The Detroit Red Wings franchise is peppered with a litany of prime time performers who stepped up their game when given the opportunity and kept the Big Red Machine running.
Guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Kris Draper, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Holmstrom were either drafted very late or came to Detroit for virtually nothing (literally $1 in Draper's case) and have managed to blossom into All-Stars.
With a new season set to begin, and the core of the Wings growing ever older, it's time for the next batch of players to keep Detroit's run of 20 consecutive playoff appearances going.
These are five players who have to step up their game and take on a bigger role starting in 2011-12.
He has been given more of an opportinity with the Wings than he had with the Hawks or Oilers and as a result he has produced some nice seasons statistically and has grown into a very good role player.
He has still not lived up to the promise he showed in the OHL, however, and it is time he found another gear.
In 2010-11 Cleary came up big in some clutch situations as is evidenced by his eight game-winning goals, ranking him 7th in the NHL in that category. He also scored a career-high 26 goals which is nothing to scoff at.
The one stat that jumps out at me from last season is that Cleary took a career-high number of shots as well—52 more than the previous season.
If he can get some playing time with Datsyuk and continue developing the good rapport he's shown with Todd Bertuzzi, the shot totals should increase and the production should follow suit. Hopefully to the level he managed in the OHL where he was a beast in the regular season and playoffs alike.
I see Cleary as a big part of this Red Wings team for the next few seasons.
Darren Helm is quickly becoming one of my favorite players.
He passes well, he drives the net hard, he plays physical, he kills penalties like a champ, he has great hands, and for my money he has the fastest set of wheels in the NHL.
It has really been a matter of finding him ice-time the last couple seasons, but I think that is about to change.
Helm is the type of player that can impact the game at every corner of the rink. He's a game-changer, who has had a great teacher in Kris Draper. Draper has since ridden into the sunset, leaving Helm to fill some rather large skates.
I love the pairing of Helm with Patrick Eaves. It seems as though every time they take the ice they are doing things the right way.
He scored career-highs in goals (12), assists (20), and points (32) in 2010-11 and has proven himself to be even more valuable come playoff time. Those numbers will need to increase as players like Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi use out the last reserves in their legs, and Helm is in need of a new contract.
During the 2011 playoff series against Phoenix, Mike Babcock was quoted as saying that Helm is "an elite player, probably not a fourth-line player". Hopefully Babcock listens to his own diagnosis this season and gives Darren Helm the opportunity to play a bigger role in all aspects of the game.
I've always thought White was a solid player stuck on some bad (or mediocre at best) teams—I'm looking at you, Toronto.
He has spent the last few seasons moving around quite a bit actually. From the Leafs to the Calgary Flames, to the Carolina Hurricanes, and finally to San Jose where he was an important cog in the Sharks playoff run.
It was announced recently that White is going to begin the preseason paired with Nicklas Lidstrom as the No. 1 unit. It looks as though Mike Babcock is going to put White in a position to show what he can do right away and we'll see how he responds to the added pressure that comes with this opportunity.
I expect a whole lot of lineup shuffling on the back end this season in an attempt to compensate for what Detroit has lost with the retirement of Brian Rafalski.
A strong performance by White in the preseason may help to create some stability, at least with one pairing, and would be a huge comfort to Wings fans worried about these transitional years.
Jonathan Ericsson was selected by Detroit as the final player of the 2002 NHL entry draft with the 291st overall pick.
There was a time when Ericsson was being touted as the long-term replacement for Nick Lidstrom, the Swedish connection likely spawned much of that discussion, but I don't think their skill sets are turning out to be comparable. Ericsson is much more physical and doesn't seem to pick up on the mental aspect of the game as naturally as a Lidstrom or Rafalski, although not many do.
He will likely get more time on the power-play as Babcock tries to keep Lidstrom fresh and compensate for Rafalski's minutes, and he will be counted on more than ever before on the offensive side of the puck.
He was just signed to a new three-year contract in the off-season and has been told he will have a lot more opportunity to have an impact on games this season. With no real guarantee that the off-season additions on the blue line will work out, Ericsson's play will be a huge factor in Detroit's Stanley Cup aspirations.
Jimmy Howard has played very well since being given the reins as the full-time starter in net for the Red Wings. He came up big in the playoffs last year and now has two good playoff runs under his belt as a starter. All indications point to the coming season being a breakout year for him.
The difference this season is the departure of Chris Osgood. Howard has learned most of what it is to be an NHL goaltender from Osgood and it will be interesting to see how Howard responds to entering a season without his mentor and good friend.
With the question marks on defense this season, Howard may have to bail out the D at times and it would be nice to see him win some games on his own, something he hasn't really done in his time as starter.
Jimmy Howard is the undisputed man in net and Detroit will need him to take his game to the next level if they expect to be having a parade down Woodward Avenue next June.
I think he comes through.