Finally, it’s here.
The sun shines bright, the sky is clear. A leaf falls from a tree, standing along the banks of the Detroit River. The smell in the air is more than that of a Michigan Fall day. Adjacent to the trees that shed their leaves ready for winter, stands the historic sports colosseum that many call home; formerly known as Joe Louis Arena.
Hockey is back in Detroit. The smell of excitement for a new beginning is apparent as is the smell of success that the Detroit Red Wings name carries. It’s that time of the year, when the 3 major sports in Detroit eclipse one another and this time around, the theme for this season is hope. The Tigers are inching closer to a World Series birth, knocking off the Yankees on Thursday night. Then the Lions and Michigan Wolverines move on with undefeated records. Once losing teams, now playing lights out football. Hope for fans that things are changing. Just like the hope that is held when the Detroit Red Wings take to the ice for their first game. Now it’s the Red Wings turn to do what they’ve done best for decades.. win.
Friday night at the Joe was the home & season opener, a complete and beautiful success with the Red Wings winning over the Senators, 5-3 after going up 5-0 until the 3rd period.
The Red Wings kicked off their season with a moving and emotional pregame tribute, honouring the 3 fallen members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team which included 3 former Wings players; Ruslan Salei, Stefan Liv & newly hired head coach of Lokomotiv, Brad McCrimmon.) McCrimmon’s wife and family were part of the ceremony where McCrimmon, who was known to many as “Beast”, had his #2 jumper presented to his family, with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg & Nick Lidstrom with them to present the jumpers, on behalf of the Red Wings family.
With emotions high at the Joe, the Wings and Senators – coached by former Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean, prepared themselves for what was ahead, the 2011-12 NHL season. A blank slate for both teams, an opportunity to prove for many players.
High expectations – a Cup or bust journey to their 21st consecutive playoff appearance, is where it all begins for the Red Wings. Besides the familiar face on the opposite bench, there were a few newer faces in Wings jumpers. Gone are those favourite sweaters of Osgood, Draper, Rafalski, Meech & Modano. But with the old, comes the new. Ian White, Mike Commodore, Ty Conklin – back with the Wings for a 2nd time, a 2nd chance. The Wings have reloaded, mostly with youth – expecting players like Jan Mursak, Fabian Brunnstrom & Cory Emmerton to step up and chip in with some offense as the season progresses.
The puck dropped at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night, with a sellout crowd of over 20,000 fans, witnessing what would be the first of 82 games. Todd Bertuzzi opened the scoring for the Wings, scoring on a breakaway feed from Darren Helm, who was assisted by defenseman Jakub Kindl on the play. Big Bert took the pass before wristing the shot over newly acquired Senators goalie Craig Anderson’s glove hand.
On the first goal of the regular season, 3 players I expect to have big years started off on the right foot.
Todd Bertuzzi is coming off a solid season where he managed to stay healthy, playing 81 of 82 games, scoring 16 goals and 29 assists. Already through the preseason & 2 games with Helm as his linemate, Bert looks hungrier than years past and has settled into Babcock’s system the 2nd time around. A good year and he could net 20-25 goals which would be valuable depth production, especially if he’s partnered with Helm for the majority of the season. He’s already displayed his scoring finesse with a preseason highlight goal & the bruising power forward is at his best when he’s throwing his weight around and making life hard for opposing defensemen and goalies, which is why partnering him up with Helm and Abdelkader seems like a brilliant idea, even if the 36 year old does see less minutes. One thing the line will create is energy. With 2 young guys alongside him, it should help keep Bert feeling hungry and revitalized, hopefully helping him hit that 20-goal mark. Along with offense, Bert’s role defensively has grown. In the last season or so, Bert has also matched up on the opposing team’s best player & has proven that he can shutdown the big name players, when called upon.
Then there’s Darren Helm, aka Danger. His speed is mesmerizing & his hustle and heart has made him a known name and fan favourite. After 4 years in the pros, Helm is ready to explode and take the next step. He’s learned how to use his speed and agility to beat out defenders and create plays. Now, he looks ready to add a scoring touch to his repertoire. Always carrying the label of having “stone hands”, Helm put up career best numbers last season over 82 games, helping with 12 goals and 20 assists. With Draper gone leaving no more original Grind Line members on the Wings, Helm has already been dubbed the “next Draper.” He can kill penalties & do the small details and if he produces, look for him to possibly get some powerplay time. With Bert on his wing & Abdelkader on the other, this 3rd line can be the 2011 version of the Grind Line, with Bert’s added scoring touch, Helm’s quickness and tenacity and Abby’s hard hitting.. look out for this line to make some noise.
