September 11, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (see also Wings tribute): First in the Western Conference (54-21-7, 115 points). Defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to win their 11th Stanley Cup since 1935 and/or Chris Chelios's lifetime.
What a celebration Hockeytown had. After the last words of Kwame Kilpatrick's inspirational (and thoroughly ignored) speech about the team echoed through the championship parade in Detroit, the party moved to Cheli's Chili bar, where the Stanley Cup was severely damaged in the revelry. That's why they have handlers ... to handle these things.
Chris Osgood and the soon-to-be retired Dominik Hasek shared the Jennings Trophy, Pavel Datsyuk won both the Selke and the Lady Byng, and Nicklas Lidstrom captured his 10 billionth Norris Trophy. The Stanley Cup spent the summer being used as a giant red plastic cup by Brian Rafalski at a bachelor party; twice as a baptismal font; allegedly (though denied by all) as an ashtray for models at a Kid Rock beach party; and, most infamously, as a toilet by one of Kris Draper's kids.
While the Wings lost Scotty Bowman's brain to the rival Chicago Blackhawks, they managed to secure players like Valtteri Filppula and Brad Stuart, while bringing in some new blood in backup goalie Ty Conklin from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oh, and also some guy named Hossa. Our source in LA says it's Marcel.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Uh ... can we answer "D. All of the Above?"
Let's start with Pavel Datsyuk, who has been able to shake every rap given to him. We can add "playoff underperformer" to that list, after Dats scored 23 points in 22 games during the Cup run. He scored 31 goals and 97 points last season, both career highs. His linemate Henrik Zetterberg had 43 goals and 92 points, and both he and Datsyuk combined to play some of the best defense in the NHL as well.
Zetterberg enters this season with a few more questions marks than does Datsyuk -- his every-other-year injury trend, his contract status heading into next summer -- but the biggest question facing both of them is how they'll react to coach Mike Babcock's threat to split them up again. Datsyuk will likely play with Tomas Holmstrom (20 goals, 40 points) and (ah, that's right) free-agent coup Marian Hossa (29 goals in 72 games last season). Zetterberg is expected to center Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen.
Every player we just named (save for Hudler, at least for now) can be considered elite in his own ways. The balance between the offensive stars and the veteran grunts at the forward position is constantly amazing.
But how can you name a Homecoming King without Nicklas Lidstrom in the parade? Another Norris and a 70-point season, despite missing some time due to injury. He meshed well with Brian Rafalski (13 goals, 55 points) and once again helped create one of the top defensive corps in hockey. The conversation for best defensemen in the NHL begins with Lidstrom; it might end there as well.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): If Babcock keeps his promise and drops Zetterberg down the lineup to No. 2 center, it's hard to imagine Valtteri Filppula posting numbers that go far beyond the ones he had last season (19 goals, 36 points). So we'll go with someone who's a better guarantee for that second line: Johan "The Mule" Franzen, a Conn Smythe favorite before an injury mucked up his postseason. There's every reason to expect he'll eclipse his numbers from last season (27 goals, 38 points), especially because he's in a contract year.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Dominik Hasek, goaltender. Let's face it: The guy had become feast or famine, with stretches of games where he'd look like the Dominator and other stretches in which he looked dominated. The alleged end of the Wings' goalie tandem system (we'll believe it when we see it) is a good thing; the retirement of Hasek, especially after what happened with Chris Osgood in the postseason, was a positive move for the franchise.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): "Basically, it's simple. There was a few teams in play, but my decision was between Pittsburgh and Detroit. Detroit won because the team stayed together and it's a strong hockey team, a strong organization. Don't want to take anything from Pittsburgh. I had a great time there, unbelievable young players and great group. But I just feel, you know, a little bit better chance here."
When you hear Marian Hossa say that, it's like the prettiest girl in school not only saying she'll be your prom date, but slipping a set of motel keys into your back pocket.
His signing was an endorsement of the Wings' organization as well as their fortunes this season. But above all else, the addition of Hossa adds a sniper to a lineup that will allow the Wings' other pieces to fit in other places. His career-high is 45 goals; playing on Detroit's top line, and on the third-best power play in hockey last season, can he top that?
