Red Wings eager to blaze new trail

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Jeff Blashill

Detroit — A season ended too quickly, in April, once again for the Red Wings.

Outplaying the Lightning in many phases of the game, their offense sputtered and they lost in seven games.

The season, veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, felt like "a waste."

Mike Babcock raised the issue of the age of his veteran core, with which he won the Stanley Cup seven years before, and then shunned a lucrative offer from the Wings to coach the Maple Leafs.

But six months later, the players talk about their eagerness for the new season, which begins Friday against the Leafs.

"For sure, there is excitement," captain Henrik Zetterberg said in a word used frequently by players during camp.

"A new coach is a fresh voice, after what for some of us was 10 years. We have new players who should make us better, and we have young players who are a year more experienced and better.

"So, yes, we are excited."

If they stay healthy, the Red Wings could play deeper into the playoffs than they have since 2009. But injuries already are a factor once again.

Coach Jeff Blashill's resume is superb. But whether he prepares the team as well as Babcock, whose skill at preparation is unrivaled, will help determine the fate of the Red Wings.

Success in the free-agent market after consecutive summers of failure provided the second-highest scoring defenseman in the NHL over the past eight seasons, Mike Green, and a veteran center with some remaining scoring skills who has won two Stanley Cups, Brad Richards.

Scorers Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have the experience of another season, as do defensemen Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl.

Younger players like defensemen Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet and forward Tomas Jurco might be poised to provide better play. And the roster is deep enough to counter some injuries and provide general manager Ken Holland and the pro scouts headed by Mark Howe with the opportunity to make a productive trade.

The depth is so striking, even 19-year-old Dylan Larkin, the 2014 first-round pick, made the roster.

Goaltenders Jimmy Howard, who is leaner and quicker, and Petr Mrazek look sharp. The Wings hope they push each other, throughout the season, to better performances.

It all leads to a sense around the room that in the fourth season of a self-described "rebuild on the fly" the Wings are on the rise.

"I thought last year we had a good chance and gave a good run against a good Tampa team in the playoffs and came up short in Game 7," said Drew Miller, whose penalty killing and defense established him as a mainstay.

"We can compete and play against good teams.

"But we've retooled here with a couple of good players, and I think we have another good chance at making a good run."

Kronwall provided a checklist of tasks, after a summer of change.

"I think everything comes down to hard work, that's number one," he said. "Play with structure.

"And, early on, finding our identity.

"It's going to come down to doing it every night I know that sounds like clichés, but doing a good job every night.

"I think the specialty teams are going to be huge.

"And, the defensive side of things: I think we need to tighten up our defense."

The players speak of their situation as pregnant with opportunity.

"There's a lot of talent, here," Tatar said. "There's a good mix with veterans. Lots of speed."

Luke Glendening, who is bigger and skating better, said, "We're excited. I think there's a new energy in the room, and that's exciting. With the new players we got and the new coach, I think that's good."

New man in charge

The Red Wings moved to keep Blashill, 41, one season before Babcock's departure. Blashill has won in juniors, college and the American Hockey League. Many believe he is eminently capable of success in the NHL.

Henrik Zetterberg: "For sure, there is excitement."

Told his players speak of their excitement, Blashill said that makes him excited.

"I think part of having success is coming to work with a real positive energy and loving what you do every day, and that type of enthusiasm can breed success," he said.

"I think young players give you energy. Part of their job is to have the drive and make sure they're providing the energy, and I think our guys will."

Much about the club encourages him, he said. But its character and depth are striking.

"The parity in the league is such that it's so close that it's hard to separate yourself, and I think character matters big time," he said. "We've got, in my opinion, some of the best in the league — and not only in the leadership positions, but throughout the group.

"I think that's, in the end, going to help determine the success that we have.

"I like the depth that we have at each positon. I think, the guys that are going to be in the lineup are 20 guys who can play, and I don't have to be concerned so much about the matchups because I'll have lots of confidence in the lines we can put out there."

The Red Wings expect more offense from the defensemen. The loss four and five seasons ago, respectively, of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski still is felt, especially starting the offense.

Their vaunted transition game never has quite recovered, and Green is the long-sought free agent acquisition intended to ignite the incursions, again.

"It was an easy transition in the sense that the guys have been great, and the atmosphere is incredible," said the Calgary native, who turns 30 the first week of the season. "That was the easiest part. It's just getting the system down and feeling good on the ice.

"When you go to a new team, guys have certain things you pick up on that they do really well and you want to sort of emphasize that. My job is to just get the puck in the guys' hands and let them do their work."

If more goals result and Howard and Mrazek push each other to better performances, the Wings, who ended with 100 points last season, could be a formidable force in the NHL, where parity reigns by design.

Starting shorthanded

But, oh, those damnable injuries.

It is hockey. Injuries happen. But with some unfortunate seasons in recent years for the Red Wings and talk around the league there are simply too many injuries and the big stars too-often affected, injuries might well play a significant role this season.

Especially since they already have.

Pavel Datysuk, DeKeyser and Darren Helm will miss the start of the season, and DeKeyser was expected to help augment Green's defense.

Green, Marchenko and Ouellet grappled with injuries during camp, and Kindl with an infection, Kyle Quincey with a balky ankle and Johan Franzen is mounting a long recovery from another concussion.

Healthy? Not so much. But it is early.

If they can disperse the raft of injuries going forward, the Red Wings could fly high.

With a moderate amount of wounds, their gathering depth could save them nonetheless.

But their roster, when healthy, suggests playing in the conference semifinals or finals.

Game preparation is an issue, if only because Babcock was so singularly good at it.

But Babcock hired Blashill as his assistant, and their relationship was one of close communication and similar approaches to the game, according to both men.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure we're prepare," Blashill said. "And I'm going to do what I can to make sure we're prepared to execute; and that's it."

Right now, the guys in the room are excited.