Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today is the Detroit Red Wings.
Decimated by injuries, the Wings barely made the postseason for the 23rd year in a row, despite losing stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for half of the season, along with other veteran guns on offense. These injuries however, in turn led to the rise of the “kids”. Enter Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, and Tomas Jurco. With the big guns out, the spotlight was shining bright on this wave of young players.
They took it in stride.
Each played their own essential parts in the team’s journey to the postseason, most notably Nyquist, who scored 28 goals and tied for 2nd on the team in points with 48. Tatar added 39, Jurco 15, and Sheahan 24. Fans and the organization had their glimpse into the future of the team, and if what they showed has any indication, it is a glistening one.
In total, the Wings debuted nine fresh faces from Grand Rapids, including other names the organization is high on such as forwards Mitch Callahan and Teemu Pulkkinen, defensemen Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul and Alexey Marchenko, along with goaltender Petr Mrazek. Most of these players are close to being NHL ready, providing yet another glimpse into the future.
The 2013-14 Red Wings had their disappointments as well, with the biggest one being Stephen Weiss. Signing a 5-year, $24.5 million contract in the offseason, Weiss was expected to slot in as the number two center and provide scoring depth. One problem, Weiss was never really healthy coming into camp. After a rough start, Weiss’s season was done in December. Playing only 26 games, Weiss had four points. Not the greatest start to his Red Wing career.
Danny Cleary slots into this category as well. Making the team over Gustav Nyquist at the beginning of the season, Cleary played in 56 games. He chipped in eight points to Nyquist’s 48. Nyquist played in only one more game than Cleary, who was injured at the end of the season with his ailing knees. Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff took steps back this season on the blueline, as the pair frequently turned the puck over and were not fundamentally sound as they were in 2013.
One notable pleasant surprise was free agent signing Daniel Alfredsson. Alfredsson jetted from Ottawa after spending his whole career with the Senators to come play for a Cup in the Motor City. His long-term goal was not achieved, but what Alfie provided in one season in the Winged Wheel was welcoming. He was bit by the injury bug but played more than Zetterberg and Datsyuk (68 games), along with providing leadership in their absence, an important intangible with so many young players filling in so many roles on a gutted team. 49 points for a 40-year old doesn’t hurt either.
The Wings’ playoff hopes were short lived as they bowed out in five to the Presidents Trophy winning Boston Bruins. The “kids” had zero points combined, but gained some valuable experience in playing in the marathon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The offseason was another quiet one for Detroit and GM Ken Holland, as they swung and missed on every free agent target they had their sights set on, particularly on defense. Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman, Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff all gave a one word answer: “No”. Coach Mike Babcock and Holland had made clear that they were focused on bolstering a relatively young blueline with a veteran, preferrably right-handed, but thus far have not been able to meet that goal. This is just one of the many storylines to watch in a campaign in Hockeytown that looks to be a strongly interesting one. This writer will start at the blueline.
Puck Drop: 2014-15 Detroit Red Wings Preview
Will the Young Defensive Core Hold Up?
Last year, the Red Wings had their share of growing pains, particularly on defense. With a young blueline, that’s to be expected. The Wings finished 16th in goals allowed last season, just below league average, allowing 221 total goals, 150 in 5 0n 5 play. Room for improvement for sure. The Wings are entering the 2014-15 season with essentially the same blueline as of now, possibly with a few new young faces on the way. The same core however, could be even better.
Niklas Kronwall is the the anchor as the number one, known as the point producer and big hitter. He put up 49 points to tie for the team lead. Jonathan Ericsson, entering his 6th full season, hopes to bounce back from the injury he sustained late in the season that kept him out for the stretch and playoffs. Ericsson is 30 years old and just recently signed a six year extension during the season with a cap hit of $4.25 million. He is not known for his offensive play and rarely plays to his 6’4″ 221 pound frame, but the Wings felt his absence. Playing in 48 games last year, the Wings better hope that Ericsson has a “big summer” and can prepare for the toll an 82-game season will bring.
