Will Niklas Kronwall bring enough physical presences this season to inspire the rest of the Red Wings to play tougher hockey? (AP Photo)
The Red Wings have finally gotten what they have long been asking for: to be part of the geographically friendly Eastern Conference. So it’s farewell to the outrageously long road trips for the players and Hockeytown fans rejoice as we now have fewer games that end at one o’clock in the morning.
Parting ways with the Western Conference may be the least of the Red Wings’ worries though as their new home in the East is a whole new beast they will need to tackle if they want to continue their historic streak of 22 consecutive playoff appearances.
Keeping the playoff streak alive will be put to a different test this season as the new conference realignment brings forth a new playoff system as well. The 16-team format will remain the same, however each conference has only two divisions instead of three. This makes the playoff seeding a bit different with the top three teams in each division automatically qualifying for the playoffs and wildcard spots being granted to the two best remaining teams in the conference regardless of division.
The Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning make up the Atlantic Division along with the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings will play a total of 30 games against these seven teams, another 24 games against the other division in the Eastern Conference, and to complete the schedule, 28 games versus the Western Conference.
So it’s a more balanced schedule with the emphasis on every team seeing every other team in the league at least twice over the course of the season. This is a major opportunity for the Wings to have leg up on their conference competitors in the East because they get to revisit their old foes in the Western Conference they know so well.
Now, my Atlantic division preview with the reminder a wildcard spot is still a possibility for the Red Wings if they can’t manage to squeeze into the top 3 spots in the division.
Starting off with the teams I can easily see Detroit skating past in the standings would be the rebuilding Panthers as they took a rather big step back when their best center, Stephen Weiss, signed a 5-year deal with the Red Wings. And the Buffalo Sabres didn’t make any major improvements to their roster during the offseason and have really disappeared since their playoff runs back in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Next in my divisional power rankings would be the Tampa Bay Lightning with former Red Wings center Valtteri Filppula joining their electric youngster Steven Stamkos. But offense was never the Lightning’s problem as they ranked 3rd in the NHL with an average of 3.06 goals per game. Their problems were on defense: they had the 5th highest goals against per game last season. So while it was clear the backline needed help, the Lightning went after Filppula, leaving the same apparent question marks about their young defense.
Next, I have to group Montreal and Ottawa together as both Canadian teams look upgraded on paper due to their offseason acquisitions but both teams have some minor flaws that might be enough to hold them back over the course of the season. However, I could easily see one or maybe both teams making the playoffs through the new wildcard system given how strong this division is.
The Canadiens maintained a majority of their roster that won Northeast division a year ago and even added a top-six forward in Danny Briere but I still feel they will rely too heavily on their goaltender, Carey Price. A season ago Price went 21-13 between the pipes with a 2.59 goals against average per game. He is a three time All-Star, so the expectations on Price are the highest they have ever been; if he can maintain those numbers he will give the Red Wings fits this season. But if he can’t, Montreal just doesn’t have enough talented players on offense to outscore opponents when he does have an off night.
The Senators have to move past the fact that their long time captain Daniel Alfredsson decided to ditch them in pursuit of getting himself that elusive Stanley Cup with the Red Wings instead of finishing off his career as a Senator. But losing the old veteran is quite less of a burden when they went out and traded for superstar goal-scorer Bobby Ryan from the Ducks. The team has a fresh new face to build around, but I can see them at times lacking a bit in chemistry so that has to be sorted out early into the season if the Sens want to be successful and make a playoff push.
That leaves the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs as the elite rivals the Red Wings will have the hardest time jumping over in the Atlantic division standings. It would only make sense that it would be two of the original six teams. So, if you thought the Chicago Blackhawks were a pain to have in the same division, this year and seasons to come, Detroit will have two times the annoyance.
The two major rivals mentioned above have one thing in common that the Wings are missing at times: toughness. It is the one key weakness that many people, me included, said cost the Red Wings their chance to close out the Blackhawks in second round of the playoffs last year.
Sure the Wings have experienced youth: their AHL affiliate Grand Rapid Griffins winning the 2013 Calder Cup Championship is a shining beacon for that. And they have world-class veterans in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to go with their strong youth. Plus, the Wings boast a solid, maturing goaltender in Jimmy Howard.
But the missing piece was and will continue to be toughness. I can’t see the addition of Alfredsson and Weiss helping address this issue completely but they could step in from time to time and help the cause. It looks like it will have to be Justin Abdelkader, Johan Franzan, Jordin Tootoo, and Niklas Kronwall again on the front lines that will need to display “clean” toughness in order to show their Atlantic rivals that the Wings have the heart to grind and battle for a full 60 minutes each and every night on the ice.
The Red Wings will have a tough time handling themselves in this newly realigned Eastern Conference if they aren’t willing to battle each and every night against the glass. The upside is tremendous if they can claw out the games against the tougher opponents, considering their talent level is off the charts no matter what team in either division or conference we want to compare them to.
I will put the Red Wings as the 2nd-best team in the division behind the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins and see them push their historic playoff streak to a 23rd consecutive season.