He could make the team out of camp if he really impresses, forcing Kindl to the press box. But at this stage I see that spot as Kindl's to lose. Smith would also benefit much more from top power-play time and large chunks of ice time in Grand Rapids as opposed to seeing 12 minutes a night in the Bigs.
I have said before though that I would not be surprised to see Smith land a spot with the Wings during the playoffs. This seems to be the norm for a team that brings their youngsters along slowly, and tests their mettle in the most intense of environments.
Jimmy Howard figures to benefit from a refreshed and (hopefully) refocused group of blueliners. His numbers dipped last season mostly due to the lack of coverage in front of him and bad play in the neutral zone.
He will keep the Wings in every game that he starts, and that's all that he needs to do. He is pushing 30, and is coming into his prime goaltending years. So no surprise here. Jimmy Howard is the guy in Detroit for the foreseeable future.
The Red Wings signed Ty Conklin to play as Howard's Robin throughout the season after Chris Osgood hung up the skates for good. He is a backup that is more than capable of playing a solid number of games—seeing Conklin in more than 20 games this season isn't out of the question.
He is a serviceable backup, is familiar with the Wings system and staff and will settle into the room quickly. So no distractions there.
There are several goaltending prospects nipping at the bit for a little bit of NHL action, but Conklin's return likely puts that action off for at least another year.
Well that makes two of us.
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