Kyle Quincey got off to a rough start last year but played reasonably well for a middle-6 defenseman in the 2nd half, and he was rewarded with a raise and a 2-year contract with a cap hit of $4.25 million. Many fans were outraged, as Quincey was a regular scapegoat. He is not known for his offensive abilities and does not use his size often, but if he can recapture his play from the 2nd half last season it will benefit him and the team going forward. He was one of two players on the team to play all 82 regular season games, so his durability is not a question. His consistency must improve as he is entering his age 30 season, joining Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson as veterans.
Danny Dekeyser is considered by more than a few to be the best defenseman on the team. The way he carries the puck out of the zone and settles things down in his own end is remarkable for his age. The hockey sense and poise he presents can only get better, as he is entering only his second full season with Detroit. In his only full season with Detroit, he did not put up outstanding offensive numbers, 23 in 65 games, but that level of his game can only improve. Only 24, the sky is the limit for Dekeyser and he is currently working on getting a longterm deal to stay with the Wings for a long, long time. This writer hopes that gets done sooner rather than later.
Brendan Smith was another rookie that showed tremendous promise and flashes of what he could be going forward. He just turned 25 and has a full season under his belt. Playing in 71 games he racked up only 19 points, but he has room to grow. The former Wisconsin Badger loves to join the rush and pinch, maybe too much, but for a rookie his positional play should settle down as he gets more years under his belt. Smith did have his gaffes and some stood out more than others, but with another year of growth those should decrease. In Ericsson’s absence, he saw time on the first pair with Kronwall and his offensive totals went up. Smith actually led the team’s defensive core in team scoring in 5 on 5 play. If this is a sign of things to come, he could be seeing some 2nd and 1st pairing time, whether is be with Kronwall or Dekeyser. This writer has him as a breakout player to watch for 2014-15.
The 3rd defensive pairing is the most uncertain for this upcoming season, and ultimately may be won in training camp. Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff held the spots for most of the season last year and performed poorly. Kindl is entering his 3rd full season with Detroit and regressed from his +15, 13 point 2013 campaign. He hit 19 points for a career high but was often caught in various situations and in his own zone, finishing with a -4 rating. Seen as expendable, it is a make or break season for Kindl as he is entering the second year of his four-year deal he signed after arguably his best defensive season in 2013. If things don’t improve, his days in Hockeytown could be numbered.
Lashoff is the same situation. Never a factor in the offensive game, he played a sound defensive game in 2013. In 2013-14, that regressed as well, as he and Kindl were a trembling pair. These two must have bounce-back seasons if they want to keep their spots, as the new wave of Red Wing defensemen is on its way.
Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet only played in a few games each last year, but their pairing showed great promise. With training camp on its way, Lashoff and Kindl must work hard knowing that their minutes could be taken by up and coming youngsters looking to get their feet wet in the NHL. All in all, the defensive core may be the same as last year through no external improvements (i.e. free agency), but from internal improvements, health, and growth, the end results could be different.
Will Daniel Alfredsson stay?
It’s been a topic of conversation since he last skated in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Bruins.
Is he staying, or riding into the sunset denied his Cup that he has longed for?
That’s Daniel Alfredsson’s situation, and it does not look like the Wings will be getting an answer until September. Ken Holland has stated that the Wings “will probably” try to sign him, and Alfredsson does not want to go anywhere else. In his only season in the Winged Wheel, the 40-year old put up the most points he had tallied in years and his veteran presence was key with injuries plaguing Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
He wants to play for Detroit again, but only if he is healthy enough to contribute. During the season he will turn 42, and it is clear Alfie is on his last legs. However, on a team with budding young talent and current NHL superstars along with health (knock on wood), he will not be as pressured as he was last year to lead the team without the regulars in the lineup. If he is healthy, the Wings would welcome him back with open arms. If he is not, it is best for him to make the conscious decision for himself and the team.
