Hockey World Blog

Detroit Red Wings Season Preview: Jimmy Howard is the key to success

The offseason hasn’t been kind to the Detroit Red Wings. Not only did they lose two of their top four defenseman from last season, but they failed to land to address not only their defensive needs, but their offensive depth as well. This leads to many question marks coming into the 2012 season. Despite these losses and Detroit’s failure to really improve, the heavy weight of the team’s success may lie elsewhere.

The trouble for the Wings started when captain Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement at the start of the summer. Then the team traded defenseman Brad Stuart, who was widely believed to be on his way out anyway so he could play on the west coast to be closer to his family.

The troubles continued when free agency began and Detroit lost out on numerous top-end free agents. Most notably, the team failed to lure former Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter to Detroit, a player many thought was almost a lock to come in and be a long-term replacement for the departed Lidstrom. On defense, the team also failed to land Matt Carle and Shea Weber. On offense, the team let Alexander Semin slide and negotiations were almost non-existent for Rick Nash.

Again, this isn’t due to lack of effort as Detroit evidently put together a very good package for Nash specifically. Regardless of the reasons why Detroit lost out on these players, the fact is that they will be suiting up with other teams when the season resumes while Detroit tries to scramble and make due with the best available.

It’s safe to say that defense has been a hot topic for the Wings, although the signing of former St. Louis Blues defenseman Carlos Colaiacovo went almost unnoticed. Perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on defense, however.

Instead, the focus should be on goalie Jimmy Howard. For years, Red Wings fan heard that Jimmy Howard was the goalie of the future, the heir apparent to guys like Dominic Hasek and Chris Osgood. And this season is Howard’s time to shine.

Howard posted some of career best numbers last season with six shutouts while posting a 2.13 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. But with a depleted defensive unit in front of him, Howard will need to be that number one goalie that goes beyond making the routine saves to give his team a chance to win, Instead, Howard will need to be the goalie that steals games and outplays the opposition’s goalie on a regular basis.

The Red Wings still have several very good defenseman, notably Ian White, who shined last year in his first season in Detroit, and Niklas Lidstrom, whose mix of physical play and offensive prowess is a huge asset to the team. Jonathan Ericsson emerged as a solid penalty killer and Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl will get every opportunity to show what they have to offer.

But Howard will benefit greatly from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, two of the league’s best two-way forwards, playing in front of him. Valtteri Filppula is another solid two-way player for the Wings as well and Todd Bertuzzi has worked immensely on this aspect of his game. In fact, only one of Detroit’s regular forwards, Tomas Holmstrom, finished with a minus in the plus-minus category last season.

The Red Wings will need to grind out more victories than they are used to, but they will benefit from the addition of Jordan Tootoo, who is an abrasive and heavy hitter that can get underneath the skin of the opposition. Adding Mikael Samuelsson will help on the power play and should give the team a boost on offense as well.

Despite these considerations, the team’s success will still weight heavily on Jimmy Howard’s play this season. If Howard can step up and become a game-changer for the Wings, the team should be able to coast into the trade deadline as a playoff contender at least and pick up some help on defense and offense. But if Howard takes a step back, it could result in troubling times not only for the team, but could weight heavily on the team’s decision to offer Howard a long-term contract after his current deal expires at the end of the season.

Make no mistake, this team will be a different team than fans are used to seeing in years past. There will likely be a heavier emphasis on two-way play so the Red Wings can grind out victories and hold onto those one-and-two-goal leads. But if any team can succeed when the deck is stacked against them, it’s the Red Wings.

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