By Darren Eliot –
Hockey is finally underway in these parts. I know, the USHL and OHL began a couple of weeks ago and UM kicks of its season with a preseason game on Sunday. But, the NHL being officially back – on time, I might add, after last season’s lockout-shortened campaign – signals hockey season is here. Our Wings get things going with three games in four nights, taking on the Sabres at home before traveling to Raleigh to face the Hurricanes and then to Boston to tangle with the Bruins.
That underscores the most notable difference this season – the Red Wings return to the Eastern Conference after 20 years out west. In years past, that back-to-back set might have featured games in Calgary and Edmonton after a home opener featuring the Predators. Less travel and better start times for both players and fans are obvious advantages to the Wings’ move to the East. But how much have the players thought about it?
Turns out, not much.
Last year, remember, there was no East/West crossover until the Blackhawks beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, due to the lockout. Joakim Andersson looked at me when I asked him about the move to the Eastern Conference and politely responded, “I guess it will be good. I don’t really know because I’ve never played a team from the East. I’m looking forward to it though.” Nice kid. He gave a better answer than the question yours truly asked. Of course he had no idea about the East, since he was a rookie last season.
Anyway, moving on, Brendan Smith and Kyle Quincey were equally distant when relating to the East. Smith said he knew very little about those teams and offered, “they probably know very little about us. I’m looking forward to changing that.” To which Quincey smiled and chimed in, “there was no time and no reason to follow what was going on out East last year. Besides, it isn’t a total move East, since we play all Western Conference teams home and away and play teams in our division only four times.”
All fair points made by the players about the newness of realignment. Moving to the coach’s perspective, Mike Babcock said any following of the Eastern Conference teams last season was “purely for entertainment”. Fair enough. What about this year though, Coach, with all the conjecture concerning how the Wings will have to adjust to their new Eastern environs? “You can look at video, but until you get out there and play, it is all speculation. I mean, we are going to do what we do and maybe it is the other way around. Those teams will have to adjust to how we play.”
Ah, yes. How they play. New centerman Stephen Weiss spent the last decade in the Eastern Conference with the Florida Panthers. He said he was “totally lost” the first week of camp getting used to the Wings’ systems. “I’ve spent my entire career playing a certain way in the defensive zone. Some of the automatic reads are different here. I really struggled to get comfortable.” By the final home pre-season game, however, Weiss looked completely acclimated to playing between Johan Franzen and fellow newcomer from the East, Daniel Alfredsson. The line was creative offensively and diligent defensively.
Alfredsson, in fact, scored on the power play, stepping into a one-time slapper. He is a right-handed shot and he plays the point with Niklas Kronwall on the top PP unit. Not only is he right handed – important in that it opens up one-timer opportunities on both sides of the ice – Alfredsson is sure-handed on the point. He manned that position for years during his time as the Senators’ captain in Ottawa, so he has experience. Plus, he played defense growing up, not moving to forward until he was a teenager.
All of that made him attractive to the Wings as they looked to improve on the power play this season. So, in this season of realignment, there is a lot that’s new. What isn’t new is that the Wings adeptly addressed their needs, which should lead to another winning campaign.
No matter who or where they are playing.