Red Wings’ Preview: Is a 23rd straight playoff appearance in the bag?

The Detroit Red Wings join the Eastern Conference in the 2013-14 season.

The Detroit Red Wings join the Eastern Conference in the 2013-14 season.

Four minutes remained in Game 7. The United Center watched in horror as Henrik Zetterberg controlled possession of the puck from the corner, to the side of the face-off dot, back to the corner, the entire series hanging on his stick.

It was something you saw from Gretzky – that gifted patience, oh so dangerous. It was something you saw from Yzerman –  those legs curling into the ice to create more time, smooth as silk.

Here was Zetterberg, Captain Clutch, waiting for someone – anyone –  to get open. It was Hank’s herculean effort that carried the Detroit Red Wings in the final week of the regular season. Ten points. Plus-7. Four straight wins. And here, during this moment in Chicago, with the puck on his dangerous stick, his seventh-seeded Wings were one shot away from dethroning the heavily-favored Blackhawks.

That’s how close the Wings came to finishing last season in magical fashion. One shot away. The puck on Hank’s stick.

Instead, it ended in a heartbreaking overtime loss to a team that eventually won the Stanley Cup.

The 2013-14 season begins tonight in Detroit, and if Zetterberg’s situation presents itself again this year, maybe a new linemate named Pavel Datsyuk cuts to the net and buries home a pass to put the Wings into the next round.

There’s new blood with the additions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, a rise of youth with promising prospects Danny DeKeyser and Tomas Tatar, and a lighter travel schedule as the Wings say goodbye to those west coast trips and jump to the Eastern Conference (finally!).

In honor of legend Gordie Howe, who wore that legendary No. 9 hanging in the Joe Louis Arena rafters, here are nine points of interest for the upcoming season.

1.) ALFIE, WEISS > FILPPULA, BRUNNER

There are pros and cons to the signing of Alfredsson, who inked a one-year deal worth $3.5 million (plus $2 million in bonuses). Let’s start with the cons: He’s 40. Remember Mike Modano, who was quickly injured in November of 2010? He was 40. The aging body is unfriendly among swifter, stronger, younger skaters, and it’s very likely Alfie will wear down across a long playoff run.

The pros: Alfredsson’s right-handed shot is needed for a team with a host of left-handed shooters. He can snipe with more power and accuracy than Damien Brunner, who left for New Jersey.

Alfredsson’s nose for the net creates a potential dynamic connection with fellow countryman Johan Franzen, who is expected to be his linemate.  Alfie and Henrik Zetterberg should be a force together on the power play, as they showed in the latter stages of the preseason against Toronto at Joe Louis Arena.

On to Valtteri Filppula, who signed a five-year, $25-million deal in July with Tampa Bay.

In Detroit, Filppula never got past the word “potential” in the offensive category. But while it was irritating to see his sputtering shot fail to find the back of the net, he was still highly valuable to the Wings’ success. He’s a world-class skater who was above-average in face-offs and had the rare ability to lug the puck from his own end, deep into the attacking zone, a skill absent for a large number of NHL players.

That said, Stephen Weiss can make everyone forget Filppula.

There’s an abundance of flash and playmaking ability for Weiss, who was nicknamed “Weiss-erman” during his OHL days with the Plymouth Whalers for his comparisons to Steve Yzerman. The difference between Weiss and Yzerman is 1,300 points and three Stanley Cups, of course, but the Wings’ newest addition should pay major dividends as he joins a second line with Alfredsson and Franzen.

And that brings us to the yearly question we’ve asked since the end of 2010: Will this new line get Franzen going? Our guess is you will see the same ol’ Mule: Good in streaks, but a disappearing act at times that will infuriate.

Franzen is what he is: A solid goal scorer, not a superstar who is going to snipe consistently like Brendan Shanahan circa 1998.

Franzen had three goals in the Anaheim series, then another three points against Chicago to help Detroit build a 3-1 series advantage. But then he pulled a Houdini – a vanishing act.

And that’s Franzen, something we have to accept since he’s signed through the spring of 2020. Quite frankly, our expectations of him are too high. It’s unrealistic to expect him to duplicate his nine-goal mutilation of Colorado in the 2008 second-round series. That’s not gonna happen again. It was as much fluke as it was talent.

2.) RETURN OF THE DYNAMIC DUO

It’s intriguing to know Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be paired together this year.

They were thoroughly dominating with linemate Tomas Holmstrom in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons, the latter being a Stanley Cup championship.

Ever since, coach Mike Babcock found it more beneficial for Zetterberg and Datsyuk to be split apart.

Now, with the additions of Alfredsson and Weiss – and with more depth across four lines – the Datsyuk-Zetterberg combo returns.
Their biggest issue will be their linemate, now slotted to be Justin Abdelkader, who was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last postseason.

