August 31st. For some, it signifies the end of summer. School is about to start (or has already started), the leaves are going to turn color, the weather will be getting cool, and fall is right around the corner.
For hockey fans, the arrival of September means that the dead period that exists between the onset of free agency and opening of training camp is just about over. August is without question the worst month to be a hockey fan, because nothing of importance ever happens.
The Red Wings are starting to return to Detroit, ready to open camp and begin preparations for the 2015-16 season. There have been a lot of changes to this team since we last saw them, and we'll be previewing the players. Today, we'll start with what we're calling the middle wingers.
#8 / Forward / Detroit Red Wings
Feb 25, 1987
This is a big year for Abby. Heading into the final year of his contract, the 28 year old winger is coming off a career-best performance in 2014-15. After never scoring more than 10 goals or 30 points in a single season, Abdelkader set personal highs in goals (23), assists (21) and points (44) last year. Part of that was his 14.9 S%, and part of it was getting regular ice time with Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist.
Strengths: Abdelkader has never been afraid to use his big frame to establish positioning in the offensive zone. His strong offensive performance resulted in him getting more power play time, and he ended the year with 14 points on the power play. He showed he's got some hands on breakaways, and his possession numbers were in line with what one would expect from a top-six winger. He cut down on the number of penalties he took and had a positive penalty differential.
Weaknesses: He still has the potential to take himself off the ice with his high-intensity play. He's one of the few Wings who will fight, and while he won't do it often, if he's going to be a consistent contributor he needs to be on the ice, not in the penalty box. Despite all the goals he had in the regular season, he hasn't scored a playoff goal in 2 postseasons. The biggest question is whether he can come close to repeating last year's offensive numbers.
Expectations: This is a contract year for Abby, and what he does will greatly affect his next contract, including whether the Wings will be able to afford him. I don't know that he can repeat his 2014-15 numbers, but he'll come very close.
#43 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jan 21, 1987
Until last year, he would have been listed as a center, but Mike Babcock (RIP) decided to try Darren Helm on the top line with Pavel Datsyuk. Like Abdelkader, Helm responded with career highs in goals and points, and most importantly, remained healthy enough to play in 75 games. Also like Abdelkader, Helm is entering the last year of his contract and will be a UFA at the end of the year.
Strengths: You can't begin to discuss what Helm does best without mentioning his speed. He doesn't excel in any one area, but he's a player that can play in almost all situations. He's a very strong penalty killer, and showed some prowess on the power play last year.
Weaknesses: He's never been able to contribute consistent offense, which needs to happen if he's going to play on the 2nd or 3rd line. Up until last year, his health was always a concern, and despite playing in 75 games last year, the potential for him to miss significant time will never not be present.
Expectations: Helm didn't soar as far beyond his previous best like Abdelkader did, and seems to have settled in as a dependable player who will always give you his best. 10-15 goals and 30 points should be easy for him to get, but this being a contract year, we could see him set new career highs.
#26 / Forward / Detroit Red Wings
Dec 28, 1992
For half the team, the phrase "he's looking for a fresh start under a new coach" is true. But the one player who that may be the truest for is Tomas Jurco. Coming off a solid 2013-14 season, Jurco never really got going in 2015, being demoted to play on the 4th line for most of the season and failing to get anything going offensively. The most telling stat is probably 3.3%, or his shooting percentage, well below the league average of 7-9%.
Strengths: Offensively, Jurco has a lot going for him. He's a strong skater, he's got great hands, and he's got the frame to protect the puck. He's probably one of the most skilled players on the team not named Pavel Datsyuk.
Weaknesses: As evidenced by last season, he's not equipped to play a grinding style. He still needs to develop his defensive game, and if Blashill employs the same system as Babcock did, this will be important if Jurco wants to get top-6 minutes.
Expectations: There's nowhere to go but up for Jurco after last year. What his numbers looks like will depend on who he plays with, but if Blashill deploys him in an offensive role, we should see 10-15 goals and 30-40 points to make everyone forget last year.
#56 / LW / Detroit Red Wings
Jan 02, 1992
We get to last year's "Why Isn't He On The Red Wings?" player. Pulkkinen didn't do a whole lot except lead the AHL in goals while playing 31 games in the NHL. His 5 goals were enough to electrify the fanbase with the promise of what he could be in the future. He will be in Detroit this year as he is out of waiver options, and he is in the last year of his contract and will be an RFA at the end of the year.
Strengths: That shot. I was trying to come up with the last Wing forward that had the kind of shot that made me catch my breath every time he wound up, and I couldn't come up with a name. Leading a professional league in goals is a big deal, no matter what league that is, so it should be quite obvious that Pulkkinen has the offensive abilities that will make him an asset on this team.
Weaknesses: With less than half a season of NHL experience, this upcoming year could be a long one for Pulkkinen. He will have to get used to the grind of a full NHL season and could be hard-pressed to live up to the expectations that many will put on him. He still needs to learn when to wind up and take that big shot and develop a quicker release. He's also very raw defensively and will likely need to be sheltered by Blashill.
Expectations: Pulkkinen is probably the toughest to predict, because he's really still a rookie. He's got the abilities to score 20 goals, and will accomplish that feat some day, but I don't think this is the year he does it. I foresee a sophomore slump hitting him around December and continuing until February, resulting in what would appear to be underwhelming numbers.