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Krupa: Transition game key to Red Wings' success

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than 13 hours before the Red Wings put the seal on a 3-1 exhibition win over the Blackhawks on Thursday, the portion of the roster not dressing for the game was hard at it on the ice in Joe Louis Arena.

Barely after 9 a.m., assistant coach Tony Granato dished pucks from the front of net sharply to the left, into the corner.

Two Red Wings, a defenseman and a forward, hustled after it, flailed at it with their sticks, tried to position their bodies to secure the puck, hacked and bumped and grinded.

It went on a good chunk of the morning.

And when they were not doing that, there were brisk breakouts from their own end, the length of the ice. Then, start it from the other end and come back the same way — with coach Mike Babcock urging them on.

Secure the puck in the zone, mount the attack in a wink, brisk exits, tape-to-tape on the passes. Keep the puck as it advances through the neutral zone and into the other fellows' end.

It is a key to the season.

It also will help dictate which young defensemen start the season in Detroit or Grand Rapids.

Changed faces

If the Red Wings can launch their vaunted transition game from a firm base of play by their defensemen with more success than last season, it will almost certainly add up to more offense.

"I'm a big fan of not playing d-zone coverage," Babcock explained, later in the dressing room.

"In other words, you organize coming back in (the defensive zone), you put a ton of pressure on the puck early, you execute and you leave them."

They, are the opponents.

The Red Wings' transition game worked marvelously well from the early 1990s through 2011, then — pardon me repeating the often-repeated refrain, please — Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart were suddenly gone.

Now it is up to guys like Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Brian Lashoff and, soon enough probably — in fact, maybe really soon — Xavier Oullet, Alexey Marchenko, Ryan Sproul and Mattias Backman to master the art.

"We did that in Chicago, the other night, and we did it in Pittsburgh the other night a bunch of times — and then turned it over," Babcock said, assessing the performance of the critical tasks by his evolving roster, through a couple of exhibition games, before the victory Thursday night.

"So, not only you've got to beat them one time, you've got to leave them there," he said of the Wings' play in their own zone. "And they caught us and raised our stick too many times last game and the game before.

"But we just got to keep getting better at it, we work on it every day."

Like much about the Red Wings, it is a work in progress.

Ready to get at it

The young guys seem game.

"For sure, I think Red Wings hockey is puck passed tape-to-tape, puck movement, fast," said Ouellet, whom Babcock likes and who is giving every appearance of a player from whom fans are about to hear much more.

"First game in Pittsburgh was the first game for all the players pretty much for a couple of months, so the timing wasn't there and stuff like that," said the 21-year-old defenseman, who starred in Grand Rapids last season and was selected 48th overall in the 2011 draft.

"I feel everyone's feeling more comfortable, every day. So it should get better here tonight, and we're going to get better at it."

Other things certainly stymied the Red Wings last season, especially a veritable plague of injures. But the offensive production has lagged since Lidstrom retired, and while there is much for comparatively young defensemen to learn in the NHL, sometimes the big offensive push is the last task mastered.

"I think we're just getting better at it as we get used to each other," Smith said. "I would say it's a lot about experience.

"You hear people talk about how we didn't change our d-corps and we didn't change a lot up front, and yada, yada, yada. But I think, once you get that much more of a level of familiarity, some of these guys that are growing, like myself, D.K., Lash, we're getting stronger and more used to the systems and, just in general, used to playing the NHL style.

"I think that's a huge step for our team."

If accomplished, it would be. Hence, the recurrent drills, the continuous emphasis.

There is some sense of new schemes attempted. But Babcock and Niklas Kronwall downplayed the hypothesis that significant new initiatives are suddenly in play.

"I think as far as that, I don't think there's any major news, really," said Kronwall, who, at 33, begins his 11th season with the Wings.

"A lot of it still is getting back to the puck quickest, be first on the puck and make sure you have the other guys wanting the puck get open. And I think that's something we work on, every day."

Ask if, based on Xs and Os, new tactics will be deployed, Babcock said it is less about that.

"Well, you know what? A lot of them are the exact same thing, we've just got to do them better," he said.

The guy with a bird's-eye view of things is goaltender Jimmy Howard, who is proximate to the puck retrieval, control and quick first passes.

"It's not so much moving the puck out of the zone," Howard said. "It's more setting it up and putting it in good areas for the defense, you know, taking some pressure off them, so they're not getting run every single night, and we're able to break out faster.

"We're just going over that, right now."

For young guys, the fact of the matter is there are probably easier ways to play the game then the Red Wings' system of attack. But they are rarely as successful, when fully deployed.

"I wouldn't say that we're one of those teams that just rims it around, and hopefully it gets out," Smith said. "Some teams live on that."

As the young guys progress, there is some hope.

More of push from the back end can be expected from DeKeyser and Smith, this season.

Ouellet and Marchenko made for an effective tandem in Grand Rapids last season, and while Marchenko's health in recent months seems to have hampered his advancement, Babcock thinks he likes him.

"No question, he's intriguing," Babcock said. "Let's see it. You still got to do it. That's the way it is, for everybody.

"Marchy wasn't as good as he can be," he said, of play before last night. "He just hasn't played much hockey. I need to get him in games.

"Ouellet I thought was real steady.

"Backman and Sproul were real good in their games, as well.

"I like those guys. We just keep watching players. I don't know what I think. I'm waiting to decide what I think.

"That's why I'm watching them."