It should sound familiar. It's exactly what we have been hearing since Brian Rafalski unexpectedly retired 2 seasons ago. The promise of aggressiveness and optimism subsequently gets followed up with "we had some conversations," "we kicked the tires," "there wasn't a fit," or the famous "we like our team" excuses as the Red Wings walk away empty-handed. If you are scratching your head thinking this summer was supposed to be the big summer where the team brought in a difference-maker or two, you're not crazy. That is exactly what we were led to believe. It's almost like Ken Holland has become a Teddy Ruckspin doll that repeats the same few phrases when his cord is pulled. I can't say I am as optimistic as I used to be that the lack of activity is all part of some grand scheme. Everyone makes mistakes and I think Ken Holland, though it may be hard to swallow, is starting to make them...often. At least as far as the last 2-3 years are concerned.
Okay enough dumping on Holland. Let's take a look at the upcoming season under the assumption the roster is set:
It appears Datsyuk and Zetterberg will once again be foreced to carry the team on their backs. That's a heavy burden especially since the defense will not be nearly as good as it has been (more on that shortly). Neither was given any help to play on their respective wings (a big need since after the 2009 season) so the offense will probably go as far as those two will take them. Franzen has proven to be too streaky to be relied on as a superstar goal-scorer, the newbies (Nyquist and Brunner) are unproven, Filppula is still more of a play maker and not a scorer, and Samuelsson, though an all-around upgrade over Hudler, is not the answer. If either Pav or Hank go down with an injury, the scoring will suffer tremendously.
Overall it will be a streaky bunch in terms of scoring and the powerplay susceptible to prolonged scoring droughts but sound defensively. If Nyquist and/or Brunner explode and prove to be reliable scorers, or if Franzen decides to become the dominant force he is capable of being, then all bets are off. But if I am indeed betting, my money isn't going towards those scenarios taking place.
Kronwall, Quincey, Smith, Ericsson, White, and probably Kindl will be your top six. Scared? I am. I don't think I need to waste time pointing out how huge of a loss Lidstrom and even Stuart is. Those are devastating blows. Most fans, myself included, already had Ryan Suter penciled in to partner with Kronwall as the #1 defenseman of the future. Well he will be sporting those ugly Christmas sweater uniforms the Minnesota Wild force their players to wear every night for the next 13 years. Oops. Coincidentally it is now Kronwall's team. Helene St. James wrote a great piece in the Free Press regarding his ability to handle the #1 spot. I think she is right. However, I feel a lot more comfortable with him as a #2 behind a proven stud. Time will tell if he can step up his game to truly be considered a top defenseman capable of carrying the load.
As for replacing Stuart, that is exactly why Kyle Quincey was brought in. Holland knew Stuart would be gone so he was willing to waste a #1 pick to bring in a player that has had success elsewhere (LA and COL). Yes, we let him go before and had to waste a draft pick to get him back, he was a disappointment last season, etc. etc. etc. I get it. But at face value, he is a capable replacement for Stuart on the Wings 2nd pairing. I actually have complete confidence that with a full off season to learn the system he will be just fine. Though I am not thrilled Holland had to waste a 1st round pick on a player we let go prior, at face value, he is an adequate replacement for Stuart.
The true key will be Brenden Smith. Will he become the blue line beast he is expected to be? Will he be given the amount of ice time to do so? If he comes in and becomes a Calder Trophy candidate (rookie of the year) the transition to the Post-Lidstrom Era will be a lot smoother. If he has the expected growing pains, the Wings defense will struggle. They need someone to step up and be a reliable partner for Quincey in the 2nd pairing. I know he's only a rookie, but I think he has a better chance than Ericsson or Kindl to be a difference-maker. He has been considered the team's top prospect since 2007. It's time to see if he can live up to the hype, or if he is simply that...hype.
Ericsson without question has to finally take the next step and be the anchor of that 3rd pairing or maybe even the 2nd pairing if Smith isn't ready. He's a big man and needs to start playing that way. He may be paired with Kindl (who looks to be a borderline NHL Dman) or Smith if he struggles. He has to be reliable. It's time for him to earn his contract extension. This year he can't hide behind a strong top 6. The team has to have all hands on deck to have any success. Ericsson included.
The defense is facing the most uncertainty it has in 20 years. The group once lauded for their envied depth now has a handful of unknowns. I find it hard to argue that it is the weakest part of this team. For them to be respectable, every single man will have to step up. No longer can they rely on the great Nick Lidstrom to cover their mistakes. It is going to be interesting to see how this group shakes out and if they are up to the gargantuan challenge that lies ahead for them.
VERY EARLY PREDICTION:
This team has a lot of question marks at both ends. A lot of "IFs" if you will. They are not nearly as deep as they once were. Injuries are inevitable in the grind that is the 82-game NHL season. If the Wings suffer significant injuries to the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall, or even Franzen they will be in serious trouble. I am not going to go as far as to say "Big Al" will be given the year off and their coveted playoff streak will come to an end without seeing them play. I will, however, say that it is seriously in question for the the first time in many years. But the bottom line is that as constructed, I do not see this team as being a serious Stanley Cup contender. It would take way too many breaks (injuries, rookies, etc) for that to happen. I think for at least this season, it will be something Wings' fans will just have to accept.