Even for a 20-year veteran of NHL hockey, a chance to play with the Detroit Red Wings still made Mike Modano nervous before he skated with his teammates for the first time.
Welcome to the club, Mike.
That's because expectations in Detroit are nothing like they are in Dallas or anywhere else in the league. In Hockeytown, championships are the accepted proof of success. With four of them in the last 13 seasons, the Red Wings have made themselves into the model franchise. Those are pretty big shoes to fill, even for the all-time American-born scoring leader in league history.
The Red Wings know Modano, even at 40, has the skill set to make an impact in Detroit. Detroit can now roll four scoring lines, a weapon not many teams in the post-lockout NHL are able to wield. The offense figures to be vastly improved over last year, when many of Wings' top players sat out due to injuries. In today's section of our season preview, we'll look at the forward lines the Red Wings are anticipated to throw at teams on a regular basis.
Line 1: Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg
In the past, coach Mike Babcock has had to split up the "Euro-twins" to spread the talent around a little bit, instead of having one dominant offensive line. With Modano signing in the offseason and the return of Jiri Hudler, the Red Wings can afford to put Datsyuk and Zetterberg back together this season.
When Datsyuk and Zetterberg play on the same line and are at the top of their game, they are virtually unstoppable. They always know where each other are on the ice, and that makes for some spectacular plays. But as the Red Wings found out last year, injuries can derail world-class players like Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Zetterberg missed a significant portion of last year with a shoulder injury, and Datsyuk suffered as a result.
With guys like Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen, and Holmstrom also missing time, Datsyuk and Zetterberg posted one of the worst seasons in their careers. This year, however, the Red Wings will have incredible depth on the forward lines, and that means that if one guy goes down it won't be catastrophic like it was last year. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are both elite talents, and both are healthy. Expect a bounce-back year from them.
Coach Babcock hasn't stated exactly who he wants with the Euro-twins, but the likely candidate is Tomas Holmstrom. Even though he broke his foot in January last year, Holmstrom posted one of his best NHL seasons offensively by scoring 25 goals. He's still the top net-front presence in the league at 37, and nobody works harder along the boards than this guy. His age, and the nightly beating he takes from opposing goaltenders are a concern, but with guys like Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary developing knacks for the front of the net, Holmstrom may not have as much pressure as he has in the past.
Line 2: Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen
At one point last season, Todd Bertuzzi went 19 straight games without a goal and many were questioning his role on the team. Playing on the top line due to injuries, both his offensive and defensive game were lacking and it looked like he might not earn a new contract with the team in the offseason.
But then, Bertuzzi was paired with center Valtteri Filppula in early March and the two immediately developed a great chemistry. Bertuzzi contributed 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in the playoffs and earned himself a brand-spanking new contract once the season was over.
The X-factors on this line will be Filppula and Franzen. Both had their seasons shortened by injury last season, but both were also able to return and contribute to the team down the stretch run. While true the Red Wings have much more depth up front this year than last, the team can't afford to lose either of these guys for an extended period like last year. Franzen, when healthy, is one of the best goal-scorers in the league come playoff time, but he's only played more than 72 games once in his five-year career. The Wings can't lose him for nearly a whole year again.
We've been waiting for a breakout scoring year from Filppula, but he missed 27 games last year with a wrist injury and has a tendency to be tentative shooting the puck. Filppula wants to be a pass-first guy; the Red Wings want the opposite. He has the skills to be an elite goal-scorer, so it will be interesting to see if he develops a bigger hunger for the back of the net.
Line 3: Jiri Hudler, Mike Modano, Dan Cleary
This will be the most important line on the team. The Red Wings brought in Modano for the specific purpose of bolstering this line, which would have been centered by Darren Helm or Justin Abdelkader otherwise. Those two wouldn't have been bad choices, but come on, this is Mike Modano we're talking about here.
The best part of having Modano is not his skill set or his veteran leadership. This team has plenty of that to go around without him. The best part is that he's hungry. Modano felt like he had something left in the tank at 40-years-old; Dallas thought otherwise and let their all-time franchise scoring leader walk this offseason. Modano wants to prove that he's still got the touch.
But Modano is not the most intriguing part of this line. That distinction falls on Hudler. After playing in Russia for a year, Hudler will be playing his first NHL game in nearly two years when he steps onto the ice in October. Hudler had a breakout year in 2008-09, scoring 23 goals and 34 assists, solidifying himself as one of the top third-line scorers in the league. His production in Russia didn't dip much (19 goals, 34 assists), but it didn't increase either. He was also playing more than 20 minutes a game in the KHL; he won't get near that on a good night with Detroit. If Hudler can come back and contribute like he did in 2008-09, the Red Wings will boast one of the more dangerous third lines in the league.
If Hudler struggles from the start, then Cleary will have to share some of the burden. Like many of his teammates, Cleary missed a significant chunk of games last year with a shoulder injury, but he still was productive (15 goals, 19 assists). The Red Wings aren't looking for an 80-point player on this line. If the Wings can get 20-30 points apiece out of Modano, Hudler and Cleary, Detroit will be putting up a lot of numbers in the win column.
Line 4 (PROJECTED): Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Eaves
Extra Forwards: Kris Draper and Mattias Ritola
This is where the fun really begins for the Red Wings coaching staff. Besides the aforementioned players, veteran forwards Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby will be vying for a spot on this line, along with young guns Drew Miller and Mattias Ritola.
Helm and Abdelkader are virtually a lock to be regulars on this line. Helm's speed and penalty-killing ability made him a vital asset last year, and Abdelkader's gritty play makes him the perfect replacement for an aging Maltby. Both have shown flashes of goal-scoring ability and can develop into top second line players one day.
That leaves one spot for the final four players. Eaves will have the inside track on the job because he's an excellent penalty killer and has shown offensive ability much like Helm and Abdelkader. Draper's recent groin injury won't help his cause to get minutes right away, but he's an alternate captain and still has speed in those 39-year-old legs, so he'll probably be an extra forward for this season. Ritola is out of minor league options, but just because he can't go back to Grand Rapids doesn't mean he's a lock to make the squad. The Red Wings like him as a prospect though, and they don't want to expose him to waivers.
Leftovers: Drew Miller and Kirk Maltby
At the end of the day, there just aren't enough roster spots to go around in Motown. That means some people will be let go, and others will go down to AHL Grand Rapids. Maltby recently signed a two-way deal that allows him to play for the Griffins and has already said he'd rather play there than move his family to another NHL city. Miller however, would have to clear waivers before going back down, and there's a good chance he would be picked up.
Detroit experienced a significant offensive drop in 2009-10, scoring 223 goals during the regular season. That was good enough to be 14th in the NHL, but it was a far cry from the league-leading 282 they scored during the previous season.
However, it was also expected. In addition to Hudler, the Red Wings lost Mikael Samuelsson and Marian Hossa to free agency, and coupled with injuries, it was a perfect storm for an offensive letdown.
But, the tables have turned. They regained Hudler and signed Modano, one of the best players the NHL has ever seen. There's no doubt on paper that this team should be able to recapture some of the offensive prowess that was lost last season, but there's a big difference from being good on paper to being good on the ice. That said, I expect big things from this group of forwards in 2010-11.