| The Detroit News
Detroit — At long last, hockey fans can rejoice.
If you’re a Red Wings fan, you haven’t been able to watch your team play for about 10 months because of the pandemic.
The NHL returned to play in the summer and complete the season, but the Red Wings — who had the league’s worst record — weren’t included.
The normal start of training camp in September passed and there was no hockey.
The holidays rolled in and there was no hockey.
Finally, the NHL is back. And the Red Wings are too, with renewed hope for the season.
New faces, a new captain (Dylan Larkin) that everyone expected to be captain, and the hope that a blend of new veterans and young players maturing into NHL players will mesh to produce more wins than last season.
This will be a different type of season.
It’ll be a shortened 56-game season, with the Wings playing only the seven other teams in their realigned Central Division.
With all that in mind, here are five fearless predictions on what’ll take place.
The Wings will be better (but not by a lot)
Let’s take one more grisly look at last season.
The Red Wings had a record of 17-49-5, which is a win percentage of .275.
In this day and age of professional sports, those are difficult numbers to attain.
The Red Wings will not be that bad this season. They can’t be.
And won’t be, because they are improved, with more NHL-quality talent on the roster than there was last season.
The team defense, which was a specific problem a year ago, should be significantly improved. The goaltending is expected to be more consistent.
If the Wings can develop more secondary scoring beyond the first line, that would dramatically help the overall situation.
This newly formed Central Division is going to be difficult, but there are a few teams (Columbus, Nashville, Florida) that do have issues, and the Wings should be able to secure some victories at those teams’ expense.
And, there are the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago didn’t appear particularly great heading into this season, but several key injuries (but most notably star forward Jonathan Toews and promising young center Kirby Dach) leave the Blackhawks looking slim on proven talent up front, and lacking in players who can produce offense.
The Chicago roster, taken as a whole, looks weaker than the Wings right now.
The prediction here is the Wings finish a few points higher than Chicago — although both will be among the worst teams in the NHL.
Anthony Mantha will have a big season
With this disclaimer: If Mantha stays healthy.
That’s the only thing that has kept Mantha from having big, big offensive seasons in the past. He’s always gotten hurt, mainly in fights.
If Mantha can stay away from the injuries, he seems primed for a breakout season.
There’s the new, long-term contract signed in the offseason, so security is a major plus. There’s the confidence of playing on a line with Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi that appears to be getting better all the time.
And, simply, it’s the right time for Mantha to make an impact in the NHL, given where he is in his career. He appears ready to make a major push, and he has all the physical attributes to be among the best in the NHL.
The timing certainly seems right for Mantha to have a huge offensive season.
The defense will be better
As a position group, and the team overall, the defense should be better.
The Wings allowed a staggering 267 goals, with a goal differential of minus-122. That is unheard of, and it was because of too many players who were marginal NHL players, or past their prime.
The defense has been upgraded significantly with the acquisitions of Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill. The three defensemen aren’t stars, aren’t going to turn a losing team singlehandedly into winners, but they will help a team become more respectable and eliminate many mistakes.
Among the forwards, too, getting players such as Vladislav Namestnikov, Bobby Ryan and Sam Gagner (late last season) should mean better attention to detail and less glaring defensive miscues.
It’s a professional lineup. Opponents, simply put, shouldn’t have an easy time scoring goals against the Red Wings as they did a year ago.
But offense will remain an issue
The Wings could have problems scoring goals, still.
A lot depend on whether Robby Fabbri becomes an adequate, effective center who can create offense and provide a dangerous second line behind Larkin’s line.
Fabbri appeared to be developing chemistry with Filip Zadina during training camp, which is a positive sign.
Zadina, also, is an important figure. If he can show glimpses of the offensive potential he has, it would be a major plus for the Wings.
Ryan, signed as a free agent, was hurt for a portion of training camp, which could limit his availability early in the regular season.
The pieces are there, but too many gnawing questions to assume the Wings are going to erase their offensive woes quickly and positively.
The trade deadline will be interesting
It will be, because the Wings have a staggering 10 unrestricted free agents heading into the summer, meaning general manager Steve Yzerman has an incredible opportunity to totally reshape the roster going forward, creating room for incoming prospects, and collect a bevy of draft picks in the process.
This particular trade deadline could be a doozy, as to who stays and who goes.
Hurricanes at Red Wings
► Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Little Ceasars Arena, Detroit.
► TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The long-awaited season-opener for both teams. …The Wings are likely to be without F’s Bobby Ryan and Darren Helm (both unfit to play), though Ryan did take part in Wednesday’s practice. … Carolina won the Qualifying Round in the Return To Play last summer, and has big expectations heading into this season.
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