Abdelkader had three points in five games of the Anaheim series – but his foolish charge of Ducks defenseman Toni Lydman drew a two-game suspension. To his credit, Abdelkader rebounded and scored a momentum-shifting, shorthanded breakaway goal in Game 7 at the Honda Center to give the Wings a lead they would never relinquish.

But then came the Chicago series, and Abdelkader posted this stat line in seven games: Zero points, 18 penalty minutes.

As for 2013-14, will he improve and be the physical presence that protects his superstar teammates? Or will he tie down the production of Datsyuk, 35, and Zetterberg, who will turn 33 next week?

Don’t expect Datsyuk and Zetterberg to repeat 2008, when they produced 97 and 92 points, respectively. But the reuniting of the duo could be highly productive if they can find chemistry with a linemate.

3.) A LOG-JAM OF FORWARDS

It’s almost like a real-life version of fantasy hockey. The Wings have an abundance of forwards, and we’ll see which inserted players will be the most productive.

The Wings had 17 forwards under the cap at the start of training camp. Today, it’s down to 13 forwards (considering relegations to injured reserve), and there’s a number of quality players in Grand Rapids (AHL) who are not far away from having roster spots in Detroit. It’s arguably the deepest farm system the Wings have ever employed.

The temporary demotion: Gustav Nyquist

Don’t panic about Nyquist. He was the only forward with minor-league options, meaning he can be sent to the AHL without being placed on waivers, and it saved the Wings $950,000.

Nyquist, who understandably did not like the perceived demotion – although it’s got nothing to do with skill – will not be in Grand Rapids long. As Wings GM Ken Holland told the Detroit News, “we’ll sort it out.”

Nyquist is an electric spark plug with a promising future. Look back at his highlight-reel goal against Chicago in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. He slipped through Brent Seabrook, cut across the crease, dragged goalie Corey Crawford to the ice and scored upstairs.

It’s blatantly obvious that Nyquist should be on the ice instead of Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary and a few others. Hopefully it happens sooner than later. In the meantime, it’s annoying to see him in the AHL.

On the rise: Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar

Andersson’s long reach makes him appealing on the penalty kill. And he’s very good on face-offs. Five Red Wings took 129 face-offs or more in the 14-game playoff run, and it was Andersson who led the group with a 55.9 percent success rate. (To be fair, he barely beat Pavel Datsyuk by two-tenths of a percentage point, and Datsyuk took 148 more draws. Regardless, Andersson is very good at his craft.)

Tomas Tatar should have been playing in Detroit during the postseason. Instead, he helped the Grand Rapids Griffins win the AHL’s Calder Cup. He produced 16 goals in 24 playoff games to win MVP.

It’s nice to know Tatar will finally be in Detroit, permanently. The future is bright for the 22-year old native of Slovakia. He features slick hands and explosive skating.

Last hurrah: Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary

Each skater is an unrestricted free agent at year’s end. In December, Samuelsson will turn 37 and Cleary will turn 35. Both have been riddled with injuries. Cleary was a warrior in the playoffs and regularly battled with Chicago’s Bryan Bickell, but he still makes mistakes and has slowed considerably.

For a minute, Cleary appeared to bail Detroit for Philadelphia. He agreed to attend the Flyers’ camp on a tryout contract and wanted a three-year deal, but then turned around and signed with the Wings for one-year, $1.75 million. In the meantime, he lost his No. 11 to Alfredsson. You would think Alfie would give it back to Cleary, right? He tried, but the league said no, and cited marketing concerns in regards to the Winter Classic.

Bertuzzi, who will turn 39 in February, takes too many bad penalties and commits too many turnovers. He’s good in shootouts (as much as we hate to acknowledge the importance of shootouts), but he should be benched in favor of younger, quicker skaters.

Miscellaneous: Darren Helm, Jordin Tootoo, Patrick Eaves, Cory Emmerton

Patrick Eaves (knee) and Darren Helm (groin) were placed on long-term injured reserve (10 games minimum). Jordin Tootoo’s bruised shoulder places him on short-term injured reserve.

Helm is the biggest concern. His lingering back injury relegated him to one game last season. Progress has been made within the past year and a half, but now he’s sidelined by a groin strain. Will he ever be the dynamic speedster we saw during the playoff runs from 2009-2011? Or will reoccurring injuries continue to plague him?

If Helm regains full health – and stays on the ice – the Wings Cup chances improve tremendously.

It’s been a whirlwind across the past few days for Cory Emmerton. He was placed on waivers – cleared waivers – then was sent to Grand Rapids. And then he was called back to Detroit when Eaves was placed on long-term injured reserve.

4.) SMITH, DEKEYSER KEY BLUE LINE 

Babcock believes the Wings’ expectations revolve around the back end.

Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson will be the top unit, of course. We expect Jakub Kindl to play just as well as last year and for Kyle Quincey to be a nuisance to Wings fans again, but the team’s success will ultimately be determined by the play of Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.