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Red Wings had 21 fights last season, and the now-retired Dallas Drake had five of them. You'd expect Andreas Lilja to drop the gloves a few more times this season, and the Wings may have veteran pugilist Darren McCarty back at some point. But if the trash needs to be taken out, the chore falls to Aaron Downey, the only Detroit player with over 100 (116) penalty minutes last season. We'd usually put a video clip of Downey destroying a guy here. But wouldn't you rather hear about him growing up on a potato farm?
Teacher of the Year: We refer you to the case we made for Babcock when he was nominated for the Jack Adams:
Knocking Babcock because he has an amazing array of talent at his disposal is rather unfair. It's the "Joe Montana Theory": It's one thing to be surrounded by talent, but it takes real skill and aptitude to utilize it. This is a Red Wings team that was good enough to go wire-to-wire as a conference leader, but there was a time when they weren't considered an automatic. What Babcock brings to the team is a background in psychology that enables him to adapt to adversity, and a dedication to such nebulous hockey beliefs as "puck management."
He'll no doubt miss the counsel of Scotty Bowman in the front office, but Babcock has shown he's the right coach for this collection of stars, veterans and young talent. He sees where the pieces fit in a very distinctive way.
The Custodians (Goalies): Ah, and now we come to the portion of the preview where reality meets the Big Red Wing Machine hype. This team has entrusted its season with Chris Osgood, a goalie entering his 15th NHL season. He earned it with his play in the postseason, which may still be underrated. But can Osgood handle the spotlight for 60-65 regular season games? Will Detroit settle back into a platoon, with ConkBlock available on the bench? And when playoff time rolls around, will Osgood be able to provide another postseason of stellar goaltending? On a team with very few question marks, the play of Chris Osgood as Detroit's No. 1 goaltender is perhaps the primary one.
(Personally, we hope that the Hockey Gods don't smite him for that awful Justin Timberlake parody on Leno.)
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Lidstrom and Rafalski lead a group that's deep and durable. Four years is a lot to commit to Brad Stuart, but he was a valuable addition to the corps. Niklas Kronwall had a breakout season after securing a new contract. Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja can improve on their play last season ... although Lebda shouldn't be concerned with improving his inebriated interviewing skills. They're unparalleled.
Jonathan Ericsson will fight for time in the lineup. Chris Chelios is also back, once again hoping no opponent rips his skin to reveal his secret metallic robot endoskeleton.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): From an individual player perspective, it's Osgood. But let's face it: Anything less than contention for a President's Trophy during the regular season is going to be considered a disappointment for the Red Wings. And it's not like the Central Division, or the Western Conference, has gotten any easier.
AV Club (Media): Paul Woods and Ken Kal handle the radio side; please recall the pretty cool story involving TV guy Ken Daniels and Kal during the Finals, when the radio announcer was suffering from laryngitis. The Detroit Free Press does a consistently stellar job covering all aspects of the franchise.
On the Web, George James Malik's Snapshots is updated at a lightning pace and contains news items it would take others weeks to uncover. Abel To Yzerman is a fantastic source for Wings discussion and criticism. We also read Gorilla Crouch, On the Wings, Hockeytown Todd, Behind the Jersey, and (when it's updated) Gloveside.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Yawn ... the pressure of an encore. Even with the Dallas Stars making some improvements and playing good hockey last postseason, the Red Wings are cemented as favorites to make the playoffs, win the conference and win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. No matter how talented you are, or how much of a headshrinker your bench boss is, that's a lot to live up to.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A-
Prom Theme: Usually we have some clever pop song that can be used as a slogan for this season's team. Sorry ... the prom theme can only be one thing for the Red Wings. Snipe snipe!
Expected Graduation: There are three ways the Detroit Red Wings don't win the Stanley Cup this season.
One: A slew of unforeseen and substantial injuries to key players.
Two: The Western Conference playoffs first or second round upset ... which, let's face it, is sort of an unofficial tradition in Detroit.
Three: the goaltending situation becomes untenable, which may be a long-shot considering the team's solid defense and with Jimmy Howard waiting for his shot.
Detroit's the favorite for a reason. If forced to make a Cup pick, they'd be it. The Wings are the NHL's best shot at a repeat champion since the 2001 Devils ... but look what happened to them.