His ongoing delay in his decision has caused some uncertainty as to who might get an opportunity on the top two lines, whether it be youth like a Nyquist or a veteran like Johan Franzen. It is better if Alfie makes his decision sooner than later, so the team can prepare in the preseason for who will get his spot if he retires. This writer would welcome him back with open arms, but the decision has to come before mid-September.
On The Rise:
It is said that patience is a virtue, and that virtue was tested mightily ever since Tatar was drafted by Detroit in 2009. Tatar spent the better part of four seasons in Grand Rapids playing for the Griffins, challenging the Red Wings to give him an opportunity. After being sent up and down a few times in that four year stretch, Tatar finally got his wish in 2013-14.
After a rough start to the season, Tatar emerged and settled in as the season went on. All in all he finished almost touching 40 points in his rookie season. After such a solid season, what can the Wings expect in his sophomore campaign? Well, with the emergence of young players in Detroit that Tatar had played with for years in Grand Rapids, it’s fair to assume his point total and overall play will increase with another year of growth.
He played the most games out of all the rookies who emerged and formed slick chemistry with particularly two of them, Jurco and Sheahan. The line dazzled Hockeytown and played an integral part in getting the Wings into the playoffs. A major cog in that line was Tatar, and last season was a great first step. With the then restricted free agent signing a 3-year extension worth $2.75 million a season, it is clear the Wings want to see what the Slovak can do in that window to become part of their organization for a very long time.
*Insert Teletubby joke*
Sheahan was not supposed to be part of the Wings’ plans in 2013-14, as the team had five centers on the depth chart above him. Of course, the injury plague happened and he was one of the later call-ups called on to see what he could do. Sheahan made a point that he did not want to go back down. Using his size to get into good scoring areas in front of the net, Sheahan showed some offensive flare with a rocket of a wrist shot and toughness to finish off rebounds. This one came with hands as well as he made some pretty passes and moves that were fun to watch as a Wings fan.
Centering the line with Jurco and Tatar most of the time, Sheahan broke 20+ points in 42 games. Not bad for a 22-year old. On July 1st he signed a 1-year extension worth $500,000 as a restricted free agent, and he could be a big time bargain in his first full season of play. That will be a big question for Sheahan, as he and Jurco along with Nyquist will be faced with playing their first official full NHL season and embracing the toll it will take. This writer feels the Notre Dame alum is ready for that challenge with the poise he showed last season and the ceiling he has for a 22-year old. If he can stay healthy, he looks like he too will be in a Red Wing uniform for a lengthy period of time.
Of all the hyped Red Wing prospects now on the team, it seems Jurco’s value has flown under the radar. Taken in the 2009 draft, he became a Youtube sensation and showed some hands that had not been seen since, dare I say, Pavel Datsyuk broke into the league. Jurco played in Grand Rapids for only one full season, and his services were not expected to be used either.
In 36 games he had 15 points and showed flashes of brilliance but had a few cold spells, which is expected for a 21-year old getting his first real taste in the NHL. He still impressed along with the others, but seems like he could use a little more seasoning in Grand Rapids. It depends on camp however, and if he is the Nyquist of the Dan Cleary situation last year, when Cleary took his roster spot, Jurco’s seasoning could come at the beginning of the season. This writer would give him a chance at the start and send him down if he were to struggle, but with as good as the linemates he has, the seasoning may not be needed.
Darkhorse: Mattias Backman
At first one would think, who? This writer was guilty of that when the name was first mentioned. Defenseman Mattias Backman was drafted by Detroit in 2011 and played in the Swedish Elite League and Swedish Hockey League for Linkopings HC for five seasons. He came to the Grand Rapids Griffins this past season after his season in Sweden ended.
Ken Holland called his biggest challenge “transitioning from a bigger to smaller ice surface” where the play carries faster. Holland continued to point out his offensive instincts, stating he can pass the puck from tape to tape with great accuracy. Assistant GM Ryan Martin explained that he can start a rush from his own zone in a similar way to Danny Dekeyser.
