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Ten issues facing Red Wings as training camp approaches

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Tomas Tatar

Detroit — We’re getting closer.

The weather is still not cooperating — the beaches are full and the sun is hot — but hockey season is getting closer.

Players are skating and conditioning just a little harder, as the calendar inches closer to September.

That’ll also shake the cobwebs off Red Wings fans, who weren’t entirely pleased with the organization’s summer.

The team signed free-agent forwards Frans Nielsen, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, but failed to get the top-four defenseman many analysts (and rabid fans) felt they needed.

All the speculation surrounding Pavel Datsyuk finally ended, too, with Datsyuk returning to Russia to conclude his playing career and be closer to family.

The Red Wings have made the playoffs 25 consecutive years, but it’s gotten progressively harder the last couple of seasons, clinching berths on the final day(s).

Making the playoffs, again, this final season at Joe Louis Arena isn’t going to be easy — and many things will have to go right.

There are issues that’ll need to be addressed when training camp begins Sept. 23 and once the regular season starts Oct. 13 in Tampa.

Here are 10 issues for Red Wings fans to mull — and the organization to fix — as hockey fans await the World Cup Sept. 17 as sort of an appetizer this season for the main course in October.

1.) Which Petr Mrazek will be in net?

There were definitely two Petr Mrazeks last season.

The first was the goaltender that ranked among the NHL’s best the first half of the season, including dominating in January with a 7-1-1 record, 1.32 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

Mrazek was outstanding.

But in his final 14 starts, Mrazek was pulled five times and lost the starting job.

Mrazek didn’t reclaim the starter’s job from Jimmy Howard until Game 3 of the first-round playoff series, and both were outplayed by Tampa’s Ben Bishop.

After re-signing this summer, a two-year contract worth $8 million, Mrazek will go into the regular season as the No. 1 goaltender.

The Red Wings need Mrazek to be the goaltender of January, rather than March and April.

2. Is the defense — or can the defense be — improved?

The search for a top-four defenseman to strengthen the unit resulted in no trades or free agent signings.

So the only real change was letting free agent Kyle Quincey walk — Quincey has set to sign with another team — and Xavier Ouellet (out of minor league options) likely replacing Quincey.

The Red Wings will need to improve from within.

Defensemen Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green all had sub-par seasons and need to rebound.

Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko must continue to improve and take on greater roles.

This unit still has the look of a question mark, and a trade could happen early in the season. But improvement must likely come individually.

3. Can Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall rebound?

The two veterans have been such important pieces of the Red Wings’ success for a decade but cracks developed last season.

Kronwall, 35, in particular, struggled through an injury (knee) plagued season that saw him limited to 64 games, 26 points, and a minus-21 rating.

Surgery wasn’t necessary, so it’s hoped rest and rehabilitation helped Kronwall, whose minutes will likely be monitored this winter.

Zetterberg, 35, led the Red Wings with 50 points but only had 17 points in the team’s final 33 games and had a minus-15 rating, slumping in the second half for the second consecutive season.

Zetterberg’s time also must be watched, and maybe a move to wing could help keep him fresher until later in the season.

4. Will Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar break through as offensive stars?

The Red Wings needed both young wingers to score close to 30 goals last season and neither came close.

Tatar had 21 goals, Nyquist had 17, and both suffered through long stretches of inconsistency.

There was speculation either of them could be dealt for that much-needed top-four defenseman, but it didn’t happen (yet).

Both players seemed to struggle being shuffled from one line to another, as the coaching staff searched for any sort of spark.

Tatar and Nyquist were supposed to be two of the bigger building blocks going forward. They need to show they still can be.

5. How will Datsyuk be replaced?

Datsyuk wasn’t the player he once was last season, age and injuries slowing him down.

But Datsyuk remained a dangerous offensive player, capable of providing a magic moment to score or create a much-needed goal — and now that’s gone, Datsyuk now back home in Russia.

Free-agent signing Nielsen should replace Datsyuk in the lineup adequately, supplying offense and being versatile enough to play both special teams.

But the Red Wings will miss Datsyuk’s presence and mind-bending skill, even at age 38. That won’t be easily replaced very quickly.

Dylan Larkin

6. Can Dylan Larkin take another step forward?

Larkin had an outstanding rookie season, particularly in the first half and capped by winning the Fastest Skater Competition, setting a new record of 13.172 seconds.

Larkin’s production dipped the second half but finishing with 23 goals and 45 points were more than anyone could have predicted for the then 19-year-old.

So, where does Larkin go from here?

He’ll get even more confidence participating with the NHL”s elite players in the upcoming World Cup, and Larkin’s responsibility and role on the Red Wings could get larger by playing center.

Larkin’s speed blends perfectly with a league that is trending to a game based on the ability to play fast.

7. Is Mike Green another free-agent flop?

Green was signed to a three-year free agent contract worth $18 million the summer of 2015, but his first season produced mixed results.

Green, 30, led Red Wings’ defensemen with 35 points (seven goals) in 74 games but the totals were his lowest while playing at least 70 games since 2006-07.

The Red Wings can overlook Green’s defensive shortcomings but they need more offense from him, particularly igniting the power play.

8. Can Thomas Vanek salvage his career?

Many Red Wings fans were surprised to see the team sign free agent forward Thomas Vanek to a one-year contract worth $2.6 million.

Vanek, 32, was bought out by Minnesota after last season, in which he scored a career-lows of 18 goals and 41 points.

It’s a low-risk move for the Red Wings, who have had success with reclamation projects in the past (Dan Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson) and hope Vanek can rediscover his goal-scoring touch.

When motivated and playing his best hockey, Vanek is capable of being one of the dangerous offensive players in the game.

9. Can the power play rebound?

After finishing second overall the year before the Red Wings were ranked 13th last season, successful 18.8 percent of the time.

Assistant coach John Torchetti was brought in to spark the unit, which tended to over-pass and look for the perfect shot or play, rather than being aggressive.

Free agent signings Vanek and Nielsen have been productive on the power play in the past, and the hope is they can breathe fresh life into the attack.

10. Which young players in Grand Rapids could surprise?

Red Wings fans have heard the names now for a long time.

Anthony Mantha, Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Tyler Bertuzzi, recent draft picks who have shown promise in the junior and minor pro ranks, and even in brief stints with the Red Wings.

But making that permanent jump to the NHL isn’t easy.

Ouellet looks to get an opportunity with the Red Wings right out of camp this season, but the others will need to stay patient and continue to develop in Grand Rapids.

Mantha’s progress will be important, as the Red Wings could desperately use his size and goal-scoring ability to come through at the NHL level.

Bertuzzi is developing into a gritty, yet skilled, player who could find his way onto the roster even quicker than Mantha.