Let’s start with Smith.

He was the whipping boy of Wings fans during the Chicago series, particularly in Game 6. The Wings took a 2-1 lead into the third period at Joe Louis Arena, but Chicago scored three times to force a Game  7. Smith allowed Michal Handzus to slip behind him on the game-tying goal. And then came the killer: He allowed Bryan Bickell to stand still above the crease and bury a rebound for the go-ahead goal, all while Smith appeared to tie up Jimmy Howard.

Then again, there were a host of misplays on both of those goals, not just by Smith. Go easy on a kid who has elite skating abilities and offensive vision that make him intriguing in 2013-14. He will have to eliminate the “offense first” mindset that accompanies him, a typical problem for young and gifted skaters. Too often, Smith believes he should jump out of the defensive zone and break in the other direction. If he can relax and concentrate on his own end of the rink, the steadiness the organization expects out of the former first-round draft pick should follow.

On to DeKeyser, who flashed hockey wisdom beyond his years and unbelievable poise as a rookie. It’s hard to fathom that he played in just 11 regular season games. It felt like many more. That’s because his impact left a huge impression upon Hockeytown.

DeKeyser broke his thumb in Game 2 against Anaheim and missed the rest of the playoffs, a crushing blow as the Wings played Chicago without him.

Nowadays, a bigger and stronger DeKeyser, who added seven pounds, can add to his tremendous vision and puck-moving abilities. DeKeyser, who was the CCHA Best Defenseman in back-to-back years prior to joining the Wings in April of 2013, is still considered a rookie by NHL standards. Thus, he has Calder Trophy potential as rookie of the year. He will likely be paired with Kindl, who took too many bad penalties at times last year but got stronger as they year progressed.

5.) WILL HOWARD TAKE ANOTHER STEP?

Jimmy Howard is here for another six years at $5.29 million per year.

Howard, who will be motivated to make the U.S. Olympic team, still has not been able to shake the critics.

Here’s why: He continues to display the knack for giving up a back-breaking goal.

Howard was bailed out by a poor whistle in the final minutes of regulation during Game 7 at Chicago. Niklas Hjalmarsson’s slap shot from the top of the circle should have been stopped – yet Howard allowed it, then was saved by Stephen Walkom’s silly whistle when Kyle Quincey and Brandon Saad engaged in a battle at the Wings bench. (Note: That entire sequence never happens if the referees call a blatant infraction to Chicago when Zetterberg was tripped to the ice and relinquished control of the puck.)

Howard, however, managed to allow another Chicago defenseman to be the hero in overtime when Brent Seabrook scored from atop the circles to send the Blackhawks into the next round, en route to a Cup parade.

To be fair, Seabrook’s game-winner changed directions on Niklas Kronwall’s skate. And Howard was great amid a difficult environment at the Honda Center for Game 7 against Anaheim. His 31-save performance and steely resolve displayed another step in the maturation process.

Howard posted his best playoff numbers to date with a .924 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average. He’s an outspoken leader and wears the Winged Wheel like it’s a badge of honor.

6.) THE SCHEDULE

We won’t miss Columbus and will miss Chicago, but Boston, Toronto and Montreal will help us forget about the Blackhawks.

Oh, those glorious days of Leafs fans filling the Joe for a spirited Friday night affair are back! Before the Wings-Avalanche rivalry of the late 1990s, there was the Wings and Leafs in the 1980s. Yes, the Avs-Wings were far more brutal and bloody, but the Leafs games were a sense of pride. The rivalry starts with the singing of “Oh Canada” and ends with a good ol’ fashioned ribbing as fans exit the doors along the Detroit River.

Jimmy Howard believes the lighter travel along the east coast will create more energy down the stretch.

7.) SPECIAL NIGHT

Nicklas Lidstrom’s No. 5 will rise to the rafters on March 6, 2014 against Colorado.

It will be the seventh jersey in Wings history to be retired, joining Gordie Howe (No. 9), Sid Abel (No. 12), Ted Lindsay (No. 7), Alex Delvecchio (No. 10), Terry Sawchuk (No. 1) and Steve Yzerman (No. 19).

It was January 2, 2007 when Yzerman’s retired. The seven-year gap between him and Lidstrom is a relatively short turnaround, but expect a much, much bigger gap before the next honoree.

8.) SWEDISH FIVE? 

There was the Russian Five of the 1990s – Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, and Sergei Fedorov.

Now we may very well see the Swedish Five – Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson.

The Russian Five will always be more dynamic, more lethal and more talented. But it will be interesting to see if the Swedish Five emerges.

9.) PREDICTIONS

Count on a 23rd straight playoff appearance. But don’t count on winning the Atlantic Division: that will go to Boston, the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

There are too many factors to determine the length of a playoff run. Most notably, injuries. Who knows how they’ll shake out. But if we assume full health across the board, coupled with the rise of the younger players, then we believe the Wings can reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.