Every NHL season carries with it uncertainty and questions regarding our team. The ultimate is "will they win it all?", but in order to answer that question several other things have to happen first.
The 2012-13 Red Wings aren't perfect, and in fact may have some of the biggest holes in the roster than any recent version of this team. For the first time in a long time, the Wings will enter the season with a lot of doubters, including many who will predict that this is finally the year the playoff streak comes to an end.
A 48 game schedule brings with it a type of urgency we don't normally see until after the All-Star break, so every game is going to count and a prolonged slump at any point of the season could spell doom. With that in mind, here are the 5 biggest questions facing the Red Wings this season.
1. How will the defense fare after the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom?
There seems to be no argument that the biggest question mark of this Wings team is the defense. The loss of Lidstrom could not be filled no matter who the Wings brought in, but they lost Brad Stuart as well, and after aggressively pursuing Ryan Suter this offseason the Wings were forced to settle for Carlo Colaiacovo, a player who could provide defensive depth but is not likely going to take on a leadership role.
The new anchor of the defense is Niklas Kronwall, but he will not be able to do it alone, and will need solid contributions from Ian White, Kyle Quincey and Jonathan Ericsson, who has got to display a consistency to his game that has eluded him thus far in his career. Brendan Smith is (rightly) going to get some playing time early and I hope he'll show the type of potential that we've been waiting to see. The odd man out could be Jakub Kindl, who has failed to impress in his opportunities to claim the final defensive spot.
2. Will the young players get a chance to contribute?
The last few years have seen several members of the old guard retire, leaving opportunities for younger players to come in and claim spots on the roster. We've seen increased roles for players like Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Ericsson and Jimmy Howard, and for the most part the results have been positive.
This year, Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner will lead the youth movement (although it should be noted Brunner is 26 and an undrafted free agent), but Tomas Tatar is waiting in the wings, ready to claim a spot. The Wings' MO has been to allow young players to come in, spend time on the 3rd or 4th lines, and learn the system. However, Nyquist looked like he belonged last year and it would be nice to see him get some extended playing time with players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
3. How will Jimmy Howard fare behind this defense?
I'm a huge Jimmy-backer, but any goalie can look pretty good with Lidstrom playing 20 minutes a night in front of him.
The loss of Lidstrom doesn't just affect the defense; Howard is going to be called upon to play even better than he did last year, when he posted career highs in shutouts and GAA and came very close to eclipsing his career-best SV%. Unfortunately, a .888 SV% and 2.64 GAA in the playoffs will do nothing to stop the critics, and with Howard a looming UFA and Petr Mrazek playing well in Grand Rapids, the pressure will be on for him to not only keep the Wings in some games but steal others at times.
4. Wherefore art thou, special teams?*
Last year was one to forget for the Wings' special teams. The power play and penalty kill finished 22nd and 18th in the NHL, respectively, and was a big reason why the Wings failed to finish higher than 5th in the West.
The expected retirement of Tomas Holmstrom could hurt the power play, but the signing of Mikael Samuelsson to replace Jiri Hudler along with Kyle Quincey getting more power play time could result in some better numbers. On the PK, the continued absence of Patrick Eaves and injuries to Darren Helm took their toll on a unit that tried to limit the number of times that Datsyuk and Zetterberg had to be out there.
5. Will the new schedule hurt or help the Wings?
That the Wings are one of the NHL's oldest teams should come as no surprise to anyone; little has changed in the last 20 years.
But the proposed schedule calls for 48 games, all to be played within a team's conference. For the Wings, this will mean fewer games, which is good for aging bodies, but every road game save for the ones against Columbus will be outside the Eastern time zone.
Depending on how the schedule plays out (i.e., west coast road trips), fewer games could give way to the Wings being fresher in the playoffs. However, as stated earlier, if the Wings endure any prolonged losing streaks, they won't have the luxury of time to make up for lost points.
*Yes, I realize that this means "Why are you special teams?" I'm trying to be witty. No, you shut up.