September 19, 2006

Detroit Red Wings (Anatomy of an NHL Training Camp): Team Report: 2006 Red Wings

Hidden away in the far north west corner of Michiganís Lower Peninsula amongst the picturesque vistas of forested rolling hills, winding 2 lane rural highways dotted with small family farms and situated a few miles inland, near the East Bay (as referred to by the locals) of Lake Michigan lies ďCentre IceĒ, The Training Facility used by the Detroit Red Wings since Ken Holland took over as General Manager 9 Years ago. The Facility itself lives in obscurity most of the year as does the small city of Traverse City, MI except for the brief period of time in late summer when the Detroit Red Wings call Centre Ice Home. Itís a beautiful area and a sportsmanís paradise with the King Salmon and large Lake Trout starting to make their runs in the bays of Lake Michigan. Listen to the talk of the players, coaches and various NHL dignitaries in attendance and theyíre often centered on the previous days fishing adventure, round of golf, or quaint local Restaurant that graciously prepared the days catch. Itís easy to mistake the intent of the Red Wings, theyíre not here to work on their golf or fishing skills, thereís serious business on hand, theyíre here to prepare the team for the rigors of an NHL Season and to make a run at Lord Stanleyís Cup. The rookies and prospects arrived a week earlier then the veterans and received a baptism of NHL play of sorts with the Red Wings sponsored Rookies and Prospects Tournament. Head coach Mike Babcock (audio interview) and his staff spend the tournament week getting a good look at the young players in the system as they compete in the 8 Team Tournament. In previous columns and comments Iíve outlined the Tournament so no need to cover that again, suffice to say itís the Best Tournament of itís type in the World and it give the players with an invite to the ďBig CampĒ a chance to hone their skills before main camp and competition for roster spots begins. The five day main camp ends Sept. 20th and is interrupted this year by the Wings first pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul on Sept. 19th. The remainder of pre-season preparation occurs in the Detroit area at the Joe Louis Arena and other team facilities in the Detroit area. Five days doesnít seem like much but in talking to the players and staff you come to realize its the most important five days of the pre-season preparation. Team chemistry and bonding is established and the roster and depth chart is shaped. Coach Babcock and his staff install his offense, defense and special teams. Players learn the system and their place in it. Conditioning is checked and improved, the foundation of sound fundamentals are stressed and reinforced. A team emerges and in the case of the Detroit Red Wings itís usually been a contenting team that leaves the Traverse City area. Letís take a look at that team, The 2006, 2007 Detroit Red Wings. Itís going to be impossible to talk about this team without mentioning itís the 1st team in 23 years without Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman wearing the Red and White. Iím sure the media is going to mention this so often this year weíre all going to be tired of hearing it. Of course his leadership is irreplaceable, of course he was the best player to ever wear a ďCĒ on his game sweater, of course his mere presence on the ice could change the outcome of the game but the fact remains heís retired and this team needs to move forward as of this writing the issue of who will Captain this team remains. Strong arguments can be made for Lindstrom, Datzsuk, Zetterberg or even another player but the Red Wings will address the Captaincy issue soon enough as to not interrupt the start of the regular season. Itís an important decision that will effect the direction of this team for this season and possibly years to come. Iím reluctant to discuss certain decisions that Coach Babcock needs to make, such as what position to play Zetterberg, what to do with Jiri Hudler and his late start at Training Camp, those issues were discussed quite well by the Detroit Media and a quick read of the Detroit Free Pressís recent Wingsí coverage will bring the interested fan up to date. These Caveats covered and after spending 10 Days at their Training Camp hereís my analyst of this years Detroit Red Wings Squad. Forwards: Henrik Zetterberg (video interview) is the best Forward on this team if not the best player, I know Pavel Datsyuk led the team in scoring last season and is a Stud Superstar Playmaker/Scoring Machine but Zetterbergís 85 Pts. (39 Goals, 46 Asst.) was only 2 behind the 87 Pts. Datsyuk put up. His +/- rating from last season was an impressive +29 and 2nd on the team to Mathieu Schneider (more about the D-men later), additionally he lead the team in PPG with 17 and an equally impressive 18 PPA. Henrik Zetterberg exudes calm under pressure and his 9 Game Winning Goals last season are the Hall Mark Signature of a Clutch Player. This man is a leader and his play and demeanor during training camp only reinforced the esteem in which his team mates hold him especially during last years early playoff exist when the rest of the team was struggling offensively he lead the team in scoring with 6 goals in 6 games. His versatility to play Center or Left Wing is an asset to Coach Babcock even if it does cause a conundrum with three hugely gifted Centers on this squad in Pavel Datzsuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Robert Lang, itís a nice problem for Coach Babcock to have as he tries to find ice time for this trio. The team signed Center Greg Johnson the former Predator Captain to a one year contract this summer only to see him leave training camp after an irregular EKG. Given the clubs recent tragedy involving Jiri Fischer itís not something the club is taking lightly and his availability is very much still in question. This does open a spot on the Defensively minded line thats been centered by Chris Draper. Look for the team to add Valterri Filppula of Finland to take that position and his showing in the team scrimmage shoot-outs has opened some eyes to his scoring abilities. Left Wing Kirk Maltby saw his production dip significantly last season, in 2003-2004 he had a 2nd career best 33 points and a +24 only to see his numbers drop off a cliff last year to 11 pts. (5 goals, 6 asst.) and a -9 rating. His contract is up after this season and he might have some incentive to improve those numbers. Also watch for Jiri Hudler and Darryl Bootland to get a shot at the big club this season. The Top Prospect in the Wings system is RW Igor Grigorenko who'll play