As we get ready to wrap up the preseason, today as part of the greater SB Nation league preview, we'll be looking at three questions facing the Detroit Red Wings going into the 2014-15 season. Here we go:
1. Can the Red Wings even stay healthy at this point?
Reading back into what I wrote about this question prior to last week's games makes me very sad. In the last week, they've lost Pavel Datsyuk to a shoulder injury; have seen Darren Helm suffer a sore groin and a broken nose; watched defensive prospect Ryan Sproul take a big hit which softened him up a bit; and have seen Gustav Nyquist hobble off on a sore knee late in a preseason loss to the Bruins. This tacks on to the broken leg that Anthony Mantha suffered during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament which will have him miss another 4-6 weeks.
This is going to be the single biggest question for the Red Wings this season and they're already off to a bad start in answering it. There's no way to avoid all injuries; it's a part of the game. The troublesome thing for the Wings last year was the recurring soft tissue problems, especially in the groin. The team finally responded this offseason to criticisms about how much more injured they seem to get in relation to the rest of the league with a promise that they had taken stock of all of their practices and are looking to make adjustments. Without being given specifics, we have to take them at their word for it though. The Helm issue is troublesome, but we don't know whether this is a case of the team being more careful with less soreness than usual or if it's just more of the same.
Honestly, there's no way to know until the season is already underway, but I'd really like for them to be able to stay near the bottom of the man-games lost to injury list this time around. They're going to need some luck to avoid the freak injuries to be sure, but the chronic recurring groin problems that struck the team last year is not going to be acceptable.
2. Will Howard bounce back from a regular season that was down by his standards?
All indications are that Howard is set to add another dominant season to his collection. He's said all the right things about how he wasn't good enough last year and came into camp looking more fit than ever. So far he's looked stronger and focused during scrimmages and preseason games, according to the digger corps and our own camp observers, Kyle and Michelle.
This isn't the first time that Howard has had to bounce back from a down season either. In 2010-11, Howard got by with a .908 regular season save percentage on the back of an incredibly strong offense for the Red Wings that season. Howard followed up that performance by putting up a .920 regular season save percentage in 2011-12, then a .924 in the lockout shortened 2012-13. Even with last season being down, Howard remains among the very best netminders over the last three seasons in terms of save percentage and in Quality Starts.
With the team hopeful that Jonas Gustavsson can stay healthy and spell Howard for a decent number of games this season and a hot goalie prospect in Petr Mrazek taking starts for the Griffins this season, Howard has all the reason in the world to put up another stellar season, and I fully expect him to.
3. How much of an impact will the youth have on the team this season?
The value of youthful contribution for the Red Wings was immense last season, proving that kids like Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, and Gustav Nyquist could hack it in what Ken Holland once described as a "men's league" in order to justify their relatively slow ascension to the Detroit roster. These player performances have led to high expectations, especially for Nyquist and Tatar, who are starting to draw the kind of attention that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg drew during the team's last core forward transition.
What's important to remember about how last season went down for the youthful Red Wings forwards was that it was designed by Mike Babcock to put those players in a position to succeed, even with the added pressure on them to do so in order to get the Red Wings into the playoffs. The kids on the Wings are best-suited to have the maximum impact as a bolster to the existing veteran core. It's comforting to have faith that these are the players which can drive the Wings into wins during trying times, but what we're looking forward to is seeing them creating value as depth used in ideal depth roles.
Perhaps where we'll see this even more is at defense. Brendan Smith is poised to prove that he can excel in a top four role while four prospects are hungry to step up and steal jobs from wherever they can get them. Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko, and Mattias Backman will be battling all season to prove they can crack the Wings' lineup and displace players like Jakub Kindl, Brian Lashoff, or even Kyle Quincey.