Lastly, there’s Jakub Kindl. A young puck-moving defenseman looking to show what he can do. Drafted in 2005 19th overall, he spent 4 years in Grand Rapids, maturing and honing his skills. Though he started off shaky in the minors, over time his confidence has grown and his decision making has improved as has his confidence. Now he’s been given a bigger chance after playing 48 games last season, partnering up with former Griffin’s team mate, Jonathon Ericsson. Both young players have the pressure on them to perform this season, with big expectations of both to hold down the 3rd defensive pairing. But Kindl is the player that all eyes are on. He’s had a big offseason, bulking up and adding muscle so he can hold his own, especially along the boards. He’s earned high praise from his coaches during the preseason and looks set to finally show the fans and the outside media, that the future of blue liners in Detroit is bright. Once Lidstrom retires, a huge hole will be left no doubt. No one man can fill that void, but hopefully by committee, the Red Wings can compensate with young talent on D. With Mike Commodore injured until at least this Friday, Kindl has already played 2 solid games & the better he plays, the more games he’ll get – the better he’ll become. No doubt, it’s a good situation to have for Wings coach Mike Babcock if both of his young defenseman are succeeding, with Mike Commodore still to return and Brendan Smith looking to into some games this season (once his suspension is over.)
After Bertuzzi’s goal, the Red Wings came to play in the 2nd. Led by none other than the captain himself, Nicklas Lidstrom once again proving age is no limit as he read a hurried pass from the Sens Chris Phillips on a Red Wings forecheck, picking it off and walking in on Craig Anderson, where he snapped the puck past the glove and into the twine for a 2-0 lead.
From there, the Wings aggressive pressure forced the Senators to turn it over again in the Wings zone, this time the 4th line was on the end of the hard work. Drew Miller took out a Sens player along the boards, feeding it to Red Wings newbie Cory Emmerton, who drove the net & finished it off with a nice move to make it 3-0.
After the puck was stolen by none other than Pavel Datsyuk, he found Jiri Hudler on the rush, who backhanded the goal past Anderson to make it 4-0 in the 2nd period. Then in the 3rd, Ian White in his debut as a Red Wing, slapped one home as the puck had eyes, making its way through traffic straight off the faceoff.
The Wings then proceeded to take the foot off the gas pedal and just let the car roll down the hill. After a couple of penalties, some lucky bounces going Ottawa’s way and also from their hard work, the Senators managed to claw back 3 goals, making the score respectable and frustrating Wings coach Mike Babcock. While not pretty in the end, it was a W.. 2 points, as was Saturday night’s game against Colorado, with the Wings winning 3-0.
It’s a long season & all that matters in the end is those W’s, no matter how ugly or close. Last season the Red Wings started the season 2-0 before going on to win the Central Division title with a 47-25-10 record & 104 points. No doubt they can do better in 2012.
This season is a new sheet, a new chance to be better than 104 points and with the pieces added in the offseason, you can bet that the next time the Wings return to the playoffs, it won’t be because of an early or unexpected exit, especially if they face the San Jose Sharks again.
This offseason, the Red Wings were eager to make some moves, some improvements. And that started with none other than the coaching staff. Leaving the Wings were Paul MacLean and Brad McCrimmon, both leaving for head coaching gigs elsewhere. The Wings search to find 2 assistants who could help tweak the team ended with the hirings of Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters. With the new hirings should come some much improved defence and special teams units. With a powerplay unit that ranked 5th in the NHL & a penalty killing unit that ranked 17th along with a 23rd goals against ranking for the season, the defensive side of the Wings will look to improve. If the Red Wings can get back to their defensive game that won them the Cup in 2008, that will only help out goaltenders Jimmy Howard & Ty Conklin and will make the Red Wings a force to reckoned with.
No doubt, the Red Wings are always Cup contenders. With captain Nicklas Lidstrom entering his 20th season, he leads a Red Wings team that knows how to play and how to win the right way. Lidstrom is already in the discussion for his 8th Norris Trophy, and we’re only 2 games into the season. No doubt the best defensemen of our generation, if this is his final season (which it most likely will be), the farewell tour has begun. It will be the last time we see the #5 jersey, a thought unfathomable to all Wings fans. No doubt, the Wings will want to make this season one to remember.
-Todd Bertuzzi, Darren Helm, Jakub Kindl (see above.)
Valtteri Filppula: Flip had another stellar season in 2010-11, but the Wings are still waiting for him to step up and contribute 50 points, hopefully with 20-25 goals in a 2nd line role, feeding the Mule. Defensively sound and bucket loads of potential with flashes shown in the past of what he’s capable of doing, it’s just a matter of time. All on Val to step up in the regular season, be consistent night after night. Is there a time limit though? Wings fans have been waiting a while with some having him marked down as a possible 70pt player.
