TRAVERSE CITY — The Detroit Red Wings opened up training camp Friday at Centre ICE Arena. The team is in the middle of a reloading phase, as young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Smith are filling the roles of veterans like Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper.
However, the team has remained somewhat competitive making the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive time last year. Injuries derailed the Red Wings season last year, but everyone is starting training camp healthy, minus one top prospect.
Here’s a look at the top storylines to watch for at Red Wings training camp.
Kids Playing Bigger Role
Coach Mike Babcock leaned on his younger players heavily during last season. In total, nine prospects made their Red Wings debut last season.
A good chunk of them got valuable playoff experience — despite it only being five games — that will pay dividends down the road.
Since the Red Wings were not able to acquire a right-handed defenseman or another scoring threat in free agency, Babcock will once again have to rely on his kids to contribute offensively and defensively.
Babcock told me he likes the depth in the farm system.
I think we have a lot of depth up front, but I think we have a lot of depth boiling on the back. … That’s the great thing, it’s been a while since we’ve had this much depth. We don’t have as much as we used to have, but we sure have a ton at the bottom.
Babcock stressed how important it is that every single player on the team improves from last year.
If every player just gets one degree better, we’re a better team. So, that’s our focus is just keep getting better. They’re young kids, they are earning confidence, they worked hard this summer.
Defenseman Niklas Kronwall told me the young players are working hard to not only get jobs, but ice time as well.
The younger guys are really pushing. They want to take the next step and get a chance to play. We got a lot of young D that are really playing well and they had great years in the minors last year.
Guys are pushing for jobs. Also, for us older guys, not only getting to keep your spot, but at the same time, you’re competing for ice time.
Weiss, Team Staying Healthy
Stephen Weiss was a non-factor for the Red Wings last season, after signing a five-year $24.5 million contract with in July 2013 in hopes of replacing Valtteri Filppula as the second-line center.
The former first-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2001 played in just 26 games with two goals and two assists last season. He played his final game of the 2013-14 season in December after suffering a sports hernia.
Weiss told me he was pain-free for his first intense skate since December.
It’s great, it was nice to be back. It’s obviously been a while. It felt pretty good for a first controlled game/scrimmage in about nine months. I feel healthy — I have no pain, and I feel like it’s going to keep getting better and better as long as I can stay healthy.
Captain Henrik Zetterberg told me Weiss will be a big contributing factor toward the success of the team if he stays healthy.
It’s great to see that he’s healthy. Just be out there — really another chance to show what he can do. He’s a great player, we all know that. He went through a tough year last year, but he looks good out there and he’s going to be good for us this year.
Weiss certainly has a big contract to live up to. This could be a make-or-break year for Weiss should he struggle again or spend most of 2014-15 hurt. However, it appears we will see the Weiss that contributed on a regular basis for 11 years in Florida.
Kronwall also told me how important it was to see fellow linemate Jonathan Ericsson healthy again.
It’s good, he’s a huge part of the team. Anytime we can have a big guy like that who moves the puck, sees the ice, huge on the PK.
He’s good in the room. He’s a leader on our team — he has played really well for us for many years. Getting a guy like that back, it’s almost like you trade for a big defenseman that can move the puck and do all those things.
After having surgery after the Olympics, Zetterberg said he is feeling the best he has ever felt.
Feeling good. Excited to be back and feeling normal again. Excited to be out and playing some hockey.
If there was any doubt about how Zetterberg’s back would be feeling, he dispelled that notion with this pretty shootout goal.
Zetterberg shootout goal https://t.co/iIKpnN6a7R
— Kyle (@KyleWIIM) September 19, 2014
No Anthony Mantha
Unfortunately, the Red Wings were hit with an injury before training camp even started, but the good news is it isn’t a groin tear.
Top prospect Anthony Mantha fractured his tibia during the Prospects Tournament and will be out six to eight weeks, according to MLive.com. Mantha had a better-than-average shot of making the Red Wings out of training camp, but now Babcock told me he will have to work his way up through Grand Rapids.
We talked a lot about getting Mantha a good look. Well, he’ll have to work his back from Grand Rapids. We’ll just watch our players.
He works hard, competes hard and has an infections personality. He’s got skill-set, he gets open and he makes plays — he’s a good player. We need more guys that are high-end players. We have great depth in our organization, there’s no question. Our team is not going to fall off at all.
Babcock is right. The Red Wings need more guys like Mantha who can score on a consistent basis. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were hurt most of last year, and Franzen is too streaky. Weiss should be able to add some secondary scoring, but it all comes back to the younger players who need to take another step forward this season.
Overall, the Red Wings looked good during the first day of training camp, but you could say that about any team. Before injuries took over, the Red Wings were competing for the top spot in their division, and there is no doubt in my mind they can do that again this year.
Tom Mitsos is a writer from Michigan who covers the Red Wings and the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, for The Hockey Writers.