Originally Published: September 25, 2013

Detroit Red Wings: Eastbound and up

By Craig Custance | ESPN.com

Before he signed with the Red Wings as a free agent, center Stephen Weiss had a conversation with coach Mike Babcock.

Babcock went through the Red Wings lineup and explained to Weiss where he would fit in. The opportunity to play with and learn from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg was appealing to Weiss.

But it was the ultimate team goal that sold him.

"[Babcock] talked about winning the Stanley Cup, which was refreshing," Weiss told ESPN The Magazine. "To hear those type of things was great to hear. It was a pretty easy decision to come here."

The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom along with unsuccessful attempts in free agency over the past couple of years moved the Red Wings out of their usual place in the Stanley Cup picture. This offseason changed that.

Following a season and playoffs in which the Red Wings were infused with young talent like Brendan Smith, Danny DeKeyser, Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist, GM Ken Holland had his best offseason since landing Marian Hossa.

Detroit added Weiss and were surprisingly able to lure Daniel Alfredsson away from the Senators. On top of it all, they were able to retain heart-and-soul forward Dan Cleary despite late attempts from Florida and Philadelphia to sign him. It puts Detroit, now in the Eastern Conference, back in the Cup conversation.

Holland loves to have veteran players who desperately want to win a Stanley Cup on his roster, and he has that in Alfredsson, who stunned the hockey world by leaving Ottawa to join the Red Wings. Alfredsson will turn 41 in December, but he can still be a force on a second line that projects to include Weiss and Johan Franzen. If that line meshes, it allows Babcock to keep Datsyuk and Zetterberg together on a top line that will likely include Justin Abdelkader.

Weiss, who was sidelined for most of last season with a wrist injury, still believes there's a chance to improve his game at 30 years old on a new team. Until now, he's never quite lived up to the expectations that came with being the No. 4 overall pick in 2001.

"Playing with these type of players, this type of system and in this atmosphere is just going to help me," he said. "I'm just looking forward to getting the season started."

The Red Wings lost talented but often underwhelming forward Valtteri Filppula to the Lightning and couldn't work out a deal with Damien Brunner to return after Brunner led the team with five playoff goals.

The best Red Wings teams in the past won because of their mix of star power and depth, a trait this group shares. Aside from Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Alfredsson, the Red Wings have a strong group of young forwards pushing for playing time. Joakim Andersson plays a veteran game at center in the bottom six despite being 24 years old. Nyquist has the talent to crack the top two lines if he finds more consistency, and Tomas Tatar is ready to compete at the NHL level after leading Grand Rapids to a Calder Cup last year, winning postseason MVP honors in the process.

With the return of Cleary, the Red Wings have too many bodies at forward, and Holland will have to make a move at some point to clear both salary-cap and roster space. In the meantime, the large group of forwards creates a competitive atmosphere in Detroit.

"It's a lot of competition for sure," Andersson said. "I don't know how many forwards we have. [In] Grand Rapids, we won the Calder Cup; there are good players there. They've been drafting good. There are a ton of great players around the organization."

In goal, Jimmy Howard has emerged as one of the league's most consist goaltenders, posting save percentages of at least .920 in three of the past four seasons. He is coming off the best postseason of his career and has the extra motivation this season of fighting for a spot in goal for Team USA in the Olympics.

The Red Wings have seven legitimate NHL defensemen, so depth isn't a problem. The defense just doesn't have that top shutdown pair like it had for years with Lidstrom and whomever Lidstrom was paired with. Niklas Kronwall adjusted well to more responsibility last season, but his ice time climbed to over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs.

The move to the more open Eastern Conference featuring guys like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux will present a challenge to a blue line that still depends on developing players in Jakub Kindl, Smith and DeKeyser. Last season, DeKeyser went from a college student to an integral part of the Red Wings defense, an indication of both his talent and the needs on the Detroit blue line. Detroit benefited from his skating and decision-making and need his growth to continue this season. If any of those young defensemen take a step back in their development, it will be problematic for Detroit.

Another area of concern is the health of center Darren Helm. His speed and penalty-killing abilities make an impact when he's in the lineup, but he played just one game last season because of a back injury.

The Red Wings were one of the big winners of realignment. According to math done by the blog On The Forecheck, the Red Wings travel mileage drops from 42,865 in 2011-12 to 35,324 this season. It will especially pay off in the playoffs, as the Red Wings now don't have to be concerned about the possibility of playing against three teams on the other side of the continent on the road to the Stanley Cup. There may also be an increase in offensive production from Zetterberg and Datsyuk with the move East, breaking away from division rivals like the Blues and Predators that don't offer a lot of room to operate offensively. The trade-off is that the Red Wings will lose the familiarity that comes with years of competition against the same teams.

"The guy who is going to have it tough is Babs, preparing us," goalie Howard told ESPN The Magazine. "He's going to have a lot on his mind. He's going to have to get us ready for each night. It's going to be another condensed schedule. From game to game, it's going to be interesting."

Custance: There might be a transition period adjusting to new players and Eastern Conference opponents early in the season, but Detroit will push Boston and Ottawa all season long for the Atlantic Division title, ultimately finishing with the No. 2 spot in the Atlantic.

Burnside: Third in Atlantic Division.

LeBrun: Third in Atlantic Division.

Melrose: Second in Atlantic Division.

Strang: Second in Atlantic Division.

Craig Custance

ESPN Senior Writer


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