Changes are aplenty for the Detroit Red Wings headed into the 2015-16 season.
Tonight’s opener against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs marks the first time the franchise will open a season without Stanley Cup champion head man Mike Babcock on its bench since the 2003-04 season when Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman’s former longtime assistant Dave Lewis led the Wings to a 48-win campaign on its way to a second-round exit in the playoffs.
New man behind the bench
Ironically, this game, which marks the beginning of former Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill’s tenure as the bench boss of the Wings, will feature his predecessor Babcock coming into “The Joe,” Joe Louis Arena, to take on his former team.
And without the Wings yet logging even one second of ice time during the regular season, things are already appearing to be on the rise for the franchise, which has qualified for 24 consecutive postseasons. (Knock on wood)
Not that it means anything in any of the four major professional sports leagues, but the Wings did finish undefeated in the preseason with a record of 6-0-2 – the two ties resulting from two overtime losses suffered at the hands of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins.
Also, the Wings experienced a bit of the best of both worlds in the offseason, adding a pair of veterans in two-time Stanley Cup champion center and 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards and longtime Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green. Detroit also determined that 2014 first round draft pick Dylan Larkin is ready to play with the big boys.
Those three “impact” players join captain Henrik Zetterberg and Co. for the ‘15-16 incarnation of the Red Wings, a version that also boasts alternate captains and longtime Wings, center Pavel Datsyuk and defenseman Niklas Kronwall – both of whom recorded at least 35 assists and 44 points in 2014-15.
Datsyuk must stay healthy
With that being said, the four-time Lady Byng Memorial Trophy recipient, Datsyuk, deserves to be in a completely different conversation than Kronwall for his play last season.
In 17 less games than Kronwall in ‘14-15 (Kronwall played in 80), the “Magic Man” found the back of the net 26 times and recorded a plus-minus rating of 12, which left him with the best plus-minus on the Wings’ ’14-15 roster. It tells you how superbly good Datsyuk is when he’s able to play. However, being able to play has been the issue for the Russian native in recent memory, with only 63, 45 and 47 games played in ’14-15, 2013-14 and 2012-13, respectively.
Thus, one of the battles for Blashill in his first campaign as an NHL head coach will be to try to get the 37-year-old Team Russia captain at the ’14 Winter Olympics to revert to his 2011-12 form when he played in 70 games and posted a plus-minus of 21.
The battle for goalie is open
A more controllable situation on the horizon for Blashill is handling the goaltending battle between veteran Jimmy Howard and 23-year-old Petr Mrazek, who played in a career-high 29 games in ’14-15.
In comparison, the 31-year-old Howard has played in 42 games or more six times in his career in Motown.
However, in each of the aforementioned six campaigns, he has never posted a save percentage higher than .924 percent, and has posted below-league average save percentages in each of the past two seasons (.910 percent in ‘13-14 and ‘14-15 in comparison to NHL league average percentages of .914 and .915 in those same campaigns).
The declining numbers of Howard might be a sign that it has officially become Mrazek time in Hockeytown – something that, if it happens, will be welcomed with open arms by a large amount of the Red Wings faithful.
Veterans and young players will have to blend together
As a result of coaching many of the franchise’s recent draft picks with the Griffins, such as Mrazek, Blashill has had a front row seat for a large sect of the players who will make up the squad’s future – a future that will also include University of Michigan product Larkin plus two 50-point talliers from Babcock’s final season in the Motor City, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.
If Datsyuk can stay healthy for at least 70 games, if wingers Tatar and Nyquist can grow into 30-plus goal scorers and if Mrazek can attain a firm grasp of the starting goalie role and stop slightly more shots than last year’s league average – which he did in his small sample size of games last season and in the Wings’ first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning last April, Detroit should be able to take a substantial step forward in ’15-16 and be able to finish with more than 100 points on the season.
And with Blashill’s success coaching Grand Rapids the past three seasons, which includes a Calder Cup championship in 2013 – the first American Hockey League title won in Griffins franchise history, taking such a step forward as an organization is a strong possibility.
Now, let’s drop the puck and get the fun started.