1. Can “the kids” take the next step forward?
How long has this question loomed over the Red Wings? Since Nicklas Lidstrom retired? It seems that’s about right. The Red Wings have been a team in transition ever since the 2012-2013 season, their first without Lidstrom on the blueline. In that time, we’ve seen quite a few former “kids” establish themselves as core players on this team. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have lead the team in goals. Riley Sheahan has proven his worth as a middle-six forward. Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko have become vital parts of the team’s defense. And Petr Mrazek has become the team’s #1 goaltender (more about him later).
This year each of those aforementioned players, and the next group of kids, will be called upon heavily. Pavel Datsyuk left for Russia this summer. Henrik Zetterberg admitted he’s run out of gas the last two years and even said he’d be open to a reduction in icetime. Niklas Kronwall is probably going to miss the start of the year as he continues to battle injuries. You obviously can’t replace a healthy Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall with just three individual players. But doing so by committee with the abundance of youth the Red Wings have might work. This is no longer the Eurotwins’ team. And while the keys to the kingdom haven’t been passed in their entirety, that day is fast approaching. The difference between extending the streak and missing the playoffs won’t be Zetterberg or Kronwall’s play. It’s going to come down to the contribution of the youth.
Can the next group of young guns establish themselves as NHL players? Dylan Larkin’s already done so, but what kind of sophomore campaign will he have? Can Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha earn time in Detroit among a crowded forward group? What can Nick Jensen, Xavier Ouellet or Ryan Sproul bring to the team now that they’re waiver-eligible? Can Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen resurrect their careers? And what might the Wings get out of Martin Frk, Tyler Bertuzzi and Tomas Nosek? They each present intriguing options up front too.
And what about the last group of kids? They’re all core players on this team, do they have what it takes to be the core players of a competitive playoff team? Could a simple increase in icetime get Nyquist and Tatar back up to roughly 30 goal seasons? Can DeKeyser shoulder the burden of being the team’s workhorse defenseman? What can we reasonably expect from Marchenko and Smith this season? Where will Sheahan play in the lineup?
There’s no lack of options for Jeff Blashill and Ken Holland with this roster. But at the same time, there’s no lack of questions either.
2. Is Petr Mrazek the real deal?
Speaking of the last group of kids, it’s not entirely clear what we can expect from Petr Mrazek this year. Last season he tore the league apart until February and then fell off a cliff from there on out. It wasn’t until Game 3 in the first round of the playoffs that he got his form back. That’s pretty disconcerting, especially if he’s supposed to be the team’s #1 goalie with his new 2-year, $8M contract extension. The Red Wings aren’t a team that can afford to spend $9.3M on their goaltenders and not receive a stellar performance in return.
The concern is Mrazek’s Vezina-worthy stretch was a fluke and he’s really not much of a better goalie than what Jimmy Howard currently is. The hope is he proves he can be an elite goalie in the NHL and dismisses last season’s slump as a consequence of an injury or some sort of voodoo.
3. What can we expect from the coaching staff?
When Jeff Blashill was announced as the Red Wings’ head coach last summer it was met with jubilee from Red Wings fans everywhere. Mike Babcock’s low event style of play seemed to be holding some players back from achieving their full potential, and I think everyone can agree it was time for a change behind the bench. I, for one, was anxious for Jeff Blashill to fully implement his system which uses a lot more speed, especially from the defense.
Fast forward a few weeks into the 2015-16 season and Blashill must have realized he didn’t have the necessary personnel to play a wide open style like he prefers. Although it is hard to implement a system that uses mobile defensemen when Kronwall (who has been marred by injury), Jonathan Ericsson (who has serious mobility problems with his hip) and Kyle Quincey (who is just not a great skater) are regular members of your lineup. The Wings went back to the low event system which wore out its welcome under Babcock, and that was that.
Jeff Blashill made a number of puzzling roster decisions last year, but I’d be willing to bet most of them were connected to the system the Wings were forced to play in order to succeed. For that reason, I’ve given Blashill somewhat of a pass. He didn’t have the players to play his system so he went back to what’s kept the Wings alive since 2012. This year, the hope is that things will be different.
Will Blashill be able to implement his system in its entirety? And how will he handle the team if he faces the same problems as last year? Will he take control of the team and play his game, even if it means the Wings might miss the postseason? And what about special teams? Will the powerplay under John Torchetti improve? What should we expect from Doug Houda with the penalty kill? The head coach is the biggest question mark, but don’t overlook what happens with his new assistants.