The Red Wings are counting on defenseman Jakub Kindl to continue the growth he showed last season. He had four goals. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — In a fifth season since they played in the Stanley Cup Finals, and a second without Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings will discover how well their young defensemen continue to play and whether two heralded offseason acquisitions invigorate their sporadically drooping offense.
Think the young studs on the blue line are likely to improve a season after exceeding expectations? The early careers of NHL defensemen rarely progress directly, and additional learning, also known as making mistakes, is expected.
But Danny DeKeyser, Brian Lashoff and Brendan Smith offer hope the Red Wings will have better fortune, and Jakub Kindl might have put such questions behind him.
Think Daniel Alfredsson, a future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the leading career scorer for the Senators, is well past his prime, and Stephen Weiss is too unknown to impress as a replacement for Valtteri Filppula?
Despite a couple of bad groins between them during camp, Alfredsson has displayed the wisdom of the ages and a clanging-hammer of a shot from the slot or point, and Weiss shows a competitiveness occasionally lacking in Filppula. And regarding Weiss, say what you will about the Panthers, but he is their career assists leader.
Barring injury, and playing in the Eastern Conference suggests an increased risk, the entire affair might well turn on the achievement of the developing defense and two recent arrivals. Because beyond them are four constants — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard.
Healthy, the foursome should again provide the leadership on and off the ice that drove a suddenly inexperienced team through one of the most challenging seasons in recent history, past the ominously frightful specter of not appearing in the playoffs for the first time since the first Bush presidency, to surprising success against the Ducks and Blackhawks in the playoffs.
Can they put themselves into a position in which playing in five series-deciding games in the playoffs last May, and the bitter elimination by the nearly-vanquished Blackhawks, provide the experience and motivation to launch a deeper thrust in June?
Some in Vegas make the Red Wings the sixth favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
Mike Babcock, who said they well exceeded his expectations last season, wants them among the last four teams playing — and then, take it from there.
“I think we did a great job and we improved our roster drastically, and yet, we haven’t been a final four team since 2009,” Babcock said. “So, we know we’re a work in progress and trying to get better.”
To a man, that is what the young blue liners say is the goal.
“Playing for a full season, you have to be even better, more often,” said DeKeyser, whose exhibition performance was touted by Babcock. “The big thing is just being consistent throughout the schedule every day.”
Defensive consistency sought
The Red Wings played well defensively last season. Thanks in part to another fine season by Howard, their goals against average improved from the previous season, when they were ranked ninth at 2.44, to fifth at 2.29.
But the offensive production from the back end lagged, especially the team’s ability to move the puck consistently and the transition from defense to offense was not as often as crisp as in the past.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings were ranked 20th in goals last season, at 2.54. The previous year, they were seventh at 2.92.
The Red Wings hope the offensive efforts improve along the back end this season, while the defense remains consistent.
“Yeah, I guess we still are pretty young,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “We’ve had a year under out belt with this crew, and I thought we made some pretty good strides.
“I just want to come in and play the exact same way. I just want to keep getting better, too.
“I hope to produce a little more offensively, and to help in that sense. But mostly just keep playing strong defensively and make sure I have to play defense first, and that will lead to offensive chances.”
As he anchored them and watched them develop, Kronwall provided a productive offensive season, considerable leadership and stoutness in the new top-two unit, with Jonathan Ericsson, whom Babcock credits with making enormous strides.
“I think we’re in a work in progress place,” Kronwall said. “I think the younger guys can take another step in their development this year.
“I think they did a great job stepping in. They got to play some big minutes already. They got a good feel for the playoffs, played into game sevens. So, they’re already very experienced at their young age and early in their career.
“I think they feel pretty comfortable, and now its just about working even harder and getting to the next level.”
As a once-young defenseman who was allowed the luxury of improving with veterans all around him, Kronwall says a key is getting the game to the point at which it is played reflexively.
“I think that the most important thing is don’t think too much out there,” he said. “Just go out and play.
“Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. I think it’s really easy to maybe have a hard game, here and there, and it’s just important to make sure that’s in the past and to look forward. Maybe you look at some video to see what you could have done differently, and learn that way.”
