There were times last season when it was easy to think the Detroit Red Wings had reached the end of a remarkable era.
Quite a few of them, actually.
Hockey's model franchise was trying to continue a decade-long run that included two Stanley Cup championships, four Presidents Trophies and the previous eight Central Division titles. But when February's Olympic break arrived, the league's oldest team was in trouble. The Red Wings were losing players left and right to injuries, their veteran goalie had lost his starting job to a rookie the coach had never previously been inclined to trust, and they were struggling offensively.
|Nicklas Lidstrom scored nine goals and had 40 assists in 82 games last season. (Getty Images)|
Like Mark Twain though, the reports of their deaths were greatly exaggerated. Turns out it was way too early to write them off. At least by a year anyway -- maybe more -- depending on how long defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom decides to continue playing.
That's not to suggest the Red Wings are a one-man show. Far from it.
Detroit is a deeply talented team that always seems to find a way to get things done, but for much of the past decade, Lidstrom has unquestionably been the straw that stirred the drink. He is the best defenseman of his generation, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. But Lidstrom is 40 now and thinking about retirement. He has been mum about his plans and has reportedly put his Detroit house up for sale.
Even so, Lidstrom decided to re-up for at least one more season, much to the delight of everyone associated with the Red Wings, because as long as he's around, they can't be written off. Especially this season, when they should have a sense of greater urgency with so much of their talent older than 30 in a league that has grown increasingly younger.
There has been a smooth transition from the generation of Steve Yzerman to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the ice, and from Scotty Bowman to Mike Babcock behind the bench. But there is no one in the organization to fill Lidstrom's skates when he does decide to hang them up. So for a lot of the Red Wings, that means heading into this season knowing it may be a last shot at the Cup.
Detroit didn't do all that much offseason tinkering to the lineup. Truth is, little was necessary because the Red Wings probably had Cup potential last season. But they were victimized by several long-term injuries to key players and struggled to stay above water for the first 60 games.
They barely did, but the Red Wings became the league's best team down the post-Olympic stretch when the lineup returned to full strength. Detroit finished with more than 100 points for the 10th time in a row, then won an opening-round seventh game on the road before running out of gas against regular-season Western Conference champion San Jose.
|2010-11 Season Preview|
But Detroit hasn't gotten any younger for this season. In fact, it added 40-year-old Mike Modano and 35-year-old Ruslan Salei, although the Red Wings brought back forward Jiri Hudler from the KHL to add some more pop to an offense that has plenty when healthy.
"We really feel we're a much better team depth-wise, talent-wise than we were at this time last year," Babcock said. "A lot of our guys that were hurt last year have done a real good job with their conditioning, and they're stronger and fitter."
Probably more important to a team getting on in years, better rested. It isn't by choice, of course, but after reaching the previous two Stanley Cup Finals and winning one of them, Detroit's early exit from last season's playoffs has been a blessing in disguise, providing the players a longer summer.
"I think the extra month of training, the extra month off is going to have our batteries recharged and hopefully give us better luck with health," general manager Ken Holland said. "And adding Modano and Hudler, some of our young kids have another year of experience, it's all going to add up to the potential for more offense and from different sources."
That probably isn't a pleasant thought for teams in the West because the Red Wings did what they did last season despite struggling to put pucks in the net, especially at even strength. Detroit finished 14th in scoring, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg putting up modest numbers while lacking a strong supporting cast on most nights. In large part that was because of the injuries to forwards Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula. The previous summer's departures of Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Hudler didn't help.
Now, though, Detroit is healthy and rested and its strong finish bodes well for this season. Especially with the West even more wide open thanks to the major roster changes undertaken by powerhouses Chicago and San Jose.
"I like what's happened for us in terms of the talent dispersal in the conference," Babcock said. "We're going to be better."
And maybe for a while yet.