in Russia and wouldn't be seen in the NHL until 2007-2008 season so the Top Prospect coming to the team this year is LW Tomas Kopecky who lit up the AHL last season with the Red Wing Affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins scoring 72 pts. (32 goals 40 asst.) in 77 Games. I haven't even had a chance to discuss the impressive depth of this team at the forward position but consider the forwards on the roster who I haven't discussed here: RW: Dan Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson, LW: Tomas Holstrom, Center: Johan Franzen, Jason Williams and you should get the picture. Even with the lose of Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman the 2006-2007 Detroit Red Wings are loaded with High Quality Forwards across all lines. It remains to be seen if they'll continue to click without #19's leadership but having seen the performances during training camp I have a hunch they wouldn't miss a beat. Coach Babcock has prepared this squad well and I watched as he personally spent considerable ice time rounding these players into a well oiled machine. Defense: After winning his fourth Norris Trophy, there is no contest in determining the Detroit Red Wings best defenseman. Nicklas Lidstrom re-signed with Detroit for two more years and will continue his important role on the blue line. Aside from Lidstromís strong defensive play, he is also an important offensive contributor to the team as well as always improving his blue line partnerís game. Last season, Lidstrom came in fourth on the team in terms of points with 80 (16 goals, 64 assists) while earning a +21 rating. Lidstrom had a career best season offensively, and he has only had two seasons since 1991 where he notched less than 40 points (1994-1995, the strike year, and 2003-2004). His valuable leadership will continue to shape the destiny of this years squad weather he wears the ďCĒ or the ďAĒ. This man is pure class period and he is more than capable of carrying this team anytime it finds itself struggling. Last years early playoff exist has placed pressure on this years squad to go deep into the playoffs, look to Lindstrom to keep this team focused on the prize. Chris Chelios saw his offensive production drop significantly last season but this Hall of Famers' motor still runs hard, he says he feels great and his performance during scrimmages at training camp looked familiar, he'll get it done again this year. Mathieu Schneider is entering the 19 year of his NHL career and with last years 21 goals he hasn't lost his scoring touch and also leading the team in +/-, I expect he hasn't this year either but the team does need some of the younger players to step up. Niklas Kronwall should start fulfilling his potential after an injury shortened season last year. Consider this he was named All Star Team at the World Championships in 2005 along side the likes of Jagr, Thorton, Nash, Zidlicky and did help bring home an Olympic Gold Medal for Sweden. He was the AHL's top scoring defenseman 3 years ago. Lot's of upside. D-men not mentioned: Brent Lebda, Andres Lilja. I'll also mention the possibility of seeing Jonathon Ericsson a tall (6' 5Ē) Swedish Defensemen who has been impressive in camp with his skating, hitting and puck skills. He was also a member of the Gold Medal Olympic Team from Sweden. He'll probably play in the AHL this season but he adds some insurance for the Wings pending some injuries. After being unmasked by the Oilers in the first round last year as in need of a hard nosed Defenseman they went out and signed Russian Journeymen Danny Markov, he seemed to fit right in a training camp and look for the Wings to use his aggravating style of play to their advantage. Goalie: Ok, I know everyone's waiting for this one. Last season, the Wings had arguably one of the best goaltenders during the regular season with Manny Legace. However, Legaceís performance during the playoffs (2.65 GAA, .884 SV%) warranted GM Hollandís decision to look elsewhere for this seasonís starting goaltender (Legace signed with the Blues). Holland decided to sign Dominik Hasek to his third stint in Detroit since winning the cup in 2002. Hasek played only 43 games last season due to a groin injury in February, but before the injury he went 28-10-4 with a 2.09 GAA and a .925 SV%. If Hasek can stay healthy by the time playoffs come, the Wings may be looking at a long playoff run with Hasekís competitiveness. However, Hasekís groin has been injured in Jan./Feb. for both the 2003-2004 season and last season resulting in problems for his respective team. So it's now the most watched groin in the world and the Red Wings are pinning they're playoff hopes on the groin of a 41 year old. Who can tell what's going to happen. I can't so I wouldn't, I will say Chris Osgood is a proven 2nd goalie for what it's worth and don't count them out even if Hasek goes down, if Hasek is healthy for the playoff however watch out. Jimmy Howard (video interview) is a Star in waiting and like a lot of teams that had success last year in the regular season and playoff with rookie goalies, Detroit has a good one in young Mr. Howard. Special Teams: The Detroit Red Wings finished last season with 102 PPG last season 2nd only to the Leafs and tied with the Senators. Their PP% of 22.2% was 1st in the NHL and the PK% of 85.5% was good for 3rd in the league. The power play unit did allow 10 shorthanded goals, which was close to the league median of 11 goals. Zetterberg and Shanahan led the team in PPG with 17 and 14 respectively. However, Shanahan will be playing for the New York Rangers and his contributions will be missed. Schneider, Datsyuk, and left wing Tomas Holmstrom all scored 11 goals while on the power-play. While on the penalty kill, the Wings only allowed 67 power play goals placing them fourth in the league. However, the penalty unit could only garner 7 shorthanded goals placing them 23rd in the NHL. Given what I saw Coach Babcock go over in camp I believe those SH numbers will improve significantly this season. A few thoughts: After spending 10 days watching the Red Wings run their training camp (training camp video) one can't help but be impressed with the organizational thoroughness, attention to detail, extensive planning and the ability to incorporate a vision of success for the team. This team looks ready! Barring major injuries they are still a powerhouse of a Hockey Team and with the favorable schedule (they only play one game this year later than 8PM EST) they can certainly redeem themselves after last years 1st round playoff exit.

[Wings Camp in Pictures] Previously: #1 | #2

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