Backman led the Swedish League in plus/minus and possesses a great hockey sense. Making that “first pass” out of the zone is so important in today’s NHL and the Wings have a couple of defensemen who possess the ability in Dekeyser and Backman. Jeff Blashill pointed out his two-way game being very notable and his future is bright because of it.
His idol growing up was -surprise- Nicklas Lidstrom and he models his game after Nick’s. He will be entering his first full season of professional North American hockey and will be expecting to compete for a spot on the Red Wings. He has received high praise from Holland, Blashill, and Mike Babcock, and many signs point to Backman playing for the Wings at some point in the season. From what he showed in Sweden and his taste of the AHL in Grand Rapids, it will be exciting to see how the 21-year old progresses in the organization going forward.
Could Gustav Nyquist Succeed in a Top Line Role?
Let’s face it, Gustav Nyquist was arguably the Wings’ MVP last season. Coming up from Grand Rapids in November, he scored two goals in his first game back, and never relinquished his spot on the team. He went on to score 28 more and pot 48 points, showing his uncanny offensive ability. It makes this writer wonder what he could have done had he been up the whole season.
Playing with the likes of Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, at first glance, would be a match made in Red Wing heaven. Many have to consider however, if he is ready to take on such a position for his age. Entering a season where he will turn 25, Nyquist is still relatively young with a bright future ahead. What stands out to me about Nyquist is that he was able to make such a huge impact in a short span of time playing with Zetterberg at times and on the top line when the injuries hit. He has done it before as the organization has seen, but is he ready to do it for a full season?
If last year was any indication, it does not hurt to try, at least at the start of the year. This depends on many factors however. Babcock loves to juggle lines and have a grinding type player on his top line along with two scorers(see Justin Abdelkader). Plus, Alfredsson’s situation is still unknown. Datsyuk and Zetterberg have to stay healthy. All factors aside, this writer would like to see the experiment tested early, since the Wings are flexible while healthy. The thought of the Euro Twins setting up Gustav Nyquist and vice versa does sound appetizing visually.
Will Top Prospect Anthony Mantha Make the Team?
Anthony Mantha likes to score.
I mean, score. Lots and lots.
Wings fans got their first looks at Mantha at the 2013 NHL Draft when the Wings took him 20th overall. The only 50-goal scorer in the draft, there were questions of his consistency and commitment to working hard to succeed at the next level. He silenced those critics with authority. Potting 57 goals in 57 games, Mantha made a mockery of the QMJHL with 120 points.
This summer in rookie camp, Griffins coach Jeff Blashill called him one of the best players in the camp leadership-wise, along with 2014 draftee Dylan Larkin. Mantha has had one singular goal since being drafted: Make the Red Wings. The 19-year old did not reach his goal last year, but he seems to have worked extra hard during the summertime and seems poised to win a job in camp. Ken Holland was reported to say that the Wings are giving him “every opportunity to make the team, preferrably in a top six or top nine role.” That’s a pretty solid statement of confidence in the young man.
This writer believes if he tears it up in camp and the preseason that he should be given a shot. At the same time, a prospect as good as Mantha should not be rushed too quickly. The jump from QMJHL to NHL is massive, no matter how anyone cuts it. With a player with such scoring prowess like Mantha, he could be an exception. Mantha says he feels ready and is confident but his play must show what is coming out of his mouth. Daniel Cleary could take up his possible spot and again Daniel Alfredsson’s situation show up as obstacles from the start. If the cards fall right, Mantha could find himself in Hockeytown to start the season. Preferably, this writer would want to see him in the AHL to adapt to professional hockey, but if he shows he has the skills and beats out other players, he should be given a chance in this writer’s book.
Jimmy Howard Must Bounce Back
The Red Wings have relied heavily on their goaltender in their transition to life without Nicklas Lidstrom on the top pair.
In turn, there has been much traffic thrown at Jimmy Howard with a young blueline. In the regular season, Howard averaged 35+ wins in his first three seasons as the starting netminder. Playing often, his GAA never was at its highest 2.79 and at its lowest 2.13. Not bad at all, but that was with #5 at the blueline.
