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A Ridiculously Early Detroit Red Wings Season Preview

We're still two months away from the start of the NHL season, but it's never too early to take a sneak peak at what 2011-12 will hold for the Red Wings.

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Oct. 7 can't come quick enough for Detroit Red Wings fans. That's when the team opens the 2011-12 season against the Ottawa Senators. Though that's still quite a ways off in the future, the Red Wings themselves are basically all set for the beginning of the season. No major roster moves are expected between now and then, so it won't hurt to take sneak peek at next year's team.

Key additions

  • Mike Commodore, defenseman - signed a one-year, $1 million deal
  • Ian White, defenseman - signed a two-year contract at $2.87 million a season
  • Chris Conner, forward - signed a two-way contract for one year at $550,000 and will likely play in Grand Rapids
  • Ty Conklin, goaltender - signed one-year deal for $750,000 and will back up Jimmy Howard

Key losses

  • Chris Osgood, goaltender (retired)
  • Kris Draper, forward (retired)
  • Brian Rafalski, defenseman (retired)
  • Mike Modano, forward (likely will retire)

Retirements aplenty 

The Red Wings said goodbye to two key players from their glory days during the summer when veteran goaltender Osgood and forward Draper hung up the blades. Osgood finished his career on a down note when he couldn't guarantee general manager Ken Holland that he could stay healthy for the upcoming season. He finished his career with 401 wins and three Stanley Cup rings with the Red Wings, kick-starting a healthy debate over his credentials for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Draper retired under slightly different circumstances when it was apparent that the team was running short of roster spots at the forward position. He too decided to call it quits with a plethora of young talent on the bottom lines poised to take his place. Draper won four Stanley Cups as a member of the "Grind Line" and retired fifth all-time in games played by a Red Wing.

Perhaps the most unexpected of the group was the abrupt retirement of Rafalski. Rafalski still had one year left on his contract at a hefty $6 million price tag, but knee problems plagued him last season and he decided it wasn't worth it to continue playing.

On a lesser note, it's expected that Modano will also retire in the coming days, ending his illustrious career. Modano made most of his fame and success with the Dallas Stars, but came to Detroit last year in a last-ditch effort to win a final Stanley Cup. A scary severed tendon injury sidelined him for most of the season and his stint in Detroit never got on track.

Forwards

Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Jiri Hudler, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, Valtteri Filppula, Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak

One thing the Red Wings will have plenty of this season is depth. The forward unit is stocked with young talent, especially on the bottom two lines where most of the competition in training camp will be. Detroit was surprisingly able to retain the services of both Miller and Eaves this offseason, as it was expected they would lose one or the other due to the decreased roster space. But it turns out Detroit got more money to play with when Rafalski unexpectedly retired, allowing them to re-sign both.

The two players to watch in this group will be newcomers Emmerton and Mursak, who spent most of their time in Grand Rapids last year. Both cannot return to the Griffins without clearing waivers and it's highly unlikely either would slip through the cracks as we witnessed last year when Tampa Bay claimed Mattias Ritola. The Wings will carry 14 forwards next year on the 23-man roster, meaning Emmerton or Mursak will likely have to beat out Conner for the final spot.

The other player to keep a close eye on is Hudler. After taking a year off to play in the minor leagues KHL, Hudler returned last year and struggled mightily. He was often the odd man out in the forward rotation and he's the most constant center of any trade talks involving the Red Wings. Holland has left open the idea of acquiring a player through trade with the extra cap space the Wings have built up, and with an expiring contract that makes Hudler good bait. The problem is that he is owed $2.875 million next year, which could be difficult to unload on another team.

Franzen led the team in goals last season, but after a five-goal outburst against Ottawa on Feb. 2 he cooled off significantly, leaving many to wonder if he was wearing down. He had three points in three games in Detroit's four-game sweep of Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, but was pointless against San Jose in round two. Hopefully it was a minor rut for Franzen after missing nearly all of 2009-10 with an ACL tear.

Of all the players in this unit, the Red Wings' offensive success will ultimately fall in the hands of Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Had Datsyuk played the entire year he would likely have been first or second in scoring on the team with Zetterberg, but a wrist injury hampered the second half of his season. Zetterberg returned to form with an 80-point season after a down 2009-10 campaign and will take an increased leadership role with Draper now retired. Staying healthy will be the key for these two as both have missed significant time over the past two seasons.

Defensemen

Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, Mike Commodore, Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith

Of the eight names above only seven will be on the 23-man roster, meaning one guy is going to get left off. Commodore spent most of his 2010-11 season in the AHL, but he seems enthusiastic about playing for Detroit and reviving his career, so he likely has the inside track on the last defensive pairing. Highly touted prospect Smith will push Kindl for the seventh man, but Kindl got a good chunk of experience last year with the big club and will be expected to hold him off for that spot. 

