Rant Sports NHL 30 in 30: Red Wings Preview

By Peter Schneider
Val Filppula will look to continue his success from last season. Photo: Tim Fuller-US PRESSWIRE

2011-2012 Season Recap

It is hard to ignore that the Detroit Red Wings endured a disappointing season last year. They finished third in their division for the first time since before Nick Lidstrom was on the team. Additionally, they were ousted for the first time from the playoffs by the in-division rival Nashville Predators. For the perennial Stanley Cup contender, the up-and-down season carried only one major highlight: 23 straight home wins.

The new record of 21 consecutive home wins was completed against the Dallas Stars and was extended to 23 until a shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  The previous record of 20, held by the 1930 Boston Bruins and 1976 Philadelphia Flyers, was seen in the modern age of hockey as almost untouchable. The 2011-12 Red Wings, however, both touched and climbed over this impressive record and are now the sole leaders of home dominance.

There is a big issue that arises from this home record, though: the inability to win on the road. Two years ago, the Wings were one of the best road teams in the league. Last year was a complete flip-flop as the Wings looked sluggish, incompetent and unable to pull off a win on the road. This same mentality seemed to be brought into the 2012 playoffs–without the home advantage–and the Wings were knocked out in five games by the Predators.

Offseason Additions

The two biggest possible additions, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, did not choose Hockeytown as their destination.  However, the Red Wings did add talent to both their offensive and defensive corps.

Damien Brunner will remain a huge question mark for the team until the puck drops for the first game of the season. The right-handed Swiss forward brings everything the Red Wings need to the ice: speed, a possession-style of play and a shoot-first mentality. He can move up the ice, hold onto the puck when needed and has an excellent right-handed wrist shot.

Brunner, along with the right-handed Mikael Samuelsson, will be competing for time on the power play and Red Wings second line. Samuelsson has been brought back after spending two seasons with the Canucks and Florida Panthers. He still puts a lot of rubber on net and the Wings hope that the streaky Swede will get hot at the right time.

On the defensive end, one could argue that Brendan Smith will be an addition this year to the defense. Although he played last season, his role and time on the ice was limited. This year looks to be the year he will be spending a full-time role with the Red Wings, and he brings strength, solid passing and an ability to quarterback the power play. The other name bought via free agency was Carlo Colaiacovo. Colaiacovo spent his last four seasons with the St. Louis Blues, and as in-division rivals, the Wings know very well what he can bring to the ice. It is hoped that above all Colaiacovo will bring some toughness and solid defensive play, all while remaining healthy for the majority of the season.

Offseason Subtractions

There is no way to avoid it: Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom was a huge subtraction for not only Detroit, but the entire league. Lidstrom was a joy to watch on the ice, whether it be on the power play or breaking up a 2-on-1 fast break with one move of his stick. He was the first European captain in history to raise the Stanley Cup for his team and there is simply no way of replacing the seven-time Norris Trophy winner. “The Perfect Human” was even named the NHL Player of the Decade by The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. The loss of Lidstrom alone will be a major challenge for the Wings.

As if losing Lidstrom on the back end was not enough, Brad Stuart chose to move back to southern California to be with his family and signed with the San Jose Sharks in the offseason. Although not much of an offensive threat, Stuart played a key role alongside Niklas Kronwall in the second defensive pairing, often leading the team in hitting on most nights. He was never flashy, nor needed to be, as he showed up each and every night and went to work. His absence will just add pressure to an untested Detroit defensive corps.

The last subtraction is the winger Jiri Hudler. There are mixed emotions about seeing Hudler leave the Wings organization. He did score 25 goals and add 25 assists last year on a line with Valtteri Filppula and Henrik Zetterberg, which is a great improvement over the 10 goals from 2010-2011. It is believed, however, that with rising talent coming from offseason additions as well as from within the farm system, Hudler’s offensive production will be replaceable. Furthermore, as the Wings want forwards who play defense as hard as they play offense, it is understandable that the Wings were willing to party with the offensive-minded Czech national.

Red Wings X-Factor

The biggest “x-factor” the Red Wings have this season is their offseason Swiss acquisition Brunner. The reason being that he is simply so unknown to opposing teams and coaches that he might flourish or flounder in the NHL. He has spent his entire career on international-sized rinks and playing a different style of play than is found in North America. The adjusting may take some time, but the Wings are confident that Brunner will adapt quickly enough to add solid top-six talent to their roster.

Keep in mind that Brunner was not only sought after by the Red Wings, but many other big-name teams threw their hat into the ring in an attempt to land him. It is unlikely that he has been competing against the same level of competition in Switzerland, but this does not seem to bother Wings coach Mike Babcock.

“Can he adjust and play the North American game? We’re going to give him every opportunity. He’ll be a top-six forward to start with us and see where he goes with us,” Babcock said. This unknown Swiss star could be the “x-factor” the Wings were hoping for.

Under the Radar / Ready to Break Out

There are two strong candidates for break-out seasons for the Red Wings. Just as Filppula came into his own as a winger last season, it seems this year will provide big opportunities for both Brendan Smith as well as Gustav Nyquist. Both players have split time between the Red Wings AHL affiliate and the time in the NHL the past season, and will be the first to be full time Red Wings with spots opening up in the NHL roster.

Smith has all the makings of a great top-four defensemen. He is big and strong, he can pass the puck in both ends of the ice and he seems to have knack for reading the game. Smith will likely get time quarterbacking the power play unit, as he did last year when called up from the Grand Rapids Griffins. In 14 games with the Wings last year, he scored one goal and had six assists. This upcoming year, expect to see those numbers increase dramatically.

The second break-out player for the Wings is on the offensive side. Nyquist has shown time and time again his talent with the puck. The young Swede has a nasty wrist shot and a great head on his shoulders. When he was with the Red Wings, he never looked a moment out of place. His hard work ethic allows him to be effective either as a grinder on the third line or a goal scorer on the first or second. The talent and will is there, so Wings fans simply need to sit back and enjoy the fireworks he is bound to light off throughout the years.


2012-2013 Season Outlook 

Regardless of the team on the ice, Red Wings fans will expect the same thing every single season: a Stanley Cup championship. With the talent that the Red Wings possess, from the all-star goalie Jimmy Howard to a group of forwards bursting with talent, winning the Stanley Cup is still possible. The real question will become yet again if the aging core can remain healthy and more importantly, can the new-look defense survive without seven-time Norris winner Lidstrom?

The 2012-2013 Wings will need to pick up as many points at home as possible and must improve their win percentage on the road this year. It is unlikely that with the current defensive corps the Wings will be able to cruise to the playoffs as they normally do. Even in their own Central Division, they are not seen as favorites. The Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and Predators could also all win the division. Currently it appears that St. Louis will likely take first, and it will likely be a three-team race for second place, with the fourth place team in the division lucky to capture the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.

The Red Wings need to grind their way to a solid second place in the Central Division and hope for a fourth-place seeding in the Conference. Once in the playoffs, the Wings will need to figure out how to get past the first and second rounds and regain that playoff swagger they used to carry into every series. This is a high bar, but with the expectations in Hockeytown, there is no other option.

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