Krupa: A pivotal preseason begins for the Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Center Andreas Athanasiou has worked hard in training camp and appears ready to help fill the void created by Henrik Zetterberg's retirement.

Detroit — The Red Wings begin arguably their most consequential preseason in a generation Wednesday against the Penguins.

They start with perhaps less established NHL talent than since Steve Yzerman first pulled on the Wings jersey for September games in 1983.

Positions in the lineup are available. A desperate search for the next stars continues.

Lines will debut.

Several prospects, in whom all hope increasingly rests, will vie for the openings.

It has been 13 years since much, if anything at all, was at stake in the preseason. In September 2005, a well-matured franchise became accustomed to a distinctly acquired taste, Mike Babcock, its new head coach.

Before that, preseasons were largely inconsequential for a decade or more, with a largely veteran lineup set, and preparing to vie for the Stanley Cup.

This preseason is more likely to suggest whether the Red Wings can merely remain competitive.

But much is of consequence, nonetheless.

At stake, in part, is a winning tradition and culture of hard work for the team supplanting individual glory.

Bigger picture

The future of the franchise is in resounding doubt.

Especially without Henrik Zetterberg, this preseason marks a spike in desperation amid straits ever more dire.

With much of their offense the past two seasons, and a big chunk of their discipline and heart the past decade gone, with Zetterberg, this preseason tests the ability of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi to fill the breach.

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Larkin’s development meets a comparatively high gauge, as reflected by his new, five-year $30.5 million contract and his roaring face featured prominently in the Wings’ marketing pitches.

But, even before Zetterberg’s back finally rendered further play inadvisable, Larkin likely knew that each new season provides new challenges for every NHL player, let alone 22-year-olds in whom so much hope is invested.

Mantha’s offseason included an apparently minor knee injury that precluded the plan for training in boxing that coach Jeff Blashill hoped would instill “aggression.”

Perhaps that quality will be more evident in Mantha’s play beginning this preseason with the realization of the price of Zetterberg’s departure.

"He was playing as hard as he could every night,” Mantha said in Traverse City over the weekend. “We know he had back issues and he was battling through. That's just character there that you can learn.

"If we could bring our game to where he was at the end there it's just going to help everyone on this team,” he said.

If Blashill leaves them on the same line for long enough, perhaps playing with the scrappy Bertuzzi will help Mantha, just as a bit of Mantha’s scoring touch, it is hoped, may rub off on Bertuzzi.

Athanasiou faces greater preseason challenges, switching from a wing to center and required to provide even more effort, while his dedication to task is sometimes perceived, by Blashill, as lacking.

“His work ethic has been great,” Blashill said of Athanasiou in Traverse City. “His compete level has been great. If he does those two things, he's an excellent hockey player.”

Kids pushing

The preseason is even more important for Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov.

Rasmussen forced the Red Wings to take a long look at him at the end of last preseason. But, he said, he is thinking less about cracking the lineup than daily improvement.

Zadina played in the Red & White Scrimmage with Athanasiou and Thomas Vanek, whose reacquisition if the off-season is magnified with the loss of Zetterberg.

“It was one of the best days of my life," Zadina said.

The hope is preseason demonstrates Zadina has the mettle to play this early in his professional career in the NHL.

And, if Svechnikov can relax a bit, have some fun and play hard on the puck in the offensive zone, he might force the ever-cautious Red Wings to keep all three young forwards.

The preseason will also test whether the defensemen Joe Hicketts, Filip Hronek or Libor Sulak can crack the lineup, and if the Wings can finally develop defensemen in Grand Rapids who can play regularly, at a reasonably high level, in the NHL.

Much beyond that is unsettled for the Wings, including whether Gustav Nyquist can provide offense without Zetterberg making plays for him and whether Frans Neilsen can provide more goal, especially on the power play, to offset the major loss.

As preseason begins Wednesday, much of considerable importance is at risk for a team projected to compete in the lottery next year for the top pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Development is key. The Red Wings must begin to fashion it, in earnest.

Twitter: @greggkrupa