If the defensemen are better, especially on offense, Ken Holland’s busy summer might provide the remaining elements of a team that can be among the last four playing.
But much of the renewed promise of the Red Wings, whom many observers are touting as resurgent this season, is focused on Alfredsson and Weiss.
At 40, Alfredsson was hampered by a sore groin during camp, and his production is not what it once was. But the sense is that unless he has bad luck with injuries, too, he is better prepared to play with the Red Wings at the sunset fo his career than Mike Modano two seasons ago.
The early difficulty is injuries and getting him on the ice with Weiss and Johan Franzen, the prospective second line.
But, Alfredsson is confident things will work out, as he pursues his first Stanley Cup after many fond hopes in Ottawa, on a roster chock full of his fellow Swedes in an Olympic year.
“I would have liked to play a couple of more,” he said of the exhibition season. “But it is what it is, and you’ve got to be smart about things, especially now when you’ve got the time.
“It’s more about playing the right way. and once we do that — we feel comfortable in our roles, in what we do — I think we should be able to come and play without having to worry about where we are all of the time.”
The concern about Alfredsson and Weiss is that despite some considerable offensive accomplishments in their careers, both must now learn the Red Wings’ system while becoming accustomed to new team mates.
For Weiss, the circumstances are even more difficult because a wrist injury that required surgery and limited his playing time to 17 games last season.
“But I’m feeling more comfortable with the systems every day, and I think the more games you get in the more comfortable you will be,” Weiss said.
“Sometimes you’re thinking a little bit too much out there, where to be, what to do in terms of the system as opposed to just playing. But that’s to be expected, coming to a new team with new players, and getting to know your new line mates as well.
With Alfredsson and Franzen injured during camp and Weiss picking up a sore groin last week, establishing a routine is a dream dashed.
Injuries are a concern for any team in any sport, but for the Red Wings, it is a disquieting issue.
Their bad year for injuries last season, when they ranked third in man-games lost, came after a flock of injuries beginning in February 2012 that eventually knocked them from the top of the NHL and left them struggling at the start of the playoffs.
The Red Wings had acceptable seasons for injuries in the past, but in 2009-10, they ranked fourth in man-games missed.
In addition to the lagging development of the much-anticipated new second line, Darren Helm, the speedy center who would provide them with their four strongest lines and more depth at forward, continues his extended recovery from a back injury, along with a more recent groin problem, and begins on the long term injured list.
Last season, injuries also harried two veterans who could provide the Red Wings with a considerable offensive boost, if only because their contribution was almost entirely lacking in 2013. But Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson looked healthy during camp, and despite creeping age they could help provide another 20-30 goals.
Playing their game
Steering clear of injuries is at a premium for the Red Wings, especially moving into the Eastern Conference, where some believe they will be exposed to greater physicality.
Not all of the players are sold on that idea. Drew Miller and Weiss, who have played in the East, say perhaps too much is made of a difference.
“We actually always thought there were some bigger, tougher teams in the West,” Weiss said, of his former teammates in Florida.
It does stand to reason the Red Wings will experience more situations like playing the gigantic and tough captain of the Bruins, Zdeno Chara, who performed a rare feat during an exhibition two weeks ago. Chara caught Datsyuk flush with a body-check along the sideboards in open ice.
Datsyuk said he did not mind a clean check and suffered few if any ill effects. Moreover, he said, Chara is easy to spot.
But, for Datsyuk, the obvious is acknowledged with a shrug.
“When you play with big guys, of course, you recognize they can crush you,” the 35-year-old Red Wings superstar said.
But what Datsyuk’s already considerable career proves is that speed, skill and courage can trump brawn.
And while some Red Wings observers fret the bruisers in the East, those teams, especially the Bruins, worry about something new in the conference, too: The speed and skill of the Red Wings.
Time will tell.
The Red Wings approach? Under Babcock, it can be summed up in one word: Preparation.
Asked about playing in the Eastern Conference, Babcock was matter of fact.
“I talked with Paul Maclean and asked him the same question,” he said. “He says it’s more physically demanding right from the get-go as far as fighting and physicality. But he told me that he just did what he always did.
“And that’s what we’re going to do.
“We’re going to understand that might be part of it. But we’re going to get prepared.”