DETROIT >> The Detroit Red Wings’ roster for the 2014-15 season may look eerily like last year’s squad that squeaked its way into the playoffs.
But it’s different due mainly to the fact that the youngsters who helped extend that playoff streak are a year older.
“I’ve had some people say that the roster is the same, but there are six forwards different (from last opening night) so it’s night and day different from what it was,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “It’s a much quicker team, a much more useful team.
“We were at a snail’s pace last year at the start of the year,” Babcock added. “I didn’t even like watching us practice, we were so slow. We were able to pick things up during the year and get way quicker and ideally we’ll continue to do that. We think we’re really going to be able to fly.”
The Wings’ youngsters filled in when stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who both played just 45 regular season games, sat with injuries.
“If we’re fortunate to have Pav and Z play, and stay healthy, we’re a better team that way,” Babcock said. “It’s about growth. You’ve done it once, but you’ve got to do it again. There’s a whole bunch of guys that have done it one time. So time is going to tell. I know they’ve worked hard and competed in the summer to get stronger and quicker and they’re more confident now and it just has to translate on the ice.”
Darren Helm, Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss and Jonathan Ericsson also missed considerable time that led to Detroit having the second most man games lost a season ago.
“The young guys took a huge step for us last year and they got a good taste of what the playoffs are like,” Niklas Kronwall said. “They gained a lot of experience that way. With them taking another step and the health of our big guys, Hank, Pav and E, hopefully he can stay healthy too. We’re very familiar with all the players. We know the system so I think we should be in good shape.”
The Wings don’t ever want to say they’re rebuilding, but the need to thrust the youngsters into key roles last season has allowed them to at least stay in contention to qualify for one of the eight playoff spots.
“It’s interesting to me that we’re getting better again now, but we’re not getting better with old guys, we’re getting better with young guys,” Babcock said. “Last year was a breakthrough year for us. When you’re on the outside looking in you might not see it, but to me, since ’09 we’ve still been a good team. We’re a Cup team. You could say the whole league is a Cup team because it’s so tight.”
Babcock admits the Cup contenders continue to be the same as the last few seasons – Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh.
“The rest of us are fighting to be in that pool,” Babcock said. “We’ve crawled into the playoffs two years in a row. Last year we crawled in with kids though, the year before we did it with unbelievable goaltending down the stretch. I like the direction that we’re going. The issue is always, to win the Cup you need some stars, and we have stars, but they have to be healthy. But we eventually have to have guys to replace those stars because they are 35 and 34 (years old).”
Not being a favorite to win the Cup is nothing new to Zetterberg.
“I think it’s been like that since Nick (Lidstrom) retired,” Zetterberg said. “Ever since then we haven’t been a sure thing for the playoffs. Somehow we’ve found a way to make it there and we’re going to do the same this year.”
“When I look at our group, we’re a group that’s going to have to earn our way and earn our confidence,” Babcock said. “I don’t think anyone has got us pegged to win the President’s Trophy, so we’re going to have to grind.”
The Wings have reached the playoffs 23 consecutive seasons.
“It’s about making the playoffs and about being healthy and playing your best hockey at the right time,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “It’s a league that’s got balance and parity. We need a little better luck with health with the continued development.”
“The young guys did a tremendous job for us last year helping us keep the playoff streak alive,” Jimmy Howard said. “I think a lot of veterans are a lot healthier than compared to most years. It’s just going to be going out there and proving people wrong.”