Ericsson will be under a gigantic magnifying glass after he got a $2 million raise with a brand new three-year contract this summer. Many consider it an overpay for the third-year player, as Ericsson has a tendency to be mistake-prone and does not always use his big frame as effectively as he could. He'll need to cut down on the mistakes now that he's making big boy dollars.

Of course, the million dollar question will be if this is Lidstrom's farewell tour of the NHL. Though he's fresh off a seventh Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, the 42-year-old to be captain has flirted with retirement for two offseasons in a row. Kronwall and Stuart are both set to be free agents after 2011-12, so what Lidstrom decides to do will play a big role in Detroit's plans for them. No one likes the thought of No. 5 calling it quits, so let's enjoy it while it lasts. 

Goalies

Jimmy Howard, Ty Conklin, Joey MacDonald

For the first time in a while the Red Wings don't have Osgood to fall back on, meaning newcomer Conklin will be handling the backup duties this season. His goals against average ballooned to 3.22 last season with St. Louis; the hope is he can dial that down closer to his career average of 2.64. This is Conklin's second stint in Detroit, so it shouldn't take him too long to get accustomed to his teammates as he knows the bulk of the group.

Howard enters his third full season as the No. 1 goaltender after struggling a bit in his sophomore season. While it doesn't necessarily constitute a "sophomore slump," his GAA was a half-goal higher than it was in his rookie season. He was able to bring it down to 2.49 for the playoffs with a .923 save percentage, however, which is a good sign heading into this season. Though he was the one who jonesed the starting job from Osgood two years ago, Osgood played a big role as a veteran mentor and the two eventually developed a good relationship. It will be interesting to see if he can do the same with Conklin, who didn't play with Howard during his first stint in Detroit.

Coaching

Mike Babcock returns for a seventh season in Detroit, but the focus will likely fall on his assistants. Detroit mutually parted ways with Brad McCrimmon and Paul McLean (who left for the Senators job) as they searched for some fresh voices, eventually settling on Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill and Rockford (AHL) head coach Bill Peters. Though assistants are mostly behind-the-scenes guys, Blashill will be charged with fixing a penalty kill that went from one of the league's elite to a middle of the pack unit.

What the rest of the Central Division did

Chicago Blackhawks -- The Hawks dumped Brian Campbell's ridiculous contract on the salary cap floor-challenged Florida Panthers and signed forwards Andrew Brunette and Dan Carcillo for forward depth. Carcillo and new defenseman Steve Montador make Chicago considerably tougher, but the big question is if goalie Corey Crawford can build on a successful rookie season.

St. Louis Blues -- They added veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner and will be a much better team next year.

Nashville Predators -- The Preds did the Central a huge favor when they brought in the talents of former Red Wing Brett Lebda in a trade with Toronto.

What's that, Brett Lebda is actually really terrible? Well, you learn something new every day.

All kidding aside, the Predators will remain a very dangerous team and likely will challenge Detroit for the division. They were able to retain forward Sergei Kostitsyn, but the Predators just lost out big time in the Shea Weber arbitration hearing. Nashville wanted somewhere around $4.5 million for next year, but he was awarded a record $7.5 million instead. Predators blog On the Forecheck fears it may signal the end of Weber's tenure in Nashville, as he'll be arbitration eligible again next year. He'll be in Nashville for 2011-12, but beyond that there are no guarantees.

Columbus Blue Jackets -- The Jackets were the Central's big movers in the offseason, signing defenseman James Wisniewski and acquiring forward Jeff Carter from Philadelphia. The Blue Jackets will need goalie Steve Mason to return to the form of his rookie season when he won the Calder Trophy if they want to contend, but the playoffs are definitely a distinct possibility after a last-place finish last season.

Last year it was pretty apparent that Detroit was the team to beat in the division heading into the season, and it turns out that was correct. The Red Wings skated away with the crown after letting Chicago borrow it for a year, but this season it's not so cut and dry. Pretty much every Central team made a key improvement over last year, meaning it's going to be a lot harder for Detroit to defend its title. 

Even with the moves made by their division rivals I'm not sure it changes Detroit's status as the favorite, but rest assured this is going to be one of the tougher divisions to win in the Western Conference. It's highly possible four Central teams make the playoffs; I'd say all five could but it's unlikely in the ultra-competitive West.

One thing is certain: It sure will be fun to watch. Come on and get here already, October.