More than 10 months after they skated off the ice at Little Caesars Arena having sealed a last-place finish in the NHL standings — and a fourth consecutive absence from the playoffs — the Wings are greeting playing, even during a pandemic, with resounding joy. There won’t be fans in the stands, and there are only 56 games (againt seven opponents) on the schedule and coming to the arena requires a daily COVID-19 test – but it beats the alternative: Not playing.
“There’s always great excitement,” newly minted captain Dylan Larkin said. “There’s always a fresh slate. I think this year, with a lot of new faces, a lot of guys coming from teams that were in the playoffs — a lot of guys that signed here knowing the situation we were in last year and came here for an opportunity to make us better and prove that they can be a huge part of our future — that means a lot. Those guys have brought in a great energy.”
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General manager Steve Yzerman added forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, defensemen Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill and goaltender Thomas Greiss through free agency; defenseman Marc Staal was a trade acquisition. It’s not a dramatic makeover, but rather a booster to a team that stumbled to a 17-49-5 record and last-place finish last season.
“I’m just looking for improvement,” Yzerman said. “Collectively as a team, we want to be better. Certainly we’re expecting our younger players to be improved — they’re a year more mature, a year more experienced. Hopefully a little stronger, a little more explosive, a little better conditioned.
“We just want to see improvement. We’re trying to progress. If we can be better in every area — I don’t know what our point total will be, where we finish in the standings, but throughout the whole organization, we’re looking at improvement. What the people see, what the fans see, is the Detroit Red Wings on the ice, and we want that group to be better.”
In order to have as long as a regular season as feasible while finishing the playoffs before the Summer Olympics are scheduled to start July 23, exhibition games were eliminated. The Wings made do with three scrimmages, the last one of which hinted they may have found a scoring line beyond that of Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. Robby Fabbri’s line with Namestnikov and Filip Zadina showed sparkling chemistry. Ryan had been with Fabbri and Zadina at the start of camp, but missed time because of an undisclosed injury and isn’t expected to be available for the opener.
Just the notion that the Wings can still field two scoring lines despite missing one of their top six forwards is a significant improvement over the patchwork of NHLers and minor leaguers that populated the team last season.
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Coach Jeff Blashill flirted with the idea of breaking up Larkin’s line; but watching watching video changed Blashill’s mind, even before Yzerman added talent to the roster.
“As I went through the summer, I certainly toyed with the idea of splitting those guys up and maybe giving another line one of those players to maybe give us more depth,” Blashill said. “And as I watched every time, they were so good together that I just said to myself, let’s leave those guys together and let’s let other guys find ways to make their line better. Let’s have other guys raise their game so that their lines are better.”
The third line could provide a bit of offense, too, with newcomer Mathias Brome skating next to veterans Valtteri Filppula and Sam Gagner.
“The guys we brought in look like they’re ready to have an impact,” Luke Glendening said. “It looks like the young guys have continued to grow. The competitiveness is high and guys are excited to be back.”
On the back end, Staal, Stecher and Merrill will inject energy and experience onto a blue line that ran through 14 players last season. Greiss shores up the goaltending in a tandem with Jonathan Bernier.
For a team that has distanced itself — in days, if not in memory — from the bleakness that was 2019-20, there is a determination that 2021 has to be better.
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“There’s a collective jam to us that we don’t want it to happen again,” Larkin said. “We want to come out of the gate hot and we want to have a great season.”
The Wings open Thursday and Saturday with games against the Carolina Hurricanes, the first of 28 two-game mini-series designed to reduce travel and risk of exposure to COVID-19. The season is bound to be fraught with complications — already Darren Helm has been sidelined because of league-mandated COVID protocols, and the Dallas Stars, now in the Wings’ division, have had to delay their season because of positive tests — but against all the problems imposed by the pandemic, the start of the season is like a sunrise after a stormy night.
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“The beginning of the year is always time for optimism,” Blashill said. “This is different in the sense that appreciation would be a work I would use, appreciation that we get a chance again to go out and compete at the very highest level of our profession. We were shut down for a long time. We didn’t know if we’d get back going and we didn’t know when. You grow to appreciate what we get a chance to do. That appreciation is strengthened when it gets taken away from you.”
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings on 2021: ‘A great energy’ thanks to deeper roster
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