The Detroit Red Wings are a team primed for a deep playoff run in the 2011-2012 NHL season. After two straight postseason losses to the San Jose Sharks, some have been quick to start putting the nails in the too-old-too-brittle coffin of the Red Wings.
Don't be so quick to count out this veteran laden squad.
There has been a youth movement in Detroit—at least compared to the last few seasons where there has been very little personnel turnover for the team. Cory Emmerton and Jakub Kindl have both stepped up and played an important role for the Wings since opening night.
They are important to a Stanley Cup run, as possessing depth is paramount during the offseason. But they aren't alone. Here are five players that are absolutely key to getting through to the Western Conference finals and beyond this season.
There is no player more important to the success of the Detroit Red Wings than Pavel Datsyuk. Arguments could be made for several other members of the roster, but they'd eventually fall short of the Russian wizard.
He's come out of the gate hot, putting up three points in Detroit's first two games. He'll need to continue to be effective throughout the season and into the playoffs for the Wings to go far. But it's a given that he'll do just that if his health persists.
And there is no reason to believe that it won't.
Before last season he had missed no significant time on the injured reserve. Now all of a sudden, he is an injury risk. But that's just chatter from fans and media figures who are looking for reasons to count out this team.
Don't buy in—Datsyuk is just as dominant in all three zones as ever.
It's a good thing I didn't sign any agreements when I was claiming that I'd chop off my right foot if Jiri Hudler somehow managed to make an impact this season. I've made statements along those lines in several articles here on the Bleacher Report and a few times in various comment sections.
Maybe someone showed Huds those instances, and he used it as bulletin board fodder to motivate himself.
Or maybe he just realizes that this could be his last year in the NHL if he doesn't perform well.
Mike Babcock knows that the Red Wings are a much more dangerous team with Hudler going, and didn't waste any time turning him into a top-six player on the squad. He's been skating on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary, and has put up two points in two games.
I don't think he's going to continue that pace, but a 60-point Hudler would delight me to no end. When he is effective he gives Detroit the kind of scoring depth needed to get through a team like San Jose or Vancouver.
Ian White is no Brian Rafalski. We know that. And the Red Wings don't need him to be, as they have a solid group of defenders on their roster.
But Detroit does need him to be good.
It was no surprise to anyone when the journeyman blueliner opened the season playing opposite Nicklas Lidstrom, and so far he hasn't looked out of place while playing against the oppositions best forwards. It needs to stay that way if Detroit is going to have success beyond the first round this season.
Also worth a note has been Jakub Kindl's performance through the beginning of the year. He slipped into the sixth slot on Detroit's blueline as Mike Commodore sat with an injury, and is making a pretty good case for himself to stick there.
Through the first two games of the season he's a plus-five player.
Johan Franzen had a bit of an off-year last season. He shot the puck nearly 250 times and only scored 28 goals. Setting off the goal horn almost 30 times isn't too shabby at all, but the number loses a lot of luster when you realize he netted five of those tallies in a single game against the Senators.
The Red Wings need considerably more from the Mule on the goal scoring front, at least in terms of consistency. If he can regain his scoring touch he—like Hudler—gives the Red Wings options outside of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
When Franzen is playing his best hockey it gives the Red Wings one of the most talented top-six forward groups in the NHL. When he isn't, the group as a whole is much less dangerous.
If Johan Franzen is the poster boy for inconsistency, then Jonathan Ericsson is the same for underachievement.
The blueliner is out of excuses heading into the 2011-2012 season. He absolutely must take a step forward in all areas of his game for the Red Wings to be a team that can go the distance. You're only as good as your least effective player after all.
And Ericsson has been that guy through too many long stretches since 2009. He'll be under the microscope now more than ever after signing a new, lucrative contract extension this summer after the market for blueliners went all dot com bubble-like.
We know that he can be an outstanding contributor. But we haven't seen proof in over two years. The time is now for this once promising defender.