And All the Wings’ Horses and All the Wings’ Men…

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By Jeffrey Otto
Detroit Red Wings Writer
Washington Capitals Writer
 . . . wondered how they’d get to the Playoffs again.
Pavel Datsyuk, the Magic Man of Hockeytown, left Detroit for the KHL last month, leaving a tremendous vacuum in his wake.  Hockey, like nature, hates a vacuum and seeks to fill it.  The problem is, how many players, and at what price, would it take to fill such a void as the one left by Datsyuk’s departure?  The hockey world quickly agreed that acquiring soon-to-be-UFA Steve Stamkos from the Lighting would be the perfect filler.  Oddly enough, nobody informed Stamkos of this; not only did he not sign with Detroit, he didn’t even give them a seat at the table of the teams with whom he spoke before re-upping with the Bolts.  “Oh bother,” as Winnie the Pooh likes to say.
All was not lost, however.  On July 1 the Wings signed free agent Islander center Frans Nielsen to a six year deal.  Nielsen is no Datsyuk, but he will go a long way in filling that void that Datsyuk left behind.  The 32 year-old Dane was the first from his country to be drafted into the NHL and leads all NHL Danes in scoring.  According to the Wings’ official website, Nielsen is the NHL’s all-time leader in shootout goals with 42, including 17 shootout-deciding goals, and his 51.2 shootout percentage is fifth-best all-time among players with 20-or-more shots.  On top of that, in his 606 NHL games he has only totaled 112 penalty minutes!  How many times during the Playoffs did you hear “stay out of the penalty box” as one of the keys to winning the game at hand?  Nielsen has only missed seven games since the 2011-12 season. The ability of players to stay healthy is arguably as much a factor of success as is skill; you can’t play if you’re broken (just ask Stamkos).  Sports Nation SB writer Pat Iversen called Nielsen “the best center on the free agent market” and noted that Nielsen “can help Detroit’s power play, bolster their penalty kill and keep their second line chugging along at a productive pace.”  Not to mention the leadership and Playoff experience he’ll bring to the locker room.
That same day, Detroit re-signed two of its own:   center Darren Helm to a five-year contract and defenseman Alexey Marchenko to a two-year contract.  Following that, they signed free agent left wing Thomas Vanek to a one-year contract.  Vanek, 32, has amassed 649 points (316-333-649) in 817 games over his 11-year NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild.  The 2009 NHL All-Star has also totaled 34 points (20-14-34) in 63 Stanley Cup Playoff games.  Vanek’s accolades are impressive and he should prove to be a very smart pick-up for the Red Wings, albeit only for one year. “He definitely has all the talent, he can score goals, he’s good on the power play,” said former Islander and now once again teammate Frans Nielsen.  “He’s definitely gonna bring some offense, he played with (John) Tavares and (Kyle) Okposo here on a line and when he’s on his game he’s up there with Tavares skill wise. He could be the steal of this free agency.“  Unless Nielsen himself is.
Later that same day, Detroit acquired Blues forward Steve Ott on a one year deal.  A hamstring injury limited Ott to just 21 games last season, but he returned to the lineup during the playoffs for nine games, tallying one assist and eight penalty minutes.  All told, Ott has logged 795 games, 281 points and 1,475 penalty minutes in his 13 year NHL career, playing for the Stars, Sabres and Blues.  “I play a hard style of game, obviously I try to compete extremely hard and make other compete,” Ott was quoted as saying on the Wings’ official website. “I’m a depth guy later on in my career but I’m somebody who can play center, take face offs, I’ve always been one of the top guys on our penalty-killing team every single year.”  He also brings leadership experience, having captained the Sabres and served as an alternate captain for the Blues.  Ott is versatile and should be able to play all three forward spots as a bottom-six contributor.  His gritty, agitating style of play will be a welcome addition to the Detroit line-up.
None of these players, individually or collectively, will replace Pavel Datsyuk, and no one with any hockey sense would expect such.  It might be best thought of as the Red Wings “transitioning to a new season” just as they had to when Gordy Howe said good-bye to Detroit.  The next few years will prove to be transitional indeed:  Datsyuk is gone, Nielsen begins a six year stint, Athanasiou and Larkin are up-and-coming, Zetterberg is approaching retirement, and Vanek and Ott are only on board for one year.  It should be an exciting one year in Hockeytown, as the old guard and new guard team up to give the Joe Lewis Arena an appropriate send off in its final season.  And it goes without saying that there could be no better send off than to raise the Stanley Cup one final time under Joe’s hallowed roof.
*Petr Mrazek was re-signed by Detroit after this article was written.

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