January 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

NHL preview: Short season, new captain, many questions for Wings

Detroit -- Here they go, into the Great Unknown. The Red Wings are skating on fresh ice, with new motives, a few new faces and an entirely new challenge.

You'll recognize the team because it still has stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, goalie Jimmy Howard and coach Mike Babcock. The Wings still rely on skating and smarts, still have a system that's been mostly successful for two decades, and yes, still wear red. But margins keep dwindling, not only for them, but for everyone in the NHL.

The lockout-shortened 48-game schedule guarantees an even tighter jumble, and maybe it's good the Wings don't have much time to worry about it. Nicklas Lidstrom is retired, replaced at captain by Zetterberg, who can fill the leadership role but not all those valuable minutes on defense, where the team is riddled with questions.

Is the Wings' 21-year playoff streak in jeopardy? Sure it is, especially when a point or two might be the difference in making the playoffs. Frankly, it was going to be in jeopardy whether or not Lidstrom and defenseman Brad Stuart left. Then the Wings struck out in their pursuit of big-time free agents, and the moment of transitional truth arrived.

They've been churning toward this juncture for a while, slowly changing on the fly. Now they have no choice, which should stir some midwinter tension at the Joe. I still think they're skilled enough and deep enough at forward they should make the playoffs, with much depending on the stability of the 28-year-old Howard.

Theoretically, the infusion of young players will pump the energy, and into Lidstrom's void will step others hungering for the chance. But the days of guarantees are over, until further notice.

"We heard that the last few years — we're too old, we're too old, we can't compete with the tough teams," Zetterberg said. "Now I guess we're too young, right? You can't really be bothered by what people say. It's gonna be a crapshoot anyway going into playoffs this year. It's going to be fun."

There is something intriguing about the unknown. For instance, Zetterberg and Datysuk will be playing with heralded 26-year-old newcomer Damien Brunner, who led the Swiss league in scoring but is an NHL novice. On defense, Niklas Kronwall is the leader, and we'll find out if Jonathan Ericsson is ready to be a first-pairing stalwart.

The Wings need more scoring from Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Darren Helm and others. They need Howard to be as dominant as he was early last season, and if not, new backup Jonas Gustavsson could surprise.

A team that makes the playoffs 21 straight seasons and wins four Stanley Cups doesn't suddenly turn into an intrepid underdog. But everyone knows the reality — the Wings haven't made it past the second round since 2009.

"I have the same attitude every year when we start," said Babcock, entering his eighth season. "We gotta get off to a good start, keep getting better and play our best hockey at the end. Every year I've been scared to death just to make the playoffs. This year is no different."

Although it is. Rarely have the Wings relied so heavily on unproven players, from Brunner to 23-year-old defenseman Brendan Smith. And rarely do they fail to land any of their prime free-agent targets. They signed defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and forwards Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo after missing out on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, who went to Minnesota.

And now the Wings must replace Lidstrom, who merely was the best defenseman of his era. That doesn't mean they'll ditch their puck-possession style, but it means they suddenly have all sorts of minutes to dole out on the power play and penalty kill.

"I talked to Babs a little bit and he wants me to be a guy they can count on," said Ericsson, 28, who's a significant key. "And I want to be the guy they can count on defensively in the last minute of the game when we're up one goal. It's not just me that has to take a step; everyone in this room has to."

The Wings also lost Tomas Holmstrom to retirement, so someone has to assume a larger net-front role, especially on the power play. Can Franzen be a more consistent and prolific scorer? Can Bertuzzi and Cleary stay healthy? Can Tootoo add needed feisty agitation? Can GM Ken Holland make moves to bolster the thin defense by the trade deadline?

The Wings were the fifth seed in the West last season and are pegged by most prognosticators no higher than third in their division again, behind Chicago and St. Louis, scrapping alongside Nashville. It wasn't easy then and it's even tougher now, as the Wings enter a season without Lidstrom for the first time in more than 20 years.

"All my career I had him back there, so it will be an adjustment, for sure," Zetterberg said. "But if you look at us forward-wise, we basically have the same guys, with some good additions. I don't think we'll be that different. Then again, No. 5 (Lidstrom) isn't there, so we don't really know how it's gonna turn out.

"You just gotta be honest about it and take it as a challenge."

It's a unique challenge, one the Wings knew was coming eventually, one that requires Unknowns to become Knowns as quickly as possible.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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Henrik Zetterberg is the new captain and face of the Red Wings. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
Coach Mike Babcock says his outlook this season is no different than any ... (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
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