DETROIT// The rhetoric has started all over again, just as it has done so often over the past dozen years. It rears its head every time the Detroit Red Wings fail to win a Stanley Cup, despite the Wings having brought hockey's treasured chalice to the Motor City four times in little over a decade - in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. This year the Wings went all the way to a seventh game in the finals before losing 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it took a dramatic save on Nicklas Lidstrom by the Penguins' netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury, to keep the last game from going into overtime.
"It's tough when you get to that point of the season, that far, and not win," said Lidstrom, the Wings' captain. Almost immediately after that defeat, speculation began yet again about the decline of the Red Wings. Despite being the most consistent organisation in North American professional sports, having made the play-offs for the past 18 seasons, the Wings are on the way down this season if you listen to the so-called experts.
They are supposedly too old in certain spots. Too young in others. Not gritty enough. The goaltending is not good enough. "When I came here [for the start of the 2005-06 season], people were predicting the Red Wings were on the way down," said the coach, Mike Babcock. "We've been hearing that for a while." The Wings have proved the doubters wrong in the past, and they plan to do so again this season. But it could be a bit more difficult than in previous years.
Somehow, the Wings must find a way to replace the 86 goals that were lost when forwards Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson and Tomas Kopecky left via free agency. Hossa and Kopecky wound up with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Wings' rapidly improving rivals in the Central Division of the NHL's Western Conference. Hudler unexpectedly jumped to the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. Samuelsson went to Vancouver.
Along with the loss of dependable back-up goalie Ty Conklin, who signed with St Louis, the Wings had some obvious holes to fill. And with the salary cap in the NHL constricting all teams, the club's general manager, Ken Holland, said he had done as much as he could to plug the gaps. "We knew it would be difficult to keep them all," Holland said. "We had little cap space to play with. We did the best we could to keep those players.
"But we still like what we have. We like our team, we like the young kids coming into our programme. "Some other players will get opportunities. We have a good team." Holland was able to bring back two former Red Wings forwards, Todd Bertuzzi and Jason Williams, to bolster the offence. Patrick Eaves is another forward recruited by Holland who is capable of scoring goals. And, as Holland pointed out, there are opportunities for players such as Valtteri Filppula and Dan Cleary, who were somewhat lost in the shuffle last season, to get more playing time.
Said Henrik Zetterberg, who remains one of the premier players in the NHL along with Wings teammate Pavel Datsyuk: "You hate to lose anybody, but when someone leaves, it does open an opportunity for another guy. We've always done a good job of that." "We think we'll pick some of that [offence] up with the likes of [young players] Ville Leino and Darren Helm," Holland said. But, the GM conceded, "we're not going to pick all of that up".
Consequently, the emphasis during the Detroit training camp has been on defence. The Wings went from being the team who gave up the fewest goals in 2007-08 to 19th in that department in 2008-09. "We have to be a better team defensively," Holland said. "Every game will be like a play-off game this regular season for us." Because of their success, the Wings have always had to draft low, with their initial pick coming near the bottom of the first round.
Despite the challenges, assistant general manager Jim Nill, who runs the Wings' draft programme, has been able to produce a string of productive choices, finding players such as Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson in the low rounds after every other team could have snapped them up. "We've been fortunate," Nill said. "We've been able to give those players time to mature and develop. The challenge is to keep finding players. In the current NHL, you have to keep doing that."
The Wings will also be challenged this season by the schedule. They open the regular season in Stockholm, Sweden, against the St Louis Blues tomorrow and Saturday as the NHL expands its product into Europe. That forced the Wings to shorten their training camp and exhibition season before leaving to spend a week in Scandinavia preparing for the games against the Blues. When they return to North America, the Wings will be faced with a compact schedule, tightened because of the Winter Olympics in February.
No team in the NHL is likely be more affected by the Olympics than Detroit, who have players on the rosters of many countries. Zetterberg, Lidstrom and Franzen are key players for Sweden. Datsyuk is a leading veteran on a talented Russian team. Brian Rafalski has been a regular on the United States team, and Filppula is likely to make his debut for Finland. On top of that, Babcock will be coaching Canada, while Steve Yzerman, the former Wings player and now a senior-vice president, is the Canadian team's executive director.
Nobody, though, believes the Olympics will be a draining experience for the Wings. "It's always a fun year when it's an Olympic year," Zetterberg said. "It get you re-energised." firstname.lastname@example.org