What better first opponent for all those fresh faces in Ottawa uniforms than the winged-wheel machine, role model for all right-thinking NHL franchises, and the team that spawned new Senators head coach Paul MacLean.
MacLean makes no apologies for wanting his team to play the Detroit style, admitting Thursday that “quite a bit” of Ottawa’s evolving style could be stamped made in Michigan. At a glance, the Red Wings way can resemble the exquisite keep-a-way shinny sometimes played at your favourite outdoor winter rink. We have the puck, try to get it from us.
It isn’t quite that simple, of course. The Red Wings have the puck so often because they play stellar defence to steal it and secure it. MacLean, who studied under Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock for five Detroit seasons and two in Anaheim, is in Phase 1 of importing the Wings doctrine, playing strong defence, in an up-tempo style.
From there, he will branch out to a more creative offensive bent, hoping to unearth his own Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in the form of a Mika Zibanejad, and whomever else may emerge from this rebuilding program.
Now, to the question being asked in Motown: Are these the same class of Red Wings that have not missed the Stanley Cup playoffs since George Bush Sr. was in the White House and Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada, in the spring of 1990?
Most of the big names still leap from the starting roster, but perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nick Lidstrom is now 41, Tomas Holmstrom is 38 and the incomparable Datsyuk is 33, coming off an injury-plagued season. And no one is sure that Jimmy Howard is the answer to the usual questions about Detroit goaltending (his legion of detractors don’t have Chris Osgood to kick around anymore).
Slick defenceman Brian Rafalski, familiar to Senators fans from his years with the New Jersey Devils, is gone, replaced by Ian White, at best a Rafalski-lite.
Defenceman Ruslan Salei has also departed, tragically, as a member of the KHL Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team that crashed in Russia last month.
Unimpressed with higher priced free agent options, Detroit snapped up White, the former Maple Leaf, and veteran Mike Commodore to plug holes on the blue-line. At best, Commodore will occupy the No. 6 spot. He struggled with the pace of the game when he passed through Ottawa as a late-season pickup in 2008. At 32 (next month), it’s doubtful Commodore’s feet have improved.
Commodore said recently his big red hair “has helped me stay in the league.”
It will take more than big hair to earn Commodore another Detroit contract after this one-year deal.
The Senators won’t get a chance to test him. While Commodore is out with a knee injury, Jakub Kindl, a 24-year-old AHL veteran and often a healthy scratch for the Wings in 2010-11, fills in, alongside his former Grand Rapids partner Jonathan Ericsson in the third pairing. Look for Lidstrom to start the game next to White. Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall return as Nos. 3 and 4 on the blue-line.
Datsyuk, who rebounded from missing 26 regular-season games with injuries to produce 15 playoff points in 11 games, centres a top line of Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler. Zetterberg will have Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen on his wings while Darren Helm has been skating between Justin Abdelkader and Todd Bertuzzi. Former Senator Patrick Eaves plays left wing on a fourth line with Cory Emmerton and Holmstrom.
While a first power-play unit of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Lidstrom and White remains formidable, it might be a challenge for the Red Wings to repeat their 2010-11 feat of scoring more goals than any team this side of Vancouver, and just one fewer than the Canucks’ 262.
Is age responsible for a string of preseason injuries to Datsyuk, Cleary, Holmstrom and Commodore? Only Commodore is expected to miss the opener.
“It’s amazing when you get rid of exhibition now who gets healthy fast,” Babcock said, wryly. “It’s like the Fountain of Youth.”
Some analysts wonder if the Red Wings will need to dip into that fountain this season, with six forwards and five defencemen 30 or older. Or do we just assume Detroit gets the job done, as always?
“I spend the whole summer scared, like, ‘Are we going to be good enough?’” Babcock told reporters after the Wings skated on Thursday. “In some organizations, getting a little better is good enough. Here, we’ve got to win. We do it year after year after year.
“I really believe it’s way harder staying on top than it is getting to the top.”
That winning know-how will be a challenge to the youthful Senators, who must avoid gaping in awe at the Red Wings’ history and tradition.
What a contrast: it has been nearly 20 years since the Senators entered the league in 1992, and 20 straight postseason appearances for Detroit. A rebuilding club meets the one it wants to become.
Contact Wayne Scanlan at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter@HockeyScanner.