Post-Lidstrom, his numbers have not taken a huge hit, but there is room for improvement, especially after last season. In 2012-13’s 48-game season, he played in 42 of them, nabbing 21 wins with a .923 save % and 2.13 GAA. He was arguably the reason why the Wings made the playoffs.
Last season, he had the same number of wins in 51 games due to injury and the rise of Jonas Gustavsson when he played. His GAA rose to 2.66 and his save percentage went down to .910. Even with a young blueline, it was a disappointing season for Howard. Health did play a factor in his offensive support and defensive help, but he had his share of gaffes. However, he turned it on down the stretch yet again, which helped the team abundantly.
Coming into 2014-15 and entering the 2nd year of his extension, it is an important year for the Wings netminder, as he will be expected to be healthy and ready to go now at 30 years old. With Petr Mrazek in Grand Rapids and spot starting for Detroit, Howard could be challenged in the coming years if he falters. At this point however, this is Jimmy Howard’s net to mind in Hockeytown and it will be interesting to see how he performs.
Can Stephen Weiss Provide Much Needed Depth As the No.2 Center?
Last season was one to forget for Weiss. In his first year after the big contract he signed in 2013, he played only a quarter of the season and felt a nagging injury from training camp on. Weiss has been made a mockery of by fans and some called for a trade or buyout or other crazy move to get rid of him.
This writer does not agree with any one of those suggestions. It’s a five year contract and only one year has been played. Weiss’s track record displayed him as a guy that would get a team close to or over 50 points a year and provide solid depth scoring. He can still provide that to this Red Wing team, if healthy.
This summer has been a positive one for Weiss, as he is reported to have no pain going into camp versus having pain as early as that time a year ago to the day. This is very good news for Detroit, as they could have a force of a top six with Weiss slotted in, taking some pressure off the top line. Again, this comes down to health and if Weiss can stay healthy and recapture his Florida Panthers form, it could be just another piece to a long playoff run.
What does that spell?
With the most mangames lost since the 2003-2004 season, the Wings were hit hard by the plague much of last season. Zetterberg and Datsyuk played half the season, Zetterberg not at all after the Olympic Break in the regular season. Weiss’s season was done in December. Franzen missed 28 games. The Wings were without five centers at one point. Laughable, but miserable at the same time.
Naturally the team struggled but managed to make the playoffs with an influx of youth. Looking to 2014-15, the team must stay durable.
At 33, Henrik Zetterberg was up there in NHL scoring before he went down for the season with 48 points in 45 games. Datsyuk is one of the best two-way players in the game and can still make NHL players look stupid at 36 and had 37 points in 45 games. Franzen, despite his difficulties with commitment at times, can put the puck in the net with authority (16 goals 41 points). Kronwall is durable and can get 40+ points on the back end. Howard is just touching 30. Darren Helm can be a tremendous cog to the team in various situations.
The core of the team is still intact, with the new one on the way. The young guns have shown that they can contribute offensively and look to become the next wave of Red Wing stars. The team is still a very talented and competitive team, but to be competitive, a team needs its big guns in the lineup and the Red Wings definitely need them this season. Head coach Mike Babcock called-out and challenged all who did not play much due to injury to have a “big summer”. This writer and collectively all of Hockeytown hopes that the players heeded the man’s warning.
2014-15 Season Expectations:
There are quite a few storylines for Hockeytown to digest heading into camp as the offseason winds down. Will the team be more durable? Will Alfie return? Can the rookies continue to contribute at the pace that they have? What can Weiss bring to the team? Will Mantha Mania be born? How about Howard and the Red Wing defense? This writer wished he had all the answers to these storylines and more, but the team, fanbase, organization, and Hockeytown will have to play the waiting game and see how everything turns out in the coming months. October is right around the corner, and the state of Hockeytown has many question marks. This writer believes that the Wings will answer these and more and make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 24th consecutive time, relatively easier this time around.
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Various statistics and bio information courtesy of NHL.com, DetroitRedWings.com, Hockey Reference, Capgeek, and Hockey DB.