We made it through the defense and the goaltenders in our season previews; now it's time to turn our attention to the forward corps. Ordinarily we might save the best for last, but we're hoping Ken Holland will save us the trouble of writing up three bottom-six players who aren't going to be on the roster at the start of the season. Besides, there's never a bad time to talk about Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Since the 2002-03 season, these two have played together with fantastic chemistry, growing into the leadership roles that made Henrik Zetterberg the captain of the Red Wings at the start of last season and Pavel Datsyuk the worthy alternate. Veteran leadership exemplifying hard work over skill sets the tone in the Red Wings' locker room. It's hard to be a passenger when the hardest-working players on the ice are also the two men with a large lead in points for the Red Wings over the last decade.
Seriously, the next closest active Red Wing has 400 fewer points in the last ten years than Zetterberg, who trails Datsyuk by 60.
Zetterberg enters the season in year five of a twelve-year deal. The Red Wings' captain put up 48 points in 46 through the regular season, but got hot at just the right time; as the Wings pushed to make the playoffs, Z put up 10 points in the last week of the season to make sure Detroit's playoff streak stayed alive. Once the playoffs started, Hank seemed to find the kind of gear which won him the 2008 Conn Smythe. He led the Wings in points in the playoffs and consistently infuriated his opponents' top offensive players.
Strengths: It's hard to call somebody this good "overshadowed" or "underrated", but Zetterberg probably is. One of the smartest players in the league, Z draws tough assignments and gets the better of his opponents. He's got a wicked release to go along with a willingness to shoot from any angle and the kind of vision to hit a 40-foot blind backhand pass with ease. I bet he smells nice too. Doesn't he just look like he smells nice?
Weaknesses: A few injuries here and there have hit in the last few years and he continues to race against the aging process which slows every hockey player sooner or later. For a guy who likes to play center, he's not very good at faceoffs (especially the part where you're not supposed to get thrown out of the circle). For a shooter, Zetterberg's recent goal-scoring paces on the power play simply haven't been good enough.
Expectations: Hopefully, the Wings' top six is set well enough that the two best offensive threats can stay together all season and Hank can go back to being the high-scoring winger he was last allowed to be in the 2007-08 season. He should compete for the scoring lead on the Wings yet again and should be in the top 30 for forwards leaguewide in total points. I also expect he'll get a decent level of consideration for the Selke.
Datsyuk did all of Red Wings fandom a huge favor this last offseason by signing a three-year contract extension before he fully entered the last year of his previous seven-year contract, preventing an entire season's worth of Wings fans chewing each other's faces off worrying about what the Wings should do in case he decided to go back to Russia so soon.
On the ice, Datsyuk put up 49 points to lead the Wings in scoring and was a Selke finalist again. Not bad, considering how many games he played on a line with Dan Cleary and Justin Abdelkader. He also did this to the Predators.
Strengths: Datsyuk is a wizard on the puck, whether he technically has control of it or not, the thing belongs to him. He can embarrass even the very good players on the other team and no puck-carrier is safe as long as Pavel is on the ice. Datsyuk can also chuck a saucer pass over sticks and have it land flat on a teammates' blade from a fair distance away. His shot isn't brutal, but it can find its way into the net before the goalie has a chance to react. Datsyuk also seems to have that "F this" gear where the universe itself couldn't stop him if it tried.
Weaknesses: He only missed one game last season, but Pavel hasn't played more than 70 games since 2009-10. At 35, he's probably lost a step from his highest-scoring days too. He lacks the power to levitate and wasn't part of the team responsible for finding evidence of the Higgs Boson. Pavel Datsyuk has so far refused to tell anybody what the last digit of Pi is.
Expectations: Essentially mirroring Zetterberg's expectations, Datsyuk should be among the team and league-leaders in points and should be in the running for a Selke. He'll get heavy power play minutes and will play a decent amount of penalty kill, both roles he will be expected to perform at his usual level.
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Next in our series, we shift focus to the newcomers in the Wings' top six. Stay tuned.