Detroit Red Wings\' Henrik Zetterberg (40), of Sweden, scores against Chicago Blackhawks goalie Alexander Salak, of the Czech Republic, in a shootout during an NHL preseason hockey game on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011 in Detroit. Detroit won 4-3 in the shootout. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
DETROIT - The Detroit Red Wings have hoisted the Stanley Cup four times since 1997 during a streak of 20 straight post-season appearances that is the longest active run in sports.
The expectations are just as high this season.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, entering his 29th year with the organization and 15th in charge, says he likes this team's chances to make another championship run.
"We have the nucleus, led by one of the best defenceman in the game and two world-class forwards, to contend with the best teams in our division and conference," Holland said. "And if you can do that, you can win the league. But it's wide open because there's so much parity."
Since the lockout six years ago, Detroit and San Jose are the only teams that have made the playoffs each year.
With Nicklas Lidstrom on defence and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk up front, the Red Wings are expected to be a contender again once the season begins Oct. 7 at home against Ottawa. Holland tries to manage projections with perspective.
"It's not like the early 2000s when Detroit, Dallas and Colorado were basically locks to make the playoffs," Holland said. "Now, the difference from finishing second and 10th last year in the West was a win a month. That's how fine of a line it is between opening the first round at home and packing your bags at the end of the regular season.
The Sharks have knocked the Red Wings out of the second round in each of the past two years after the storied franchise won its 11th championship in 2008 and fell one win short of repeating. Detroit didn't panic during the off-season, especially because Lidstrom decided to return for a 20th season instead of retiring after winning his seventh Norris Trophy.
While some teams threw millions at free agents, Holland made subtle moves. He signed defencemen Ian White to do some of what the retired Brian Rafalski did and six-foot-five, 228-pound Mike Commodore to add some size and grit on the blue-line.
"We weren't overly aggressive in free agency because we think a lot of these guys are up to the challenge," Holland said. "We're going from a team leaning toward older guys to counting on more 20-something guys."
Detroit does have some older players such as 41-year-old Lidstrom, 38-year-old Tomas Holmstrom, 36-year-old Todd Bertuzzi and 35-year-old Ty Conklin—signed to replace retired backup goaltender Chris Osgood—but many more wearing the winged wheel are in their 20s.
Instead of adding players from other teams, the Red Wings are counting on some of their own getting better. They re-signed 27-year-olds Jonathan Ericsson, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. The Red Wings want each of them and a pair of 27-year-old returning forwards, Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler, to produce more.
The performance of another 27-year-old will be the most pivotal.
After a breakout season in which he was runner-up for rookie of the year, Jimmy Howard had a 2.79 goals-against average—a half-goal more than the previous season—and his save percentage slipped. The Red Wings are banking on Howard, entering the first season of his US$4.5-million, two-year deal he signed in February, to be better and more consistent.
It wasn't all Howard's fault, but Detroit ranked in 23rd in goals against.
"The new guys, Commodore and White, have been good fits and they'll really make our defence better," Lidstrom said. "That's an area we've got to improve because we can't expect to give up as many goals and get as many wins."
The Red Wings, though, should be able to score enough to have some success.
Zetterberg had 80 points—slightly above his average over six years—last season and Datsyuk has produced even more during the same post-lockout period despite missing almost one-fourth of last season with injuries. The Red Wings would love to have a third big-time scorer and would be thrilled if it is Johan Franzen, who is capable of scoring in bunches and disappearing for stretches of games.
Coach Mike Babcock, now in his seventh season in Detroit, had two openings on his staff this season, filling them with former Western Michigan coach Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters,who led the Chicago Blackhawks' AHL affiliate. He had spots open because Ottawa hired Paul MacLean and Brad McCrimmon went to become a head coach in Russia after his contract with the Red Wings expired.
McCrimmon and Ruslan Salei, who played in Detroit last season, were on the jet that crashed Sept. 7 in western Russia in one of the worst aviation disasters in sports.
"I feel sad and bad," said Datsyuk, who is honouring Salei, a fellow Russian, by wearing his No. 24 jersey during the pre-season. "I know lots of people there. It's tough."
Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., contributed to this report.