Jiri Hudler: After a disappointing homecoming to Detroit last season, Hudler took it upon himself to get into the best shape of his career, training with Jonathan Chambers who trains a handful of UFC fighters. So far, it’s paid off with Hudler registering a goal & assist through 2 games and looking like the Hudler that contributed 50+ points during their cup run in 2009. Time will only tell if he’ll stay in Detroit, or if GM Ken Holland will trade him when his value is high.
Niklas Kronwall: With Kronner wearing an “A” this season, big things are expected of him as Lidstrom’s career winds down. Now 30, he’s become a core member and should be able to put up career bests, now with Rafalski retired. Partnering back up with Brad Stuart – a very good 2nd defensive pairing, should see Kronner’s game lift. One thing fans will want to see more of is his big time open ice hits. Everyone needs a good Kronwalling every now & then.
Ian White: With Brian Rafalski leaving a gaping hole in the Wings D, the Wings looked to find a suitable replacement. Enter Ian White. Not the biggest or fastest, but he can play hockey. He’s smart with the puck and gritty. And he’s a right handed shot – something the Wings value, especially on the powerplay. Partnering with Lidstrom, White could potentially reach career highs statistically & help solidify a unit that is able to suffocate opposing teams.
Justin Abdelkader: Abby is a hometown hero and fan favourite & no doubt, his role is growing on the team. With Helm and Eaves, he’ll be looking to replace what was once the original Grind Line in Detroit. The power forward provides grit and playing with Bertuzzi and Helm should see him hit career highs offensively. The Wings need him to step up, take less penalties and chip in with the hits, the fights & scoring when called upon.
Johan Franzen: Not enough can be said about The Mule. An elite player, you can usually expect him to hit 30 goals. But what the Wings will be expecting this season is for the big sniping forward to stay healthy so he can finally reach his potential in hitting the 40 goal plateau. He has the skills, it’s just a matter of luck and working hard. Being consistent would also be a big plus, if he can do so. Like Filppula, it’s all about desire, night in & out.
#10: The Detroit Red Wings coaching staff.
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It will be interesting to see just how well the Detroit Red Wings of 2011-2012 perform, with some huge names retiring and a couple of big names making their debut in the Winged Wheel this season. Gone are the veterans that we’ve come to love and know as part of the family, gone are the veterans. As another retires, another strand from the past disappears. Tomas Holmstrom and Lidstrom are the only 2 remaining members of the Wings Cup winning team from the late 90’s. But with the end comes a new beginning. A new era where depth is more important than ever. In 2012, I fully expect the depth players to help out the already proven stars, the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lidstrom and goalie Jimmy Howard.
Those stars that I mentioned, are going to do their thing. They’ll get the All-Star nod, the highlight plays, their number on the backs of hundreds of adoring fans. They’re stars, but every team has stars. It’s the depth, that will take you to the Cup, just like in 2002 & 2008. When you roll one line & they have success, another line can come on and follow that success or if a couple of lines are down, the other lines can pick up the slack and grind out a W. It’s the carriages behind these towing behind the lead cars that need to step up so that the load as a team is easier to carry and pull up the hill as it gets steeper, as the journey keeps on going. Bad train analogies aside, these are the wildcard players that could help or hinder the Red Wings season. Guys like Fabian Bruunstrom, the kid who got a professional tryout and did nothing but impress the Wings enough to get a 2-way deal. Cory Emmerton, another young player making the most of his chances. Ty Conklin, a solid vet netminder who has won before in Detroit and knows his role and does it well. Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller – 3rd and 4th line players who know the system and who’s roles are increasing, despite fighting for playing time and a consistent game day jumper. Chris Connor & Garnett Exelby; 2 newly acquired guys who’ll see valuable time in the minors and possibly with the Wings, who will help the younger guys coming through like Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar & Jan Mursak.
Last season left a bitter taste in all Red Wings players and fans. Losing veteran guys didn’t help & it was sad that they weren’t able to go out on top with a Cup, but that’s hockey. (3-4 cups is usually enough, isn’t it?) That is the power of the Hockey Gods. Some teams get Yzerman and Lidstrom, other teams get bad management and constant cap problems, feeding the bottom for years & showcasing fans that attend games with paper bags on their heads.
Here in Hockeytown, we’re often spoiled with the players we have, the history and tradition of the franchise and the constant winning.. but hey, we’re not complaining. If the Hockey Gods smile on us again in 2011-12, what a beautiful fall day it will be 12 months from now, with a different smell in the air to start the 2012-13 season..
Detroit Red Wings: Reigning Stanley Cup Champions, for the 12th time..