Every Thursday leading up to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Ryan Porth examines one club that is a true contender to hoist the Stanley Cup come June. The Detroit Red Wings are one of 10 Teams that Can Win It All.
In the final stages of the lockout-shortened regular season, the Detroit Red Wings were in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990 (when there were 21 teams in the NHL). Then the Red Wings won their final four games, outlasted Anaheim in a first-round series that went the distance and had heavily favoured Chicago in a 3-1 series armlock. But the Blackhawks stormed back to win that series and the Cup, leaving Detroit thinking what could have been in their Western Conference swan song.
The Red Wings’ offseason was nearly as dramatic as the months of April and May. They stunned the hockey world on July 5 by signing Ottawa legend Daniel Alfredsson to a one-year deal. Also, Stephen Weiss was locked up to a five-year, $24.5 million contract to fill a void down the middle on the second line. Among the subtractions were forwards Damien Brunner and Valtteri Filppula.
Come next spring, will Detroit channel its inner Detroit and win their 12th Stanley Cup? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t:
1. Mike Babcock is a heck of a coach
As much as any coach in the league, Mike Babcock’s not having a Jack Adams Award in his career leaves us wondering one thing: How?
You can make a case that Babcock has been the NHL’s best coach dating back to 2003, when he unexpectedly steered Anaheim within one win from a Stanley Cup. He simply gets the most out of his team, no matter who is in or out of his lineup. He has maintained Detroit’s storied success as well as anyone could have expected in the salary-cap era. He is the cream of the crop when it comes to NHL coaches.
Last season is a great example of Babcock’s effectiveness. Under any other coach the Wings may have missed the playoffs. But with the least-talented Red Wings team in maybe two decades, Babcock led his seventh-seeded club to Game 7 of the second round – despite being decimated by injuries all season long.
The best coach without a Jack Adams on his resumé will always have Detroit in the Stanley Cup mix.
2. Stephen Weiss is an upgrade
Detroit reeling in Weiss via free agency was one of the most crucial signings of the entire offseason.
In recent years the Red Wings’ lineup has been top heavy with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Daniel Alfredsson and his 1,108 career points are a welcome addition, but Weiss stabilizes the second line. He’s an upgrade over offseason departure Valtteri Filppula, who somehow received a slightly larger contract than Weiss. The former Florida Panther has racked up 57 or more points in three of his last five seasons (and 40-plus points in last six full seasons) as the club’s top-line pivot, which means he’s well-suited for a second-line role in Detroit.
The free agent market was light on talent, but Weiss was one of the better centres available. Detroit needed a true center to slide in behind Datsyuk on the depth chart, and the addition of Weiss should make them a harder team to deposit come playoff time.
3. Realignment should help
Moving to the Eastern Conference doesn’t mean the Red Wings will no longer travel west. But having divisional games and the playoffs in their own time zone is the exact reason why the Wings wanted to get out of the West.
This season the Red Wings will play 14 road games outside of the Eastern Time Zone. In 2011-12, the last time there was an 82-game slate, they had 29. After mid-January this season, they will not travel west of Minnesota. A lighter travel schedule should help an older team like the Wings.
Boston is favoured by many to win the Atlantic Division, but Detroit should be the No. 2 seed in the new-look division. While the trio of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto will undoubtedly be competitive, the Wings are positioned nicely compared to the vaunted Central Division of recent past.
1. Defence not built to win big
Even before Nicklas Lidstrom retired, you knew it would be tough for the Red Wings’ defence corps to be as dominant when the future Hall of Famer eventually left. It was only a short season without Mr. Perfect’s services, but the blue line was a roller coaster in 2012-13. Injuries took place, veterans underachieved, and youngsters were out of place. It got better as the season went along, but it was still an average-at-best unit.
What did the Red Wings do this summer to improve the defence? Absolutely nothing. They did sign coveted blue-liner Danny DeKeyser out of Western Michigan last spring, but the lanky defenceman has yet to prove himself at the NHL level. They’ll be relying on Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith to step up, all of whom had ups and downs last season.
Veterans Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson can hold their own, but the rest of the defence is too shaky to withstand some of the firepower that resides in the East.
2. If Jimmy Howard doesn’t improve in playoffs
This isn’t necessarily a knock on Howard as a goaltender. Over the last two years he’s been among the NHL’s 10 best netminders. More important, he’s become one of Detroit’s more valuable players. Still, he has yet to get it done in the playoffs.
In four postseason appearances, Howard has three series wins – two against Phoenix, the other against Anaheim last season. He was much better last spring than in previous postseasons, but not quite good enough. When Detroit has run into stiffer competition in recent playoffs, they’ve come up short. This team is no longer in a position where they can have a mediocre goaltender hold the fort and let a supporting cast go out and win the Cup. Howard needs to be spectacular at playoff time.
Howard’s career playoff stat line reads like this: 20-22, 2.57, .918. Solid for postseason play, but not elite. If Howard wants to be considered an elite NHL goalie, he’ll have to start willing the Red Wings to playoff victories a la fellow American Jonathan Quick.
3. Age could play a negative factor
“The Red Wings are too old” has been an overused excuse for why the 11-time champs can’t raise another banner. At the same time, it’s a legitimate concern for determining just how high their ceiling is every year.
Minus Howard, the Red Wings’ entire core is on the wrong of side of 30 years old. Alfredsson, 40, is nearing the end of his career. Datsyuk, 35, and Johan Franzen, 33, are still effective yet could start a downward trend at any time. Same goes for Zetterberg, who will turn 33 next month, and Kronwall, 32.
True, sometimes age is just a number. But with age comes higher risk of injury and more wear and tear before the playoffs even begin. There’s a lot of wear on the Wings’ tires and not a lot of great youth to support them.
Prediction: Health permitting, Detroit won’t have to fight for its playoff life down the stretch and will obtain home ice for at least the first round. The new playoff format means they may not be able to avoid Boston within the first two rounds, which could spell trouble. In the end, the Red Wings are just outmatched by the upper-echelon clubs in the East.